by Br Julian McDonald cfc
At once, Jesus called out to them, saying: “Courage, it is I! Do not be afraid.” It was Peter who answered: “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.” “Come” said Jesus. Then Peter got out of the boat and started walking toward Jesus across the water, but as soon as he felt the force of the wind, he took fright and began to sink. “Lord! Save me!”, he cried. Jesus put out his hand at once and held him. “Man of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And as they got into the boat the wind dropped. Matthew 14: 22-33
We human beings spend a lot of each day telling stories, reading stories and listening to stories. We are story-telling beings. Most of the stories we tell, read and hear are about human behaviour whether those stories are conveyed to us through the voices of other people or through print or electronic media. We also know that the motive that drives all human behaviour is every bit as important as the behaviour itself, if not more important. Most of the stories we read and hear every week in our churches are about human behaviour.
So, all this week I have found myself puzzling over what it was that motivated Peter to call out to what he thought was the ghost of Jesus, and then to get out of the boat in response to the invitation to come that he recognised as coming from the voice of Jesus heard amid the howling wind. But it was the force of the same howling wind that sapped his confidence, leading him to begin sinking beneath the waves. And what was it that motivated Jesus to ask, as he held out a rescuing hand: “Man of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Jesus was not in the habit of big-noting himself or even drawing attention to himself or the miracles he performed. So, he surely wasn’t saying to Peter: “Why did you doubt me?” And when he rescued Peter from drowning, he put him right back into the boat out of which Peter had stepped. That prompted me to ask if Jesus was challenging Peter to reflect on why he had left behind the companions whom Jesus had told him he was destined to lead. After all, doesn’t the best kind of leadership involve having trust and confidence in the people we are privileged to lead?
I wonder, then, if, in the act of rescuing Peter and putting him back into the boat, Jesus was giving him an object lesson that leading his companions was about sticking with them in difficult times as well as in good; and that approaching leadership as a collaborative venture meant being present to encourage and support them and welcome their contributions. By extension, does that not mean that those called to leadership in the community we now call the people of God have a responsibility to acknowledge that all the people in the pews have something to contribute and that their contributions need to be recognised and their voices heard?
However, I want to suggest that this gospel-reading is not quite as simple as it seems. In a moment of rash over-confidence, Peter might have been drawing attention to himself and saying to his companions: “Look at me. I can do extraordinary things.” But when over-confidence intrudes, things can become messy. We can end up attributing successful ventures to ourselves rather than to God who has inspired us to act in the first place. There is also the reality in the lives of most of us that faith in God is not a one-shot, life-lasting experience. At some time or another, every follower of Jesus experiences doubt. We wonder, at times, if we have been hood-winked into embarking on a journey to nowhere. It is then that we have to remind ourselves that it is only through struggling with doubt that our faith in God becomes strengthened. Doubt is natural. But we also must remember that, when we falter and doubt, the rescuing hand of Jesus is held out to us. We have to find the courage to reach out to take hold of it. We even delude ourselves into thinking that, when we reach out to grasp Jesus, we are doing something virtuous. In reality, it is Jesus who takes the initiative of reaching out to grasp us.
As we grapple with this gospel-reading, it is worth remembering that, in the Book of Psalms, there are numerous examples of drowning being used as a symbol of our need for God. Matthew, teacher and scribe that he was, would have been very familiar with the psalms. Moreover, in relating this dramatic story of Jesus coming to the rescue of his friends in the storm on the lake, he can still add a touch of humour by playing on the meaning of Peter’s name and role. Peter the “Rock” stepping out of the boat in a fit of bravado quickly becomes petrified with fear and begins to sink like a stone Like Matthew, we have all learned to chuckle in retrospect about the rashness we have at times displayed in grave and risky situations from which we have emerged unscathed.
In all of this, there is a message for us, and context is, once more, a great help for discovering that message. Today’s story of the storm on the lake follows fast upon three significant events. Jesus had just been rejected by the people of his hometown and was then confronted with the news of the Baptist’s execution. He must have felt discouraged and very likely afraid for his own safety, in light of the fact that Herod thought he was John the Baptist reincarnated. Despite all that, Jesus continued on his mission of reaching out to the poor and needy. Evidence of that was his care and concern expressed in feeding a crowd of “five thousand men, not counting the women and children”. Before doing that, he had clearly stated to his disciples that feeding the needy was also part of their ministry: “There is no need for them (the crowd) to go: give them something to eat yourselves” (Matthew 14: 16). Immediately after that, he put the disciples in a boat to row themselves across the lake, while he went off by himself to pray. It was then that the storm broke, prompting him to go to their assistance.
Today’s gospel-reading then, is a story about what is needed for discipleship. It’s clear that Jesus was telling Peter and the other disciples that over-confidence is a hindrance not a help. But trust in God is absolutely essential, as is a readiness to call on God for help when the going gets tough. To call on God for help is a demonstration of both faith and humility, as is the readiness to recognise and accept that God also comes to our help through our companions and associates. But we will be confronted inevitably by storms and challenges. All of us who dare to be disciples of Jesus to a world in need are challenged to hear Jesus’ words: “Give them something to eat yourselves”. That world is drowning under the waves of consumerism, crippling poverty, terrorism, gun violence, domestic abuse, exploitation of the weak and vulnerable. Somehow, we, together, have to find the courage to witness to that world through our practical expressions of care and compassion that God’s love will eventually dispel the chaos, dissolve the injustice and bring a promise of hope, peace and security. We are God’s instruments of grace in that world.