This gospel is pretty well-known. Here at Sacred Heart we have an entire stained-glass window depicting the scene. Every children’s bible story book seems to have the story with all manner of illustrations. There is a lot you can do with this simple gospel account. In my day, I have heard sermons that encourage us to “go outside the box” by asking us to be like Peter and be bold enough to “get out of the boat.” The message was to take risks as individuals of faith or perhaps as a parish. Other sermons have told us to “keep our eyes on Jesus” in all that we do – good advice – with the message often an invitation to a particular piety and devotion – also good advice. And there is something to said about the boat itself. It is a place of relative calm among the waves. It is the place where Jesus leads Peter. It is the place where the community, as the gospel says, “did him homage, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’” There is a lot you can preach about, inspired by this gospel.
Somewhat lost in the powerful image of Jesus walking on the water, Peter’s rescue and all that the children’s illustrations emphasize, we have the community in the boat struggling to make headway in the seas: “for the wind was against them.” The Sea of Galilee has a temperament of wind and storm that can turn on the unwary sailor. The seas and wind are building. Is this just the front of a more powerful trailing storm? It’s the dead of night and one can’t see the horizon. Maybe concern is giving way to apprehension and is arriving at the door of fear. All of this and more makes me think about the passage and the role of the power of fear in this gospel and in our lives. These days I can’t help but wonder what it is like to live on Guam with all the stormy words of war and rumors of war swirling – what it is like to live in their fear.
Peter was among those who saw a ghost coming towards them in the storm. With the other disciples, he was afraid. He became emboldened and encouraged when he saw Jesus. Then out there on the waves, Peter doesn’t sink because he takes his eyes off of Jesus, but because he grows afraid: “But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened.” And, frankly, his fear is humanly justified. It’s a storm, raging powerfully enough to sink the boat, let alone drown a single person. He has a perfectly good reason to be afraid.
And so do the people of Guam. In different ways, so do we. Whether it’s a fear of the return of cancer, of loneliness after the loss of a loved one, of not being accepted by those around us, uncertainty about our jobs, anxiety about the new school year, the direction of our country, sinkholes, hurricanes…. you name it, there is a lot in our individual and communal lives that can strike fear in our hearts. Fear that is debilitating, paralyzing, confusing, and draining. Fear makes it difficult to move forward in life, let alone with confidence. Fear makes our world small. Fear blinds us to the reasons for hope. When I hear Jesus say, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” – I do not hear rebuke, rather I head sorrow and lament for our blindness.
I am always struck by Peter’s pre-wave-walking question, “Lord, IF it is you…” I wonder if the fear, already present in the boat, has shaped and hedged Peter’s response. Peter might have said, “Lord, it’s you! I want to be with you – command me to come to you on the water!” “Might have” – shoulda’, woulda’ coulda’ , but he hedged his question. In a perfect world – one replete with faith and courage – we are over the gunwales, over the rails and racing on the waves to Jesus. But it’s not a perfect world. It’s our world where there are reasons to fear and faith is human. It is a world where fear blinds us and binds us.
1 Peter 3:15 tells us to always be ready to give an answer for the Hope we have within us. Even in the rising tide of fear. But you must have the answer before the tide rises; before the fear blinds you.
What is the Hope that I carry within me? It is in the promise of Jesus. Jesus is always there, will always call me – and will always answer my call to stretch out his saving hand. Sometimes it will be the hand that accompanies. Sometimes it will be the hand that lifts me up. Sometimes the hand that restores me and returns me to the boat. Always the hand that does not let go. That is the Hope I carry. What is your answer?
It is the Promise and the Hope which helps us transcend fear. Transcend, not defeat. Fear is a part of our lives, and we should take care that being fearful is not equated with faithlessness. The Promise and the Hope fuels courage. Courage that is not the absence of fear but the ability to take our stand and do what needs to be done even when we’re afraid. Afraid of the cancer, the loneliness, unacceptance, job security, school, sinkholes, hurricanes, the bellicose voices of war… you name it.
We come to the Eucharist as people of faith burdened by our fears. We come to receive the Eucharist, not as people whose fear leads us to say, “Amen….if it is you…” We come as people who say “Amen” even knowing we will sink, we will lose focus, falter, and fail. But we come as people who carry the promise that the saving hand of Jesus is already there to accompany, lift up, restore, or bring us back to the boat. It is the Promise. It is the Hope we carry within us. It is the answer we have at the ready.