This Sunday’s Gospel follows upon the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, a miracle to which the Apostles were eyewitnesses. Immediately after this, Jesus made them get into the boat…it’s not uncharitable; it’s Him making space for an opportunity of grace to help them grow in their relationship with Him. We know what’s about to happen, but they obviously have no idea. While they’re making the crossing, a storm comes up … not uncommon! Because they’re fishermen, they know there’s always a risk of storms on the Sea of Galilee. St. Matthew tells us that it was during the fourth watch of the night, which is basically the early hours of the morning, so it’s late into the night, and they’ve been fighting this for a long time. They’re probably sleep-deprived and physically exhausted from steering. Then, they see Jesus coming toward them. They think he’s a ghost; they’re afraid…I can’t blame them; I’d be afraid, too. Imagine seeing your best friend walking on water: “What the…who are you?”
He responds to their fears: “It is I; do not be afraid.” Now, maybe the other Apostles were distracted by the wind and waves, but something in the words of our Lord made Peter acknowledge that, despite what his eyes told him, he recognized that voice! It may have seemed like a ghost, but it sure sounded like Jesus. As if to hear his voice one more time, Peter said: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come”. Our Lord responded: “Come!”
Stop right there for a moment! They’re in the middle of the Sea of Galilee amidst a storm, wind, and waves, being tossed about. Being a fisherman, Peter knows death is a real risk, as do Andrew, James, and John. Despite its being tossed about, the boat – by their estimation – is the safest place to be, but now they’re watching Peter about to step out of that boat right into the waves. This one who’s their friend, and in Andrew’s case, a brother, is now about to go to his death. One foot after the other, though, he gets out of that boat and starts walking on water. It’s a well-known detail of this story: with his eyes (and more importantly, his heart and mind) on Jesus Christ, Peter walked on water; when he took his eyes, mind and heart off of Jesus, Peter sunk! After they got back into the boat, the other apostles having seen the whole thing, now realized who the fool was (HINT: it wasn’t Simon); they did Him homage, an act reserved to God alone.
I often wonder about moments like this for St. Peter. It certainly would’ve seared in his memory; first, he walked on water! More importantly, ignoring ordinary logic, he did something humanly impossible by keeping his eyes fixed on Jesus! It’s a simple lesson: keep your eyes on Jesus, do the impossible; focus on this things of this world, and you’ll fail!
Just like the other Apostles who remained in the boat, watching the whole episode unfold, we’ve got a lot to learn from this moment with Jesus and Peter. Not that our lives our filled with storms; generally, our lives are rather calm, safe, comfortable. We have no terrorists, no threats on our lives; no lack of food, water, shelter, clothing, or other necessities. Occasionally, we encounter moments of serious suffering & trial: serious illness, tragic death. BUT, unlike many others, our lives are more often filled with a moderate level of distractions: activities, events, running here and there; people and things pulling us every which way, making lots of demands on our time, which can feel like being tossed by waves.
Then Jesus approaches us in one way or another … challenges us to do things differently, to live differently. It’s not necessarily turning away from sins, but more often a challenge to us to love Him more, to love Him the way we should, to serve Him with a more radical generosity and openness, to abandon ourselves in trust to His plan for our lives. Rather than serving Him, while living our own lives, we should be saying with St. Paul: it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!
So… our response, like the 11, can be to stay in the safety of our little boat. We say that the things that God, the Church, the Bishop, or Father are asking of us seem impossible: regular daily quiet time for prayer, family time, family prayer and spiritual reading. Or, in general, that generosity of our time, talent, and treasures for God, His Church, and His people. We say that we’ve got “too much” going on! But, Jesus wants to break our routine, challenge us to something deeper. It seems easier to stay where it’s safe, to not rock the boat or break ranks with family and/or friends. Could I get more done and gain more personally by keeping my time, money, and talents to myself? YES, at least in the immediate future, but there’s no protection from the rust, moths, and thieves. As Christians, we’re called to store up treasure in Heaven! When the 11 look at Peter out there sinking, his radical willingness to follow seems stupid, but they’re gauging it by the world’s standard. The 11 are paralyzed by a fear that might easily be explained away as “being reasonable”, they’re rationalizing away a radical relationship with Jesus Christ. Ironically, even the boat isn’t very safe; it’s being tossed about by the wind and waves. When we consider the situation from a purely human perspective, it’s all foolishness, but, frankly, it’s a narrow, dull vision of life compared with that which Christ offers. When we look at the lives of the saints, they tell a different story! They say: it’s actually safer walking on water with Jesus.
So we can be like the Apostles in the boat or like St. Peter and get out of the boat. As St. Paul wrote: “the love of Christ compels us, b/c we are convinced that one has died for all…that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for Him who for our sake died and was raised…” (2Cor5:15). This is our first vocation as Christians: to live for Jesus! As Benedict XVI taught us: “Christ did not promise an easy life. Those who desire comforts are misled. Rather, He shows us the way to the good, to God Himself…” While others might think it’s a ghost or a voice in your head, Peter was able to say, despite what the confusion of his sight, “I know that voice.” The closer we are to Him, the more we’ll be familiar with it, too. When we boil it down to the two options, staying in the boat because we think we know best OR accepting the Lord’s invitation to step out of our safe, comfortable world and come closer to Him… THEN it’s easy to see! How foolish it would be to stay in that boat!
This is the offer our Lord personally makes to each one of us today: it’s not made generically to my parish, my family, my spouse, my kids, my parents, or my friends. He makes it to each & every one of us AND we each need to give our personal response! You can either stay in the boat where it’s safe OR be that radical disciple who responds to the Lord’s invitation to come and do what you thought impossible. Because of the influence of sin in our lives, we want to limit our generosity to our Lord. We want to hold back, keep something for ourselves; He wants us to come to Him…it’s a profound lesson for us, just like it was for Peter! Where am I holding back from giving everything to and for Jesus? What’s foolishly keeping me in the safety of my little boat? We have to ask JC for the grace/courage to take that first step, to accept that invitation to really love Him and follow Him in this life so as to be with Him in the next.
Finally, it’s always good to remember Who it is we’re invited to come to. St. Clare reminds us so beautifully:
“His beauty eternally awes the blessed hosts of heaven, his love inspires love, his contemplation refreshes, his generosity satisfies, his gentleness delights, his memory shines sweetly as the dawn, his fragrance revives the dead, his glorious vision will bless all the citizens of that heavenly Jerusalem. For He is the splendor of eternal glory”