Words on the Word
19. Sunday A
1 Kings 19.9, 11-13: And after the fire there came the sound of a gentle breeze.
Rm 9.1-5: I would willingly be condemned if I could help my brothers of Israel.
Mt 14.22-33: In the fourth watch he went towards them, walking on the lake.
In his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, the Israeli novelist Amos Oz describes what it was like to grow up in Jerusalem in the late 1940s. Back then, he writes, people in the holy city ‘walked like mourners at a funeral, or latecomers to a concert. First they put down the tip of their shoe and tested the ground. Then, once they had lowered their foot they were in no hurry to move it: we had waited two thousand years to gain a foothold in Jerusalem, and were unwilling to give it up.’ In contrast to the ponderousness of Zion was the buzz of Tel Aviv, bewilderingly modern. There was magic in its very name. In Tel Aviv, Oz goes on, there were even sportsmen! ‘And there was the sea, full of bronzed Jews who could swim. Who in Jerusalem could swim? Who had ever heard of swimming Jews? These were different genes.’
The story, told fondly by a Jew about Jews, illustrates the ambivalence found in Scripture with regard to the sea. Among ancient peoples, Phoenicians and Greeks were drawn to the sea. They loved it. They yearned for it. They strove to master it. The sons of Jacob went the other way. They never sailed. Their ambiance of choice was the expanse of the interior, where they herded their flocks. There, like Elijah, they received and pondered the utterances of God. Throughout the Old Testament, the sea is a menacing place, a place of chaos, threat, and anguish. The sea is where Leviathan lives, and though God made him a plaything, it is best to keep a distance. Our Gospel suggests that Peter conformed to the ancestral type of Oz. For being a fisherman, it seems he couldn’t swim. When the surface of the water gave way, he did not do breast strokes. He sank. Of course he was terrified. Even if we can swim there was a time when we couldn’t. We may remember the awful downward pull; how scary it is, even up there in the shallow end of a pool, with people everywhere and lights on, with our father’s arms ready to carry us up. Transfer this experience to a dark night on a storm-tossed lake, with waves rising high. Then you will have some idea of what Peter felt like when he cried, ‘Lord! Save me!’
This event occurs after the feeding of the five thousand, which, in turn is preceded by a discourse on the Kingdom so long that we heard it over several Sundays. Done with preaching, the Lord asked his hearers, ‘Have you understood?’ They answered, ‘Yes’, to a man. Peter was prepared. He had learnt who Jesus was. He had seen his power in action. Nothing any more could surprise him about Christ. That he should walk on water was wonderful, but not incredible. The question was: could Christ’s power stretch to hold him, too? There was only one way of finding out. ‘Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.’ How are we to read this challenge? Peter is not just curious. He does not seek a momentary thrill. Had that been the case, Christ would have chided him as he did all seekers after signs. And think how Peter, years later, rebuked Simon Magus when the latter desired a share of wonder for the show of it. At other times, Peter can be brash. Not here. Here he’s afraid. He, the non-swimmer, is pulled out of the boat and onto the wet almost despite himself—by what? By the immense attraction and security of Jesus. Here, for the first time, Peter calls him ‘Lord’. He sees the strangeness of this well-known friend. He intuits God. Though grasped by terror, he is filled with inexplicable trust. And so, at the Lord’s call, he walks into what he fears most, to be with Christ.
This moment in Peter’s life corresponds to an experience that, if we haven’t had it already, will face us sooner or later. It is one thing to stand in church and say, ‘I believe’. It is one thing to say Amen to the mystery of faith. It is one thing to try to live an upright life. It is a different thing to dare, in an extremity, to throw myself into the arms of Jesus, to walk into a tempest, having nothing but faith to hold on to. We must do this at the hour of death. There will be other times, too. So it matters to remember that this account of Peter’s walking on water is no fairytale.
We learn that faith does carry, that we need not be captives to fear. Of course we shouldn’t tempt God. We shouldn’t all set out to replicate what we’ve just read. Peter steps out because Christ bids him. He bids us in other ways. If we attend to his presence, to his voice, we shall respond with trust when our moment comes. Just now, the whole world seems like a storm-tossed sea. The temptation is to crowd into the stern of our own little bark, to shut our eyes, to hope to sleep it out. It is no option. The Lord calls us. He has a word for these rudderless times, a word to be spoken through us, you and me. We have a mission to fulfil. Do we stand up to be counted for our faith? Do we dare to face the world’s ridicule? Are we a faithful few? In this present storm, do we reach out for Jesus’s hand? He calls us and asks us to walk to him even through darknesses of fear.