Walk on This!

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Among the many signs Jesus performs in the gospels, what he does in today’s gospel reading strikes me as not directly benefiting anyone.  When Jesus healed the sick or fed the hungry multitude as in last week’s gospel, he acted on behalf of others.  Here we read of Jesus walking on water.  He could as easily have transported himself to the other side by clicking his heels three times and wishing he was there.  On every other occasion he suspends natural law by performing signs to limit the power of evil by relieving human suffering and restoring broken bodies and spirits to wholeness.  … We will never know why he walked across the lake to the other side.  His apostles never asked the question.

And it is amazing how in the height of confusion as the boat pitched and rolled with the wind and the waves, while the apostles were hanging on for dear life and probably yelling at the top of their lungs in despair, upon seeing this apparition come towards them across the water giving them more reason to fear since they could not make sense of it all, Peter had the presence of mind to ask this ghost to let him walk on water.  “Lord, if it is really you, tell me to come to you across the water.”

When we experience sudden upheaval in our lives, when pain and suffering hit close to home, when we get caught in the confusion and turmoil of life we are often forced to stop and reexamine our beliefs and convictions.  There may be lots of questions.  There may also be anger and fear and sorrow.  And despite the great need to comfort and to be comforted, the need to hold someone and to be held, we may also sometimes feel the need to be left alone, to be quiet and reflective.  … In the midst of that soul searching, we might just hear ourselves admit in exasperation, “This would be so much easier if I had more faith.”

Bishop Moyer of the Virginia Synod of the Lutheran Church in America, on this particular passage in the gospel of Matthew says, “If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat.”  I don’t walk on water.  Do you?  Walking on water in today’s gospel is a metaphor for taking the risk of trusting someone beyond ourselves.  It involves letting go of rules, certainties, and comforts and braving the unknown and the uncertain, and walking towards Jesus.  As believers, we are called to take risks, to venture into unchartered, sometimes stormy, even dangerous waters.  It should be risky to be a Christian.  Yet when was the last time we faced any risk for being a Christian?

We are often content and comfortable in our lives, and seldom challenged in any significant way to get out of the boat and walk across the  water.  Note that Jesus is not in the boat.  But the church, represented by that boat, is sailing on rough waters.  In our day we encounter many storms that toss our weak faith in all directions.  We ask questions that the church in apostolic times never had to ask.  American Catholics especially are often challenged to take sides.  There are issues of poverty and human development, of war and peace, of crime and capital punishment, of life and death, abortion, euthanasia, human rights, medical and scientific research, of women in church ministry, of priesthood and celibacy, of sexuality and marriage, of education and free expression, of government and public service, and on and on and on.  Some storms are bigger than others. But some of us choose to close our hearts and minds to new and exciting possibilities simply because we have grown content and comfortable.  On the other extreme, there are some who would just as soon throw everything out of the boat, even ditch the boat, just because it’s old and frail and riddled with holes.

So Peter gets out of the boat; and Peter does in fact walk on the water.  But it wasn’t beyond reason that he might falter.  He called and Jesus reached out to him, and together they returned to the safety of the boat.  Together they climbed back in.  Jesus reassured the other disciples and they sailed to the other side.  No one stopped Peter from getting off in the middle of the lake.  Neither did they follow after him and walk on the lake themselves the rest of the way.  … The challenge lies in finding the balance between relying on ourselves and trusting God.  We can’t do it all by ourselves, but neither does God want us to sit back and watch him do it all himself.  We have to deal with the storm, the boat and everyone in it.  There’s just no other way around it.

I truly believe that God invites us to struggle with the real problems of our time.  This is where our witness to the gospel, our witness of faith in the mercy of God finds tangible expression.  As long as we are open to discern the spirit of Jesus in our time, as long as we strive to make the gospel message real in our lives, as long as we get that boat out into open sea where it belongs, I am certain God will not abandon us.

When Peter got out of the boat, he went to meet Jesus on the water.  Jesus had invited Peter to step forward.  When we venture out into the storm to meet Jesus on the water, we must be attentive that it is really Jesus who calls us, and not some apparition that has caught our attention.  Jesus calls us from across the water.  But if we do not know him, we run the risk of following someone else.

Jesus never attempted to explain the storm.  He didn’t tell his disciples what to do and what not to do.  Perhaps the storm will pass, perhaps it will not go so quickly.  That is not important.  Even if  Jesus does not give us the answers we ask for, he will not ignore our turmoil either.  Rather, he calls us to his side.  He offers his presence and assures us we will not be left alone.  And if we falter, he will be there to take our hand and raise us up.  We need only recognize our lack of faith sometimes and put our hand in God’s.  I believe the challenge we face is not so much to explain the storm or even to weather it.  Rather, we are challenged to keep Jesus’ spirit and the message of the gospel in perspective, be willing to step out of the boat, to reexamine our faith in God, and then be willing to get back in the boat and patiently reassure our sisters and brothers, compassionately, gently and with great understanding.

So welcome aboard, ladies and gentlemen, but keep alert.  In case of emergency, there are a few life jackets for your use.  But there won’t be enough for all.  Some of you will just have to get out of the boat and walk on the water.