Seafarers are allegedly among the most superstitious of people. They have produced countless superstitions concerning safety and luck at sea. All these superstitions have their roots in attempts to combat the dangers faced by sailors and fishermen in their alien, volatile, hostile and unforgiving environment. Almost two decades into the 21st century, despite all our clever technology we actually know very little about the bottom of the sea. In fact, we know much more about outer space than about our oceans. How much more terrifying the seas must have been to those who sailed them in boats deprived of all the equipment we take for granted nowadays.
The story in today’s gospel sounds like a work of fiction; and if it is taken as a literal description of an actual event, then it is pure fantasy. I’m certain the story was indeed based on a genuine event, a real situation, that grew arms and legs over time and had ornamental and mythical bits added to it. When it was eventually used by St Matthew in his gospel, the story served his narrative, presenting Jesus as the New Moses. As Moses parted the Red Sea, led the people of Israel through the waters and conquered the hostile army of Pharaoh, so Jesus walks on the water, conquering the powers of evil symbolised by the sea depths and leading his disciples to safety. To conclude; this story, in its literal sense, should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. Nonetheless, the message conveyed by this story is as great and as relevant as ever.
Let me draw your attention to a few different modes of Jesus’ presence or perceived absence. Firstly, Jesus orders his close friends to sail to the other side of the lake while he stays behind to pray in the hills. They struggle against the headwind and the heavy seas, while he watches them from the safety of dry land. Surely this sounds like the perfect description of us trying to deal with our daily struggles, adversities, various problems and so on, as if we are left to our own devices. I meet people who have been praying for specific help or for a specific outcome for years, only to perceive that nothing’s changed. To them it seems as though God is either absent or – even worse – cruelly watching but doing nothing.
Then we have Jesus walking on the lake towards the disciples in the early hours, shortly before dawn. Desperate to get to the shore, the disciples have been struggling most of the night and are almost exhausted. Seeing a familiar figure walking on the water, they are terrified; they assume it’s a spectre, a ghost, setting a trap to lure them into the depths. In our society, there’s no shortage of people who are afraid of Jesus. There are those who see religion as a source or as a main cause of problems. Or they are convinced that accepting Jesus would be too demanding of them, that acceptance would require too many personal sacrifices or unacceptable changes to their lifestyle. For those people, Jesus has the same message as for his disciples: ‘Courage! Do not be afraid!’
The next aspect of Jesus’ presence is when Peter decides to walk towards him over choppy waters. Encouraged by Jesus, Peter’s attempt is initially successful – but he loses his footing when distracted by the force of the wind and he begins to drown. All of us here are committed Christians, determined to do our bit for the sake of Jesus. Nobody forces us to come to church; in fact, in the current climate this is almost an act of defiance. It’s not easy to stick to your beliefs when people around you, often close relatives, demonstrate indifference, derision, mockery or even open hostility towards your faith. Jesus never promised that following him would be easy. In fact, he foresaw all that and he warned his followers to expect such attitudes.
The final element of Jesus’ presence is Peter’s cry for help: ‘Lord, save me!’ On the face of it, that’s a cry of utter desperation when no other means of support is available. From other passages in the Bible we know that Peter could swim, and that in theory he could make his way back to the boat. Those who have found themselves in a similar situation (minus Jesus standing on the water nearby) know well that swimming back to the boat isn’t all that easy in choppy waters. This cry for help uttered by Peter is actually his profession of faith in Jesus: ‘Only you can save me!’ Peter doesn’t instruct Jesus on how to go about saving him; he leaves that completely to Jesus. That’s the ultimate leap of faith: trusting Jesus’ judgment and his ways. It doesn’t mean switching off your own mind and powers of judgment – that would be rejecting God’s greatest gifts! Exactly the opposite is true. It means that you accept Jesus as the one who shows you the way through life and the one who keeps you company along the way. Is that a scary prospect for you? ‘Courage! Do not be afraid!’