Readings: 1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33
So our boat, the boat of the chapter, is already a few miles offshore. It is now the fourth day since we left land and so far things seem to be moving steadily. We have not had any serious storms to negotiate as yet. Perhaps personally some of you have experienced moments of uncertainty or anxiety but the chapter as a whole seems to be moving smoothly. No doubt there will be difficult times ahead, perhaps a storm or two, perhaps times when we feel we are out of sight of land, not sure of the direction in which we are facing, apprehensive about how to move forward. But the gospel reading re-assures us that Christ is with us, always, in personal or shared difficulty and we are not to be afraid.
Sometimes the only thing people see in this event is Jesus walking on the sea as if it is some kind of trick, a piece of magic to impress people. (Sometimes it is the same with the sign given at Cana, as if that too were just a magical trick.) But that means missing so much of what this very rich text contains. Because what Matthew gives us is a theophany or more precisely a ‘Christophany’. You know what those terms mean: a revelation of the power and presence of God, a revelation of the power and presence of God in Christ. In fact this moment belongs with the baptism, the transfiguration and the resurrection appearances as one of the key moments in which the glory of Christ is revealed to his disciples.
Looking back, there are so many echoes in this text of the great theophanies of the Old Testament. There is a mountain and roaring waters and wind, there is fear as nature is churned up by the presence of God, those called to be close to God (Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, for example) experience perplexity and terror in the presence of the glory of the Lord. Mark tells us that Jesus made as if to pass by them as God passed by Moses and Elijah. Psalm 77 speaks of the power and presence of God in a way that is strikingly echoed in Matthew 14:
Your ways, O God, are holy. / What God is great as our God?
You are the God who works wonders. / You showed your power among the peoples.
Your strong arm redeemed your people, / The sons of Jacob and Joseph.
The waters saw you, O God, / The waters saw you and trembled;
The depths were moved with terror. / The clouds poured down rain,
The skies sent forth their voice; / Your arrows flashed to and fro.
Your thunder rolled round the sky, / Your flashes lighted up the world.
The earth was moved and trembled / When your way led through the sea,
Your path through the mighty waters / And no one saw your footprints.
Your guided your people like a flock / By the hand of Moses and Aaron.
If there are echoes from the Old Testament in this event there are also ‘echoes beforehand’ of what is yet to be revealed about Jesus – the transfiguration, on another mountain, also provoking fear, and especially the appearances of the risen Lord. In those appearances we also find the disciples, the boat, the lake, difficulty on the lake, the appearance of Jesus and their wondering whether it is a ghost, his words of reassurance: take heart, do not be afraid, it is I, ego eimi, the divine name of Exodus 3, ‘do not be afraid for I AM’.
There is something satisfying, for us, in this way of God showing his presence and his power. To shake the building, to unsettle creation, to come with noise and fire and wind and smoke … this seems like how a proper god will reveal himself. But in the first reading Elijah realizes that God is not in the fire, not in the earthquake, not in the wind. God’s presence is in the ‘still small voice’, or to translate it more literally, in the ‘sound of fine silence’. And in the New Testament we believe that the Christophany, the revelation of the power of God in Christ, comes to its fulfillment on another mountain, the mountain of Calvary, where our God reveals his power in powerlessness, weakness and failure. We are happier with a God who would throw his weight around, who would fill us with fear. We find it much more difficult to understand a God who is love because we know less about love than we do about fear. But this is our faith, that the power and wisdom of God are revealed in the weakness and foolishness of the cross, that it is there that God’s power is most clearly seen and it is seen to be the power of love alone.
In this moment, Peter is like Thomas later, he wants some kind of proof or evidence that it really is Jesus. When Jesus asks him why he doubted is he referring to Peter’s loss of confidence on the water (his inability to do ‘the trick’) or, more likely, is he asking him why he doubted that Jesus would be present to the Church in its hour of difficulty. This event, this story, is an encouragement to the Church, to Christians at all times, to trust that Christ is nearby and his hand is always ready to reach out to save us. Peter then does not need to consult a book about prayer to know what he should say. He does not need to track down a wise man or woman to teach him how to pray. In situations of real need we know exactly what to pray for and we simply ask for it.
The hand of Christ is held out to us at all times. It is there in the Word of God nourishing us from day to day. It is there in the sacraments of the Church when we are fed and strengthened by the life of Christ. And it is there in each other, each of us a ‘Christ’ to the other, our neighbour, not far away, someone we ought to be able to turn to and say ‘help me, I’m sinking’. Each of us has been conformed to Christ in his dying and his rising and so we bear the Word and the Spirit for one another, as compassionate companions in the calms and in the storms of life.