Homily for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Today's Lectionary Gospel reading finds Jesus sending the disciples off to the next location after his feeding of the 5,000 so that he can find time to be alone and to pray. One wonders if the disciples had concerns over how the Lord would make it across the sea by himself. Anyway, the boat, as the text reads, was
"a few miles offshore...being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it."
The disciples, several of whom were professional seamen, could not make headway across the water. And so, the text tells us:
"During the fourth watch of the night, he [Jesus] came toward them walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified."
Terrified that is, until Peter does the unthinkable and seeks to join the water-walking Rabbi! This has to be one of the most curious events in the Gospels, which may explain why this story has become the stuff of parody by the cynic so that the Gospels and Jesus himself may be trivialized as the victim of outdated, magical thinking. However, whatever the critics and comics say about this story, both St. Matthew and St. Mark would have us believe its foundation in reality.
Not surprisingly, the Evangelists offer different details to the story and a somewhat different ending. In Matthew's account Jesus walks toward them on the sea, and they respond to Jesus' feat over nature by doing him homage and saying:
“Truly, you are the Son of God.”
But, in Mark's account Jesus intends to pass by the struggling boat, but they see him and cry out. Mark ends the pericope by telling us:
"He got into the boat with them and the wind died down. They were [completely] astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened." (Mk.6:51-51)
We need not fret about the different details and separate endings, nor do we need to concern ourselves with the historicity of the story. Clearly, if the resurrection is accepted as true, then the plausibility of the other Gospel accounts of Jesus' life rises significantly. And further, if this is all we see here, some sort of proof-text that Jesus is somehow divine, then we will miss the deeper truths that may be teased out of the story.
Said differently, we must come to see the Gospel story of Jesus as filled with paradox (Kierkegaard), the God-man quotient being only one of them. This means we have the choice of faith or unbelief (I say unbelief and not doubt because the flip-side of faith is doubt, but the opposite of faith is unbelief) Here the question is, will we be offended (Kierkegaard) by the miracle accounts we have of Jesus or not? Or, as the Lord says himself:
"...blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” Mt. 11:6
So, let us briefly look more deeply at this Gospel account where I wish to offer in this homily three ideas that come to us via St. Matthew's version of Jesus walking on the water:
1. Jesus has not forgotten us, even when the wind is against us
2. Jesus may come to us in ways and in people we do not expect, so that we may only recognize him by looking backward
3. God allows us the freedom to get out of the safety of the boat, if we wish
Jesus has not forgotten us, even when the wind is against us
This truth, of necessity, must find its way into our faith-life. Often, perhaps even most of the time, the winds blow against us. We find ourselves troubled or in trouble. We find ourselves, our loved ones and friends, toiling through some storm but not getting very far at all -- the same old problem time and again, just a different week. But, does it follow that in the midst of these stiff winds the Lord has forgotten us, that he has abandoned us, that his care for us has faltered in the very heart of pain?
Some would say, "Yes, this is exactly what it means." However, to say this is to say that God owes us an easy life, that God's obligation is to make things smooth for us, which asks him to deny the reality of the human condition -- a reality which, after all, is what we have made it to be. To say this also asks him to do for you what he did not do even for his own son. To be sure, this is the Jesus who walked through the wind on the water, but it is also the same Jesus who experiences the gale force winds of the Roman army's wrath -- a wrongful death by public execution.
So, our calling is to toil in faith. Our calling is to look beyond the winds against us so that we might see the Savior coming along side of us. Our calling is to keep our eyes pealed for the Savior's presence that comes to us, and surprisingly, he arrives just when we least expect it.
This, then leads to our second idea:
Jesus may come to us in ways and people we do not expect, so that we may only recognize him by looking backward
It would be foolish to think of Jesus as some sort of super-hero, a caped crusader flying in for our rescue, walking in on the water to our salvation. I am not against this, of course, for the Lord can do what he wishes without my expectation or permission. But, clearly, the primary mode of his help comes from others, those somehow prompted by his calling to stand beside us through the wind and the storm.
Here we are talking about the incognito Christ (Kierkegaard). Here we describe the empowered believer(s) who acts in the name and the place of the Lord, but without knowing it. Most of the time these blessed individuals have no idea that the Lord was walking on the water and forging a rescue through them. Most of the time these people were merely trying, in fits and starts, to do what was right, to do what they could in the name of the Lord, which they believed was, in reality, very little indeed. But, the Lord takes their encouraging words and small, thoughtful deeds and guides us safely in the storm through them.
And, it's by looking backward, over the troubled water that we covered, that we discover how we were aided by that gracious word spoken in discretion, or that prudent act done with restraint and obscurity. Never pointing at themselves, these water-walkers live to life the falling and drowing, and here the do the Lord's own work.
Which leads to the final idea:
God allows us the freedom to get out of the safety of the boat, if we wish.
This may be the most difficult idea to grasp, but it seems so very clear to me that the Lord has given us the greatest gift of all in our lives, and what we do with that life is up to us. We can, in faith, safely ride the waves in the boat -- like most people do, or we can step out of the boat, in faith, and wade the deep waters with the Lord as well.
You see, the Lord is both in the boat and in the water so either choice is acceptable, if it is, in fact, a life lived on his terms and following his ways.
This thought is so very thoroughly freeing! God's will is not some secret and hidden thing from me, that I must find if I am to have a life-fulfilled. Hardly! Instread, I would argue that life is an adventure to be enjoyed from the safety of the boat or the excitement of the waves, both are good, both are useful, and both are needed to display God's Kingdom reclaimed!