by Br Julian McDonald cfc
When Elijah saw how things were, he ran for dear life to Beersheba…
1 Kings 19, 3
“Courage! It is I! Do not be Afraid.” Matthew 14, 22-33
There is little doubt that Covid 19 has demanded the attention of people all over the world because of the devastation it has created on a global scale. The result is that some of us are living in fear, others find comfort in denial, and others, still, believe that it has been fabricated by powerful governments conspiring to use their muscle to control the world economy and reduce to dependence nations living in freedom. Stress and fear often cause some of us to imagine all kind of possible explanations. Just last week I was confronted by a neighbour who insisted that the pandemic was God’s way of either bringing the world to its senses or punishing the world for its sinfulness.
I can find nothing in the Gospels, or, for that matter, in the New testament to suggest that the God of Jesus has any trace of vindictiveness or is intent on putting obstacles in our way simply to test us out. Yet, the readings for this Sunday are timely, because they invite us to give our attention to the role that fear plays in our lives. Another aspect of our behaviour is the way in which we can use our imaginations to create expectations. In fact, fear is just one kind of expectation. It’s the expectation that what we have come to fear will actually happen. The person who told me that Covid 19 is either a punishment or a wake-up call from God had either turned his expectations of God into reality or was looking to God to approve the prejudices he had developed about some human behaviour of which he disapproved. What we fear and the expectations we create can so easily be transformed into reality, paralysing us or tranquillising our ability to take the kind of risk that being disciples of Jesus demands of us.
Today’s first reading about Elijah unfortunately leaves out the circumstances that prompted the prophet to run for his life. Elijah had been making fun of the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah, who had the support of Queen Jezebel. When they could not light a fire to sacrifice an ox, Elijah taunted them with insults: “Maybe your god has gone off to meditate or got involved in another project or gone off on holidays.” He was out to prove that the God of Israel was better than all of their gods. To further humiliate them, he built an altar and had it doused three times with buckets of water. Then he called on his God to send down fire. As the story goes, Elijah’s offering was totally consumed by fire. However, he then went to extremes and directed his followers to take hold of the prophets of Baal and slaughter them. Jezebel was less than impressed, and sent a messenger to Elijah: “The gods will get you for this and I’ll get even with you.! By this time tomorrow you’ll be as dead as any one of those prophets” (cf 1 Kings 18, 22 – 19, 2).
A threat like that would make anybody run for cover. That’s exactly what Elijah did, and headed for Beersheba. But the running exhausted him, and he fell into a depression and wished he were dead. But an angel of God intervened, provided him with food and water, and directed him to set out for Mt Horeb (Mt Sinai) where he would encounter God. We are told he walked for forty days and forty nights. Manifestations of the Divine were often associated with spectacular natural events. On the mountain, Elijah experienced a hurricane, an earthquake and a bushfire, all of which frightened him. But contrary to all his expectations and still gripped by fear, he ventured to the opening of the cave in which he was sheltering, and experienced God present in a gentle breeze.
I want to suggest that today’s gospel story of the storm on the lake parallels the Elijah story in its message. Imagine, for a moment, that you are with the disciples on their boat at 3.00 am, being tossed around in a violent storm and suddenly a familiar figure appears out of nowhere. My first reaction would be similar to that of the disciples: “It must be a ghost or a poltergeist!” I, too, would be terrified. And then everyone on the boat hears the familiar voice of Jesus: “Get hold of yourselves! It is I. Do not be afraid” (Matthew 14, 27). We and the disciples create one reality with our very understandable expectations and fears, and Jesus creates something very different with his calming assurances.
Not for a moment do I think this is a story that is easy to understand. No ordinary human being walks on water, so Peter was bound to sink when he jumped overboard, despite the fact that, as a seasoned fisherman, he was probably a good swimmer. I suggest that this event recorded by Matthew ranks side by side with the story of the Transfiguration recorded in Chapter 17, 1-8. They are both glimpses into the fact that Jesus really was from God and was, in fact, the Messiah, the Christ of God. Somehow, that realisation struck Peter like a ton of bricks, and in his enthusiasm to commit himself to Jesus and his mission he became oblivious to his surroundings and leapt out of the boat to stand with Jesus. Then, when he was going under, he called for help and Jesus responded as he had previously to everyone else’s cries for help – he came to Peter’s rescue.
There are glimpses of the goodness and love of God all around us, but we can often miss them because they are to be found where we don’t expect them. Isn’t it true that such goodness, love and selflessness are reflected in the very ordinary kindness of the people out there testing all those who are lining up for Covid 19 tests, in the welcoming smiles of the women and men driving buses, trams, trains, ferries and taxis, in the friendliness of those checking out our purchases at stores and supermarkets? And let’s not forget that God does not send hurricanes, bushfires, earthquakes and viruses to test us out, but, when they do come, it does not take us long to unconsciously disclose what kind of God we believe in and just how strong our faith in that God really is.
Similarly, none of us can credibly claim to be wishy-washy disciples and followers of Jesus. By jumping overboard Peter demonstrated in action that discipleship of Jesus calls for nothing less than total commitment. But one does not switch on total commitment. Rather one grows into it. It’s comforting, however, to know that Jesus can cope with our human weakness, with our moments of doubt. In fact, if we don’t experience doubt, we will not grow into mature, adult faith. However, we can be sure that Jesus will not ignore us whenever we are courageous enough to call to him: “Jesus, save me. I’m going under.” Lastly, our faith in God will be seen at its best when we find the courage to take the risk of reaching out to the stranger, of daring to go against the crowd when adhering to truth and integrity demand nothing less than that.