The Gospel passage for Sunday’s liturgy is rich with themes and images that help us to better understand God and his relationship with us. One interesting thematic is the movement from peace to chaos to peace.
The passage opens with the disciples getting on a boat and heading to sea. Here we might think of the tides that gently rock the boat as it sails. Nothing unusual. The disciples are casually making their way to the other side. The image of Jesus, alone on the mountain in prayer, likewise conjures in our minds an image of peace. Jesus is conversing with the Father. He is focused on the Father’s loving presence in his life, sustaining him and directing his mission.
Again the image conveys a message of peace, contentment and solace. Then comes a dramatic shift.
The focus switches back to the disciples on the boat. The wind now is strong and it is blowing against them. The boat now will have difficulty moving forward. The wind is so strong that the waves are now tossing the boat about.
We know that this body of water (the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Gennesaret or Lake Tiberius) is prone to sudden, violent storms. This is the body of water that Jesus calmed earlier in the Gospel (cf. Matthew 8:23-27) as he and the disciples were making another crossing. Now in the darkness of night, the time of the fourth watch (between 3 and 6 a.m.), Jesus approaches the boat, walking on water. The evangelist now tells us that the disciples are “terrified.”
Human beings do not walk on water. The disciples think they are seeing a ghost for in their minds there is no other explanation. Immediately, Jesus tries to instill a sense of peace: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Now the focus moves to an interaction between Jesus and Peter. At this point there is nothing in the text that suggests that Jesus has calmed the winds. They are still blowing. Peter now speaks. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
We might ask ourselves, what kind of statement is this: is it a request? Is it a demand? Either way, Peter is asking Jesus to prove himself. Jesus does not take offense but invites Peter to come out onto the water. Peter courageously gets out of the boat and begins to walk on the water making his way to Jesus.
In other words, Peter makes an act of faith. He is willing to get out of that boat, amidst the waves, because something inside of himself is saying that this really is Jesus; and that this Jesus has authority over nature, allowing him to walk on water.
It is at this point that the wind distracts Peter. The evangelist tells us “when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”” Immediately, Jesus reaches out his hand and lifts Peter out of the water. They walk to the boat and get in.
At this point the wind dies down and those in the boat make an act of faith professing to Jesus: “Truly, you are the Son of God.” Now we are once again in a state of peace.
The movement in the story from peace to chaos to peace serves to highlight our relationship with God based on faith. “Faith” seems to be the point of the story because Jesus specifically mentions it in his words to Peter: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” He also alludes to it in his earlier statement to the disciples: “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid.”
Jesus spending time in prayer speaks of his faith in the Father. He spends this time alone in quiet so he can speak to the Father in prayer. The relationship is strong. Jesus believes in the Father and seeks to know the Father’s will and to live it out.
The significance of Jesus’ prayer is perhaps amplified by its allusion to the story of Elijah’s encounter with God on Mount Horeb (first reading). In this account, God is not present in all the traditional theophanies (wind, earthquake, fire) but rather in the gentle quiet whisper. That “tiny whispering sound” conveys the sense of tranquility and peace. God is present and Elijah is aware of his presence.
The same is true of Jesus on the mountain in prayer. He has faith in the Father. The Father is present to him in prayer and Jesus is at peace.
The disciples, on the boat, are separated from Jesus. When the winds rise they become fearful. Jesus’ approach by walking on the water highlights their fears and doubts. The interaction with Peter shows his lack of faith or the weakness of his faith (when the winds distract him). Peace is found once again when Peter and the disciples are with Jesus in the boat. The disciples can now make their own act of faith in that proclamation: “Truly, you are the son of God.”
We all have a desire for peace in our lives — peace with God, with each other and within ourselves. At different points in life the “waters” will rock and we might be tempted to doubt or to become fearful or to be distracted.
The Gospel passage reminds us that the peace we long for is tied to an act of faith. The “waters” of life may rock and the winds may buffet but faith can see us through. Faith allows us to recognize God’s presence even when we cannot see him. Faith saw Jesus through his mission. Faith saw Peter back into the boat and faith saw the disciples get to the other shore. And they were at peace.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.