Rowing Against the Wind

In Matthew 14:22-34, we learn an important lesson about being Christ’s disciples.

Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there. But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.” And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” So He said, “Come.”

And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.” When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret.

Did Jesus promise His followers a life free from trials and tribulations?  No .  Jesus said, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

In today’s Gospel, we see the disciples rowing against the howling wind.  But the fact that they are going against the wind doesn’t mean they are headed in the wrong direction or that they are moving away from Christ.  In this Gospel lesson, that raging wind is necessary for their encounter with Christ and for their understanding to grow.

We sense their and our powerlessness in the world – they are too far from the shore for help.  The wind might capsize their boat and sink their mission.   Not only are they being blasted by the wind but their faith is being buffeted by the winds of disbelief.  There is more than one storm raging on that lake.

I remember once when I was in Costa Rica we were trying to get out to a boat that was in the bay.  We had to climb into very small motor boat which had landed on the beach to get to our ship.  A storm happened upon us at that very second.  The wind was blowing the waves roiling.  And this little motor boat was rickety and the crew was a couple of 20 year olds with limited English.  As I climbed into the boat with my kids, I really did think we were going to be capsized and drown.  A few people refused to get on board.  The two young crew men pleaded with them, “We don’t want to drown either” but some abandoned ship and stayed ashore.  The little boat was full of leaks and we had to bail water out of it for the entire trip to our ship, while being tossed by the storm .  It was an apostolic moment in my life.

It might be piously inspiring if in the Gospel we were to see the disciples calmly praying through the storm.  Not so in the Gospel.  They are struggling against the storm and they are panicked and terrified.   Jesus comes to them in the storm, walking on the raging sea.  He doesn’t prevent the storm from happening.  We find Him in the storm and there we are to be strengthened and comforted, calmed and guided in and through the storm.  The values of the Kingdom of Heaven are so unworldly.

The Storms of life are many – violence, stress, financial, family, death, grief, personal struggles, temptations, passions, diseases .  Christ still can be encountered in the storm.  The storms are no less violent, but we can find God if we are looking and we can hold on to God just as Peter grasped the hand of Christ.

In the Orthodox Funeral service we sing:  “Beholding the sea of life surging with the storms of temptations.  And taking refuge in your calm haven I cry to you: Raise up my life from corruption O greatly merciful one.”

We are reminded that there are so many storms we have to face in life.

Just this year Dayton has survived several storms of life – the KKK rally and counter protest, the Memorial Day tornadoes and the mass shooting.

Jesus calls to us from the midst of the storm:  “Take courage! Don’t be afraid!  It is I”   Can we hear Him despite the raging wind of the storm?  Or are we of so little faith that all we hear is the roaring storm and can only imagine human solutions to worldly disasters?

We are Christ’s presence in this stormy world.  In that storm we are to be present offering our hand to those who are drowning.   God is not hidden in heaven, God is present in the midst of the storm.  Besides, as the Scriptures show raging winds are not only threatening but can be useful:

At creation:  “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit/wind of God was moving over the face of the waters.”   (Genesis 1:2)

In the great flood:  But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided;   (Genesis 8:1)

In Exodus 15:10  after Israel crosses the Red Sea, Moses describes God’s intervention to save Israel from the Egyptian army in these terms:  You blew with Your wind, the sea covered them; they sank as lead in the mighty waters.

In Ezekiel 37:9, Ezekiel is given a vision of the resurrection and is told by God:  “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”  When the wind blew the dead came back to life.

In the book of Jonah, it is the wind which prevents Jonah from running away from the Lord, from going the wrong way:  But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. (1:4)

In the Gospel we see Jesus showing His power over nature as He walks on the storm tossed waters.  We see Peter, a disciple, being given power to imitate our Lord in the midst of the storm.  And we see how we as disciples are dependent on Christ even when empowered by Him.

Peter asked permission to walk on the water.  Christ responds not with an invitation but with a command: “Come!”  Jesus orders Peter to walk on the water!  As Peter walks on the water he and the other disciples are amazed and edified as they learn to what extent they can share in the powers of God’s Son on earth.  As soon as Peter loses sight of the fact that this miracle, that he is walking on water, is being done to edify him and the other disciples, he is sunk.  No miracle, no power of God is given to us to elevate us above anyone else.  All are given to edify us and everyone else.  Nothing is between you and Christ alone.  Everything is done in love for the benefit of all.  Sinking in the storm sea brought Peter back to his senses and he turns again to Christ.

All miracles are done to the glory of God and for the upbuilding of one another.  All miracles are done in order to increase faith and for the edification of all.  Even Peter’s failure was a lesson for all in discipleship.   Let all you do be done in love.

In the Footsteps of Christ: Walking on Water

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 14:22-34 has many, what biblical commentators would call, “textual irritants.”  Textual irritants are things found in the text that cause you to stop reading and take a closer look at the text – what does it mean?  Why did it use these particular words?  Why is the grammar or vocabulary unusual or unexpected?   Textual irritants are things in the text that stand out and make you take notice so that you stop reading and start pondering.   Let’s consider the Gospel lesson of the Lord walking on water:

Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away.

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In 14:22 – Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat, it is already late evening (Matt 14:15 & 23).  Why does Jesus have to compel them into the boat?  He forces them to do something they  perhaps didn’t want to do.  Was the bad weather, which will be described in 14:24 already obvious to them?  They had already survived one storm at sea, but Jesus was in the boat with them that time, though he was asleep (Matt 8:23-27).  Now He is pushing them into the boat but is not going with them.  Chrysostom and other Church Fathers think Jesus was gradually teaching them to trust Him, but each time the lesson is a little more difficult.  First He was with them at sea in the storm, but asleep, now He is sending them into the storm but not going with them.  He wants them to learn to trust Him according to these Fathers.

And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there.

Matthew 14:15 says the evening was coming on which led to the disciples wanting Jesus to dismiss the crowd.  Evening was coming on but then Jesus took time to feed the 5000, all ate a full meal and were satisfied, and 12 baskets full of leftovers were gathered up and the crowd was dismissed and the disciples sent off and Jesus went up to pray [Note well: feeding 5000 people takes a lot of time as does dismissing 5000 people].   And then after all these events we read again in 14:23 that evening was coming on – the exact same phrase as before the multiplication of loaves took place.  It is as if no time had elapsed despite all that had happened.  The next time reference in the text at 14:25 mentions the 4th Watch of the night, somewhere between 3-6am.  But the time of the feeding of the 5000 is not only in an unusual place – a deserted place, but the time seems  suspended as well.  Have they entered into and are they experiencing the time of the Kingdom?  The day which has no end?  And there shall be continuous day (it is known to the LORD), not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light.”  (Zechariah 14:7)

[Also interesting is that in 14:15, the disciples wanted Jesus to send the crowd away for evening was coming on, but Christ choose to feed that crowd first.  Now Jesus sends the disciples away BEFORE dismissing the crowd!  Jesus  is teaching them something – this is part of their formation as disciples.   And then evening finally comes on.]

But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary.

The wind (Greek: anemou).  The Evangelist Matthew had in the Greek language a number of different words he could use to refer to the wind.  He chooses one which gives us a sense of the wind as a force of nature.  The wind is powerful and unpredictable, we don’t know where it comes from or where it is going (John 3:8).  The word is used in the expression “ scattered to the 4 winds” meaning the entire world, or the world in which God acts.  This wind will be significant to Peter in a moment.

The wind was contrary –  Remember Jesus sent the disciples out on the sea, and now the wind is against them.  Was this a sign from God that they were headed in the wrong direction?  On the boat they were probably wondering why in the world Jesus had sent them out there in the first place.  Now God was opposing them . . . or was it God, or is it a force that opposes God?  Is the lesson they are learning is that doing the will of God is not easy and sometimes all the forces of nature and the world will oppose you when you set out to do God’s will?

Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!”

 Disciples see Jesus walking on the sea, but it is night, and the wind is howling and the waves buffeting the boat, there are no spotlights on the boat.  They are looking into the darkness and see something walking on the sea.  If the wind and water were totally calm, one might be able to see something on the water, but the wind is blowing hard, so the waves would be roiling as well.   It is pretty hard to see under such conditions, no wonder they are troubled by seeing anything on the water, let alone a person!  They see someone on the water, not in a boat, so of course they think it has to be a phantom of some kind.

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The disciples are not only seeing something, they are having some kind of spiritual experience, for their eyes alone would not be able to see much as it is dark.  The disciples had experienced something of eternity when Christ fed the 5000, something outside of normal time.  Now they experience another spiritual reality.

In 14:26 disciples seeing  is in Greek: idontes – experience or perceive.   Note that in 14:30 the Evangelist uses a totally different word in describing Peter seeing.  There he uses the Greek: Blepwn –  which is the word meaning the opposite of blindness,  but also spiritual perception and insight.  The fact that Matthew uses two different Greek words for seeing tells us he is putting special stress on how and what they are seeing.

And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.”

 The disciples cry out in fear, but Jesus calmly speaks to them.  Again, one wonders how they could have heard him so clearly under these windy conditions.  He must be very near their boat, another sign that something supernatural is happening.  They are able to hear and see under very adverse conditions.   We might call to mind Isaiah 32:1-4 –  “Behold, a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule in justice. Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a covert from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land. Then the eyes of those who see will not be closed, and the ears of those who hear will hearken. The mind of the rash will have good judgment, and the tongue of the stammerers will speak readily and distinctly.”  

 And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” So He said, “Come.”

 “Command me to come” –  Peter, as rash as he sometime is, dares not of his own volition join Christ in this revelation.   He cannot come out on the water on his own, and he knows it.  But if Christ commands him to come  out, he is willing to obey.   Was Peter trying to show off how obedient he could be?  Or trying to show the other disciples that he indeed was greater than them and had a special relationship to Christ?  Or trying to show that he was not afraid – he is obeying Jesus’ command not to be afraid but to be of good cheer?

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Does Jesus invite Peter to come, or command him to come?  In either case, Peter has to decide to do what Christ tells him.  Without hesitation Peter does as Christ bids him to do.

[One is reminded of the demons of the Gadarene demoniacs (Matt 8) asking Christ to apostolize them by sending them into the herd of swine.  They can’t do it on their own, in Christ’s presence, they need Christ’s permission.]

And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”

Seeing the wind (Greek: anemou).  He would have felt the wind all along as it was battering the boat.  All the disciples knew the wind was blowing strongly against them.  What did Peter suddenly see?    One doesn’t normally see the wind, but one can see what the wind can do – the force of the wind against things.  Peter apparently sees the wind to be the power of nature even chaos it represents, a force far greater than himself Peter has choices before him.  He has to decide what the forceful wind represents – it is a force to be reckoned with, yet is it God’s will or God’s presence or is it opposing God?   Peter faces what the Prophet Elijah encountered: And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind …  (1 Kings 19:11)

Peter can focus his sight on God in Christ,  or on the wind that great force of nature and a real threat to Peter, or on his on experience and the limits of his human powers.   Peter has to decide who is more powerful Christ or the force of the wind and whom will he obey – the force of the wind or the voice of God.   Perhaps it is even the face of death.  Blowing at Peter is the force of chaos, beneath him is the abyss of the sea – Davey Jones’ locker.   A sailor fears being swept overboard by a violent wind, but Peter is already overboard!

Again the Evangelist uses a different word for seeing.  Here, Peter sees (Greek: Blepwn) the wind whereas back in 14:26 the disciples see (Greek: idontes) Christ walking on the water.  The Evangelist changes the word for seeing because he wants us to understand something beyond nature is occurring here.  We cannot see God with the eyes of the world, we need a new way of seeing to find God, for God is holy, God is other, our minds must change in order for us to see God.  So in this lesson, it is in the most unusual place and in the darkness of the night that Peter sees something he has never seen before.   Peter’s eyes are open, he is no longer blind but is seeing the spiritual reality the wind represents – and immediately he is afraid – of what?  The chaos of oblivion?  Of his own death?  Or that now he sees God face to face?

In 14:27 Jesus told them not to fear,  but in 14:30 Peter is afraid – is the issue that he disobeys Christ in this?   His fear is a natural response to the situation, but he in walking out on the water he was obeying Christ, but now in the midst of this he disobeys and allows fear to take over his life.   Is that why Jesus rebukes him as one of little-faith?

Beginning to sink?  One doesn’t just begin to sink, one goes down quickly.  Step off the side of a pool into the water, when do you “begin” to sink?

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Petros – sank like a rock.  Maybe this is what the other disciples thought of Peter – he was so bold as to step out on the water, maybe they thought he was trying to show his faith was greater than theirs.  Later, one can imagine the disciples, but maybe not Peter, were amused.  Yes indeed Peter is rightly named the rock (John 1:42), and he sank just like one.

… and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”   And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” 

Surprisingly Jesus rebukes Peter not the wind.  The wind keeps howling until they get into the boat (14:32).   Peter apparently is only a half-believer, and it shows.  Peter shows fear, is this his doubt? – Even though he did Christ’s bidding and came out on the water, once there he ceases to obey Christ’s command not to be afraid.   Just like Peter each of us can obey some command of Christ and yet in the midst of that obedience, disobey some other command of Christ.  Discipleship is challenging.

And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.” When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret.

Christ did not suspend nature to save this one disciple, He saves Peter while allowing the wind to continue blowing against them.  It is only once they are in the boat, in the fellowship of the community of disciples, in the Church, that the wind no longer prevails.  They also are not brought to their destination by the wind, for it ceased.  They crossed the lake in the boat under their own power.

Of course there is the one time miraculous sign – not only Jesus walking on water but Jesus able to call His disciple out on the lake with Him.   Christ is showing Himself more powerful than nature, more powerful than wind, or deep or gravity.   Yet Christ doesn’t command or teach His disciples to foolishly disregard nature or the powers of nature in their day to day living.  He does not take this moment to promise them that the winds will always be with them or that nothing will ever threaten them or that they will never be afraid again.

The Gospel lesson is also for us today.  It is  about the call to discipleship – obedience to Christ.  Even if we willingly obey Christ or do what we think he wants us to do, we might find ourselves in trouble, needing to be saved, facing death or the hostile forces of nature or of evil or of our fellow humans.  And then we have to ask ourselves do we really believe Christ is more powerful than all of these?  Are we willing to die for Christ, knowing Him to be more powerful than death, realizing we have nothing to fear from death itself for Christ has overcome death.

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On a small level, when I came to Dayton, OH, with my family in 1986, I was following Christ, and walking out onto water.  We came to establish an Orthodox parish where there was none.   I did not know whether the mission would succeed or not.  There was a small group of disciples here, but I did not know if we could work together to plant a church.  There were forces we had to deal with including that almost all of the original people were very strong willed.   Each one could blow like the wind where it would.    Could we set aside our individual egos and personal dreams and drives in order to work together to build a community?    Yet we did it, we all climbed aboard that boat with Christ to weather the storm.

And it is true that not only in founding St. Paul’s parish were we walking on water, but all  who have joined us through the years, who left behind family and friends and the familiar to convert to Orthodoxy and join the parish, also walked by faith on water.  None of us knew what would happen, but we trusted Christ each in our own turn.

And on another level, we understand this Gospel lesson to be about facing the end of life  – we each and all have to face death at some point.  Peter was suddenly confronted with it right there in the face of Christ, while obeying Christ and walking with Christ.   To the end we have to cry out:

God be merciful to me the sinner and save me.

Peter Walking on Water

Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there. But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.” And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.”

So He said, “Come.” And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.” When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret.  (Matthew 14:22-34)

St. Augustine comments:

And hence also is that which was just now read, “Lord, if it be Thou, bid me come unto You on the water.” For I cannot do this in myself, but in You. He acknowledged what he had of himself, and what of Him, by whose will he believed that he could do that, which no human weakness could do. Therefore, “if it be Thou, bid me;” because when you bid, it will be done. What I cannot do by taking it upon myself, You can do by bidding me. And the Lord said “Come.” And without any doubting, at the word of Him who bade him, at the presence of Him who sustained, at the presence of Him who guided him, without any delay, Peter leaped down into the water, and began to walk. He was able to do what the Lord was doing, not in himself, but in the Lord. “For you were sometimes darkness, but now are you light in the Lord. [Ephesians 5:8]” (Let Us Attend, p. 64-65)

Thinking About Walking on Water

“If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then . . . I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people.”  (Leviticus 26:3, 12)

In the Gospel lesson of Matthew 14:22-34, we encounter Jesus walking on water.

The Apostle Peter asks Jesus for permission to join Him in perambulating across the stormy sea.  At first, all goes well, but then Peter finds himself in a bit over his head, so to speak.  Peter discovers that being the Rock doesn’t help one to stay on the surface of the water.  Here is the Gospel lesson:

Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking 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 for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.”

So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.

Jesus clearly favored Peter among the Twelve, though Peter is not the disciple whom Jesus loved – that was John.  Peter though has a favored status, even a leadership position among the chosen apostles.  Jesus recognizes Peter as the rock, and I still have to think that the disciples ultimately might have found it amusing that Peter also sank like a rock when he so boldly asked to walk on the sea with Jesus.

Fr. Paul Nadim Tarazi makes an interesting observation about walking in the bible.

“The scriptural ‘walking’ is not done with one’s feet. Rather, it is a way of life that one has to decide for one’s mind.” (The Chrysostom Bible: Romans, p 141)

By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.  (1 John 2:5)

The Holiness of Peter

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 14:22-34 offers us a unique look at the Apostles as a community, and one Apostle’s, St. Peter‘s, relationship both to Christ and the other disciples.

Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking 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 for fear.  But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.

Christ sent the Apostles together on a boat.  His disciples share a common life, common experience, common dangers.  They experience life as a community – together they survive the storms of life, and together they also experience Christ the incarnate God.

On encountering Christ, in the midst of the battering storm, the disciples are made afraid both by the storm and by meeting the Lord in the midst of the storm.  St. Peter, emboldened by seeing the Lord on the waters, asks permission to leave the fellowship of the disciples in the boat and to come to Jesus alone.  His experience of Jesus alone cannot prevent him from sinking in the waters.   In the boat with the other disciples, the fellowship kept him afloat.

It is an important lesson for believers.  It is a false dichotomy to think one has to choose between the Church and Christ.   Christ is with the disciples in the boat even when walking on the waters.    The fellowship of the disciples, the Church, serves a purpose for the faithful.  We encounter Christ as a fellowship and we support and help one another within the Church.  The boat and the fellowship both serve a purpose for disciples as they face the surging storms of life, and neither prevents us from encountering Christ.

Of course there are times when the fellowship of believers fails.  The Apostles deserted Christ at the cross.  Members of the Church sometimes turn the community away from Christ to try to make the Church be something other than the Body of Christ.  The Apostles were so afraid of the public after the crucifixion of Christ that they went into hiding rather than seeking the risen Lord.  But if the Church keeps Christ as Lord, and the members including the leadership recognize the lordship of Christ rather than making themselves lords over others, the Church serves its purpose to help us find Christ in the midst of the storms of temptation.

 Sergius Bulgakov reflects on St Peter, the only Apostle granted to walk with Jesus on water (even if momentarily), and also who also openly denied Christ.  Peter rightly confesses Jesus as God, but then is called ‘Satan’ by Jesus for denying God’s plan of salvation for the world.  What does this tell us about holiness itself? What does it tell us about the man, Peter?

“The forgiveness of sins does not mean they are forgotten. It even pre-supposes the contrary: their special remembrance in the full awareness of God’s mercy. There is no reason to think that the apostle Peter could forget, in this age or the future one, his renunciation of the Lord. According to tradition, he remembered this renunciation all his life, and its memory is preserved forever in the holy Gospel. But this does not nullify the great saintliness of the first apostle, to whom the Lord said on the same day, ‘Thou art Peter,’ and then, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan’ (Matt. 16:18,23). Peter is by no means an exception among all the saints, whose saintliness supposedly signifies freedom from all sin. On the contrary, this is what the prayer of the Church says about all human saintliness: ‘there is no man who is alive and does not sin. Thou alone art without sin,’ for ‘every man [is] a liar, as it is written, That thou might be justified in thy sayings, and might overcome when thou art judged’ (Rom. 3:4). Every human being has had need of forgiveness and redemption by the Blood of the Lamb. In other words, the saintliness glorified by the Church signifies not sinlessness but righteousness as the sum total of pluses and minuses, experienced as a synthesis of bliss and suffering. This confirms that, for human beings, there is neither absolute heaven nor absolute hell.” (The Bride of the Lamb, p 480)

Peter isn’t granted permission to walk on water because he is sinless or perfect.  We don’t abide in the fellowship of the saints because we are perfect and sinless.  We all are part of the fellowship of the Church because we recognize we are sinners in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy which we are given through our union with Christ and in His Church.

The Lord Upon Many Waters

The floods have lifted up, O LORD, the floods have lifted up their voice, the floods lift up their roaring. Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the LORD on high is mighty!   (Psalm 93:3-4)

If one pays attention, it is easy to hear that the sound of moving water can be quite loud, even deafening: the thunderous crashing of waves, the roar of a water falls, the down pour of a heavy rain.  Even in our homes, running water in the sink or shower or toilet can be noticeable and can drown out all other sounds around us.    In the world of the bible, in which there are no mechanical devices, engines, motors or explosives, the rushing of water was perhaps one of the loudest, and perhaps most terrifying sound people heard or could imagine.  It is no wonder that the ancients heard in the rushing of waters, the all consuming, destructive force of chaos which only God could tame and order.  Water is necessary for life, but water uncontrolled was nothing but destructive, washing away every bit of human order in its path.  When the ancients envisioned a cataclysmic event consuming the entire earth it was not a fiery conflagration but a great flood of water which engulfed the earth.   Even the fires of hell were not imagined until a later generation of Israelites, but the terrifying chaos of engulfing waters was imagined by the inspired authors of the Bible from the beginning.   God, the Creator of the universe, was understood to be more powerful than the greatest rushing force of flood waters which could sweep across the world.   Even the power of water which nothing could stop was afraid of God.

The waters saw You, O God;

The waters saw You, they were afraid;

The depths also trembled.

The clouds poured out water;

The skies sent out a sound;

Your arrows also flashed about.

The voice of Your thunder was in the whirlwind;

The lightnings lit up the world;

The earth trembled and shook.

Painting: The Back of the Storm by April Gornik

Your way was in the sea,  Your path in the great waters, and Your footsteps were not known. You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.  (Psalm 77:16-20, OSB)

And the waters which cover more than 70% of the earth’s surface were a challenge to navigate for the ancients because of their vastness and because of the unpredictable storms which would sweep across them.  Those same vast oceans were an easy path for God to walk upon.  This is the imagery of the Old Testament.  God alone can walk on the waters without sinking beneath the waves of the sea.  Even in the great miracle of Israel’s escape from Egypt, they did not walk upon the waters, but rather the waters parted before them and they walked on dry ground.    So, in this context, we come to see that the Gospel lesson of Jesus walking on water is portraying Jesus as Lord and God.  It is God alone who can walk on the waters as if they were a path.

The Gospel lesson of St. Matthew 14:22-34 –

Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking 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 for fear.  But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.

The ancient world knew what threat waters represent when they go over your head or over a ship.

Hull of a sunken ship

Those great rushing waters and waves send you down into the depths of a watery grave.

The Gospel lesson of Christ walking on water while the disciples were terrified calls to mind the verses from Psalm 107:23-31 –

Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; they reeled and staggered like drunken men, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men!

In the midst of the storm which is tossing the disciples about on their vessel, they hear the voice of the Lord.

The voice of the LORD is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, upon many waters.  (Psalm 29:3)

It is the voice of Christ who calms both their hearts and the waves of the sea.

“Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”

Above the roaring of the waves, the disciples hear the voice of the Lord.  The howling of the wind, the thunder, the roaring of the waves are not the loud voice of God the Lord.  Amidst the stormy chaos, God’s voice is calming.  It is a calm and quiet that silences the raging storm.

“Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”

Saint Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD) comments on the Gospel of Christ walking on the water:

‘ And in the fourth watch,’ it says, ‘of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea’ (Matt. 14:25). That is to say, after the ninth hour of the night, because it was customary to divide the night into four consecutive watches, and if the night is reckoned as twelve hours long, the fourth watch begins with the tenth hour. He left them to be tormented this long by the waves to exercise them in patience, and make them able to bear hardship. Then when He appeared He allowed them to think He was a ghost and to be so frightened that they cried out with terror, even though He had come to save them (Matt. 14:26).

You may be aware that He did the same with His people of old. Just at the time when He was about to part the sea miraculously to provide a way to safety, they seemed to be in the utmost danger, hemmed in by inescapable evils with enemies all round (Exod. 14:10). In this present case, too, before the Lord released them from the demons’ oppression, those whom He had come to deliver were deeply troubled at His appearance. For this reason His acts of kindness are not only precious to those who benefit from them, but also unforgettable. As they were calling upon the God of all He appeared to them among the waves, showing that He is ‘the God who is over all’ (Rom. 9:5), who stretches out His hand to help all who entreat Him. While the sea raged, He walked upon the waves, amply demonstrating that He is the one of whom it was foretold that He would walk on the sea as on dry land, to whom David had prophetically addressed the words, ‘Your way is in the sea, and your path in the great waters’ (Ps. 77:19), and ‘You rule the raging of the sea: when the waves thereof arise, you still them’(Ps. 89:9), just as the Lord later did. As soon as He saw that they were terrified because they did not recognize Him, for it was dark, He at once spoke to them, making Himself known by His voice and saying, ‘It is I, be not afraid’ (Matt. 14:27). ‘I AM even HE WHO IS the eternal God (cf. Exod. 3:14), and in these latter days have become man for  your sake. You can see Me and hear My voice and everything is possible for Me. My body can walk on the waves, and I can enable others to do the same.’ ” (The Homilies, p 254)

Overcoming the Power of Sin in our Lives

As we enter into the Nativity Lenten period, we are reminded by the fast to struggle against our habitual sins and addictions.   Christ is born exactly to overcome the power of sin and death in our lives.   So to turn the Christmas season into a time of self-indulgence and/or over indulgence is to ignore the very purpose of the Nativity of Christ.    We best prepare for the Feast of Christmas by taking time to withdraw from the consumerism of the world in order to reflect on what is essential about being human.   The most significant thing about being human is our ability to love others.  Lent is a time to refocus our lives on the love for God and the love for our neighbors.

In the struggle against addictions (which really is the surrendering of self will and the denial of love to some ‘power’  which then controls us), many rely on Twelve Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.  Part of the healing which takes place in an addict, the restoration to sanity, is dealing with our self-centered pride by surrendering our lives to God.    A special prayer adapted from the Big Book:

“God, I offer myself to You – to build with me and to do with me as You will.  Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Your will.  Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Your Power, Your Love, and Your Way of life.  May I do Your will always.”

For those preparing to go to confession during the Nativity Fast, we might consider the seriousness with which 12 step programs deal with forces that work on our hearts and minds.    These programs recognize the power of sin and self-will in our lives to enslave us by gaining control over our thoughts and desires.   But these programs also recognize the power of denying ones’ self and obeying God to help us overcome sin and addiction.  Surrendering to God and His holy will is the way for us to overcome our own sinful failures and addictions.  It means surrendering to God as God is and not god as we determine god to be.

“If a person defines the Higher Power prior to surrendering his life and his will, then the Power is limited (even slightly) by his own imagination, his own thinking.  The result is clearly a power much nearer the alcoholic’s ego – it is a power that can be contained within the human imagination.  This is not the Higher Power outside the person.  This is the higher power within the person.  This difference is crucial.”  (Fr. Meletios Webber,  STEPS OF TRANSFORMATION: AN ORTHODOX PRIEST EXPLORES THE TWELVE STEPS, p 127).

The process of healing, of overcoming our addictions, requires great humility which translates into recognizing there is a God and ‘I’ am not God.  St. Theodore of Petra describes the failure of some monks to humble themselves and who instead believed they could overcame their sin by their own great ascetical efforts alone:

“A number of men in the mountains and in the caves had not led the struggle for a Christian life according to Christ, and, for having practiced a rash form of asceticism with great zeal, were pierced through by the sword of pride.  They had attributed their ascetic activities to their own strength and had forgotten that our Lord had said: ‘Without me, you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).  Because of this wasting of the flesh, or having in some way fallen under the judgment of God which surpasses understanding, they were delivered up to Satan, and because of their deranged minds they could no longer control their thoughts.”   (Jean-Claude Larchet, MENTAL DISORDERS AND SPIRITUAL HEALING, p 54)

Pride, egotism, is a form of mental and spiritual illness!  Faith comes from humbly realizing “I” am not God.    St. Peter Damaskos (12th Century) writes in a similar way about how the lack of faith results from our pridefully imagining we can on our own without God’s help overcome sin in our lives.

“This is the faith with which the Lord said it is possible to move mountains (cf. Matt 21:21); upon it, according to St Paul (cf. Col 1:23), the other virtues are founded. For this reason the enemy does everything he can to disrupt our state of stillness and make us fall into temptation. And if he finds us in some way lacking in faith, wholly or partially trusting in our own strength and judgment, he takes advantage of this to overcome us and to take us captive, pitiful as we are.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 28056-68)

Faith is surrendering of one’s self to God and allowing God to be Lord, rather than making ourselves  God.  Fr. Meletios Webber offers us an idea from scripture to help  us visualize what it is to surrender to God and to trust in Him rather than to rely on our own will:

“One of the most beautiful encounters in the Gospels takes place between Jesus and Peter on the occasion when Jesus walks on the water.  Peter, sitting in the boat, shouts out into the darkness: ‘”Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.”  So He said, “Come.” And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus.  But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried  out, saying, “Lord, save me!”  And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him’ (Matthew 14:28-31).

Peter relies on Jesus when he initially climbs out of the boat, and again when Jesus catches him at the end of the story.  It is only in the middle, when he realizes what he is goind, that he relies on his own abilities, and starts to sink.

Here we see the Apostle Peter doing Step Two.”  

[Step Two: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”]   (STEPS OF TRANSFORMATION: AN ORTHODOX PRIEST EXPLORES THE TWELVE STEPS, p 124).

Addictions whether to alcohol, drugs, pornography, food or shopping, all work in a similar fashion:  they cause certain chemicals to be released in the brain that have a positive effect on our thinking, how we feel, and on our emotional life.  It is why we crave the things to which we are addicted and why temptations are not repulsive to us but rather attract us and seduce us.   When we become addicted to anything, we also surrender our free will to the addiction and become enslaved to its effects on our bodies.  St. Paul resounds with the claim:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything.”  (1 Corinthians 6:12)

The process of achieving sanity, of becoming more fully human, of being able to exercise free will over desire, is more work for some of us than others.  Lent is always a time to recognize these demons of desire in our lives, and to set ourselves on a path of freedom from being enslaved to them.  Confession can be part of our recovery from enslavement to our addictions.  Confession is not just dealing with commandments that we break, but even more with spiritually unhealthy behaviors that harm our relationships with God, our families and with creation itself.

A Prophecy of God Walking on Water

We read in Matthew 14:22-34 the Gospel Lesson of Jesus and then Peter walking on the water in the midst of a storm.  Christ saves the sinking Peter whose faith seems to falter in the midst of this miracle.   St. Matthew presents the story this way:

Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking 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 for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.

 St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) in his sermon notes on The  Book of Job sees a prophecy in Job pertaining to Christ walking on water.  Chrysostom’s text of Job 9:8 says that God “trampled on the sea as on a floor.”   St. John notes this a “kind of prophecy” which seems to indicate Chrysostom believed the words were never fulfilled except by Christ walking on the water.   However, because the comments we have from Chrysostom are his sermon notes, we don’t know for sure to what he was thinking when he identified the text in Job as a kind of prophecy.  It seems likely that Chrysostom was thinking about Jesus walks on water.   For certainly in this Gospel lesson we encounter God incarnate in Christ trampling on the seas as on a floor.

The biblical commentators from the Patristic era were always looking for references to Christ in the Old Testament – whether prophecies, typologies or events which prefigured Him.   Chrysostom ever attentive to details apparently thought a reference in Job to God trampling on the sea to have been fulfill-led only in Christ’s walking on the water.  The Orthodox Study Bible also notes that St. Cyril (it doesn’t identify which Cyril) thought that it was Christ walking on water which fulfilled this prophecy.  Apparently a commonly held idea in antiquity.

Walking on Water: Keeping Your Eyes on Christ

In the Gospel according to St. Matthew (14:22-34) we read the account of Jesus walking on water and St. Peter attempting to walk on water:

Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking 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 for fear.  But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.

Fr. Lev Gillet comments on the Gospel Lesson: 

“Peter walks on water. As long as he looks at Jesus, as long as he goes towards Him, he is able to walk on the waves of  the lake. But when he looks about him, when he notices that the wind is strong, he is struck with fear. He begins to sink. Jesus has to stretch forth His hand to save him. If Peter had paid no attention to the waves and wind, if he had concentrated his gaze on Jesus alone, he would not have found himself in danger. His faith would not have been shaken. In this you have also the cause of my fall. If I were capable of looking at Jesus along, if I did not give way to consideration of danger or temptation, begin a kind of dialogue with them, I too would be able to walk on the water. All my faults originate by a fading or disappearance of the Saviors image.” (A Monk of the Eastern Church, Jesus: A Dialogue with the Savior, pg. 33)

The story of Peter’s failed attempt to walk on water brings to mind a couple of other salient points.   In John 21:7, the disciples are out fishing one day after the resurrection of Christ.  Christ while standing on the shoreline calls to them in their boat and directs them where to lower their nets for a spectacular catch of fish.  As soon as the disciples realize it is the Lord Jesus calling to them from the shore, Peter “sprang into the sea.”  Don’t know if this was typical of his behavior, but it is reminiscent of his walking out onto the stormy sea to get to Christ.  In the John Gospel lesson it would appear that Peter was not afraid of the water and apparently could swim and so swam ashore.  So his stepping out of the boat in Matthew 14 onto the sea might not be out of character for him.  He apparently knew how to swim.  But Peter seems to lose everything in that moment, not just his faith but even knowing how to swim for immediately he calls out to Jesus to save him.  It was a lesson for St. Peter in learning about salvation:  a drowning man is not interested in a theoretical discussion of how he might be saved, he needs to be rescued immediately.  But, he must recognize the desperateness of his situation:  his need for immediate salvation or otherwise he will just continue doing what he was doing.    Peter could swim, but he realized immediately he was in trouble and in need of being saved, something he could not do for himself.  He saw that it was Christ alone who could reach out to him and prevent his drowning.

I cannot resist adding something which I have thought about the scene of the sinking Peter.  Peter’s Jewish name was Simon, but Jesus called him Peter which in Greek means ‘rock.’   I’ve wondered whether the disciples also saw the humor in the situation of Peter asking to walk on water and the disciples later pointing out to him – and you sank just like a rock.

Sinking in the Sea of Life

Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking 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 for fear.  But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.      (Matt. 14:22-34)

While walking on water is neither a daily activity for Christians, nor did Jesus ever promise it would be, we still can draw lessons from the story for our daily lives.  One of the hymns from the Orthodox funeral service speaks about the “sea of life surging with the storm of temptations.”   There are many storms, besides temptations which we face and find ourselves in need of God’s comfort and presence.

“Some kind of disturbance comes…or there is some other kind of difficulty, and it produces anxiety in our hearts. Instead of keeping our eyes on the Lord like the Apostle Peter, we pay attention to the turmoil around us and we start to sink into depression and anxiety and fear of what might happen. I’m going to sink under all this weight of anxiety and I’m going to drown under the weight of everything! We take our eyes off the Lord and forget what we are doing and forget Who He is to us and who we are to Him. The Lord, being merciful, usually will send someone to remind us that we should call to Him (because we are usually not as swift as the Apostle Peter to say quickly Lord save me!) When we get the reminder, then we might remember to call to Him and trust Him to pull us out of the trouble, whatever it is.”   (Bishop Seraphim,  From the Bishop’s Desk, pg. 22)