19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Ages 9-12): Fear and Faith
(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
Last week we considered the miracle of the five loaves of bread and two fish as a sign of abundance. The miracle showed us that when the Kingdom of God is complete in all its fullness, there will be no more hunger. We thought about how we can experience a taste of that fullness of God's love today, when the miracle of abundance is repeated at Mass. This week we consider another miracle, one that St. Matthew is careful to tell us follows immediately after Jesus feeds the people with abundance. We will have to wonder what more we are being shown about the Kingdom of God.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.
So here is a miracle indeed. Jesus walks on water, something that none of us can do. Amazing ,yes, but why does he do it? Does he want to freak out the disciples?
But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
So no, Jesus does not desire fear. But what does this mean?
Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
This is interesting. Why does Peter say this? What does he know? He calls Jesus, "Lord," which is a name used in Hebrew scripture only to refer to God. So Peter already has an understanding of who Jesus is. He knows that Jesus would not lead him into temptation. And he wants to be with Jesus.
And Jesus says,
A challenge? A dare?
Or is this an invitation and a promise?
So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.
Fear again, and a little faith. So what is the sign of the Kingdom of God? What are we supposed to learn?
The disciples certainly learn who the king is. They worship Jesus and exclaim,
“Truly you are the Son of God!”
Yes, we can certainly see how one who has power over the laws of nature is surely God. So was this the point then? To reveal Jesus as the King, and make the disciples bow down and worship? I wonder. God isn't usually in the business of forcing people to believe. God seems to prefer that people come to accept faith on their own. God likes it better that way. So what is God doing?
One thing we know is that God never changes. What God does in the Gospel, God did in the past, and God continues to do now. So let's consider the past. The church has spent a long time considering the Hebrew scriptures and has found what seems to be a golden thread linking this miracle to an event in the distant past. In the first reading, the prophet Elijah has run out into the desert and is hiding in a cave to escape a dreadful situation (partly of his own making). He is being persecuted and he is afraid.
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying...“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
Surrounding Elijah is a lot of noise and chaos: an incredibly great wind, an earthquake, a fire. Mountains are splitting, rocks are breaking. Nature is being terrifying. The Lord, though, is not in any of these great and terrifying forces--forces that might easily cause someone to bow down to worship in fear. But God does not want us to worship in fear.
Instead, the Lord is in the sound of sheer silence. How can silence have a sound? As soon as anything moves, a sound is created; it is no longer silent. Silence means stillness. God must be met in stillness. Amidst the chaos, God waits in the stillness. God wants us to worship in faith.
And Jesus says,
In the midst of the wind and the waves, there is stillness in Jesus. He walks on the water. Peter looks at Jesus, that point of calm, and climbs out of the boat. And he of little faith--perhaps faith the size of a mustard seed?--walks on water.
If the golden thread is God waiting in stillness amidst all the noise and chaos,
if the golden thread is the King who wants our faith not our fear,
can we catch a glimpse of that golden thread today?
When life is full of terrifying forces (like this pandemic, for example), can we be like Elijah, and seek out stillness with God?
When we are afraid of forces that threaten to overwhelm us, can we be like Peter, and keep our eyes on Jesus?
And if we are suddenly swamped and overcome with fear, can we also cry out with him, "Lord, save us?"
And we know that the King, in his infinite tenderness, will immediately reach out his hand and catch us...
until the wind ceases.