Summary: While Jesus was praying on the mountain, the disciples were in a boat trying to cross the sea. Jesus approaches the boat walking on water. They thought it was a ghost and it frightened them until Jesus spoke up.
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Our Gospel reading this morning talks about the apostles’ struggle with fear as a raging storm tosses their boat like a cork on the churning sea. Now fear could be a good thing or it can be a bad thing. It can cripple us or it can be a lifesaver. Someone once said that a good scare is worth more to a person than good advice. You can advise someone to stop smoking, but a bout of emphysema might accomplish that faster. If you have had a stroke or heart attack, and survived, then you know how your life changed from that moment on. If we have a strong faith in God, it can help us overcome fear and replace it with courage. That is what happened to St. Peter in our Gospel reading this morning.
While Jesus was praying on the mountain, the disciples were in a boat trying to cross the sea. The sea was rough so they had to battle a heavy storm. The waves were tossing their boat about like a child’s toy. However, Jesus was aware of their predicament. Jesus knew that the storm was about to strike and He deliberately sent His Disciples into it! Jesus allowed them to fend for themselves for a while to test their metal, to prepare them for their task ahead. After the disciples fought the storm for a while, very early in the morning they saw someone coming toward them, walking on water. They thought it was a ghost and it frightened them until Jesus spoke up and said, "It is I. Do not be afraid."
It was Simon Peter's boldness and courage, ironically that led to his fearful panic. From the boat he said, "Lord, if it is really you, tell me to come to you across the water." Jesus said, "Come." Confidently Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water towards Jesus. As long as he kept his eyes on Jesus, everything was fine. As soon as he took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the huge waves ready to swallow him, Peter's faith failed him, and filled with fear, he almost drowned. But notice what he did to alleviate his predicament. He cried out for help when fear overtook him and his faith saved him. After saving Peter, Jesus got into the boat and the storm died down. When the storm ceased, the disciples acknowledged Jesus as God's Son.
Simon Peter was a man of many moods, many strengths, and many weaknesses. That such a loose cannon, such an unpredictable character could be transformed into the personification of the Christian faith is astounding.
So what does this Gospel have to do with you and me today? Living out here on the prairies, it’s not likely that we will ever be caught in a storm at sea. But, this Gospel reading is not about raging storms or boats about to sink. Nor is it about Jesus walking on water, although this miracle really catches our attention for it defies physics. As you know, Jesus performed many other miracles, which were also astounding. So why is this Gospel so important? Matthew wrote this to a Church that was going through difficult times.
The main point that Matthew wants to draw our attention to is the “fear” that overtook the apostles in the boat. Matthew may have included this story in the Bible because the early Church went through many growing pains, trials and tribulation at the outset. When Jesus launched the infant Church into the world, He did it through His Apostles. The Apostles went forward with the good news, but they struggled with fierce opposition. First, the Jewish officials opposed them. Then they were opposed by the pagan culture, and finally by the Roman government. The opposition grew to what seemed like hurricane level and looked like it was threatening their very existence. Matthew may have remembered what happened in the boat and this was a way of reminding them that their fate did not lie in human hands. Christ, who had sent them out was superior to any storm they might encounter along the way, and they should not be afraid.
So. if the early church needed to be reminded of this, perhaps we do, also. In a democratic society, the Christian faith is secure. We worship where and how we choose without fear of reprisals. But it doesn’t mean that the sea is calm and we can sail smoothly along. Because of our diverse culture, governments are trying to cater to the many various religions in our society by not catering to any of them at all. Schools and government offices have pushed religion off their premises. In doing so, they drove all religions into the head winds that impede progress. Storms of adversity are still a part of the Christian experience. When they come, we still feel what the disciples felt that night in the boat, helpless in the face of forces over which we have no control. Fear is a threat to all the things that make life enjoyable. This is why the call to "fear not" appears so often in the Bible. So, how can we overcome that uneasy feeling of fear? What is faith's answer to fear? Is there a sure way to cope with fear?