Without doubt…. and it is explicit in the gospel today…. it is fear that hinders our walk with God. St. Peter is emboldened to get out of the boat, tossed about by the stormy wind, and walk across to Jesus. Yet he fears… and because he fears, he begins to sink. I speak here not of a holy fear of God which in truth is not fear as such but a humbling total respect for God born out of love, but of true anxiety, the crippling fear that makes us all sink and cut us off from God. Nonetheless, St. Peter does not sink beneath the waves because he cries out… even in the midst of his terror… “Lord save me!” The gospel records that Jesus immediately stretched out his hand and caught him. God invites us to walk on water but if we step out of the boat we have to exercise our faith and banish fear in doing that. It is Christ Himself who makes that possible. We will not get out of our boat… if you will our comfort zone… for anyone else. It is Christ who casts out our fear, the very fear that hinders our walk to and with Him. St. John speaks of this in his first letter.
“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:17-19)
Notice that the antidotes St. John offers us for fear are threefold: grace, boldness and love. Grace, because God first loved (and loves) us…. even before we loved (or love) Him. Boldness, because our true identity and character is to be found in Christ against whom death cannot contend. Love, because love casts out fear, since fear has to do with punishment and love may rebuke and chastise but He does not punish in a retributive sense. These three: grace, boldness and love are all to be found in Jesus Christ. What St. Peter discovered we must also discover and practise. We must keep our eyes fixed on Him, we must place our hands in His hands, our hearts and minds should be embedded in His heart and mind, our lives should be imbued with His and we must act for and in Him.
Since Christ is the God Who is Love, we have a remedy for fear, not just for our own fears but fear everywhere; but it must start here with us. St. Augustine said: “untie by love the knot you tied about yourself through fear.” That love is the love the God of love has for each one of us. We should have the confidence to allow Him, as the skilled Physician of the sick let Him, graciously and carefully to untie the knots and bonds in our lives which are of our own making through sin. Untied by grace we shall then live our lives without fear and with true freedom in love. Equipped with such freedom and love we shall indeed walk on water. We shall do this, however, not for our sakes but so that others might find the same freedom from fear and love and faith and grace and boldness as we have found.
Look around you at the world as it is in all its rawness and sweetness, its tragedy and beauty. It is a world that God has made in love but that men so often have unmade through fear. The most dangerous kind of fear that makes the whole world sink beneath the waves of chaos is the fear of “the other.” The “other” can be anybody who is “not like me.” The greater the fear the wider becomes the net of others who make me afraid. But there are so many “others” who are not like me at all. Sartre, the atheist, eloquently summed up this fearful cry of the damned. “Hell is other people.” The “being saved” should know better. Heaven is other people.
However, we cannot love our enemies, (which is the true measure of Heaven being other people) unless and until we defeat that which in other people leads us to fear and loathing. Orthodoxy teaches us that it is death itself… or rather, my death, not just any old death. Ungodliness makes us fear death and death itself then becomes fearful, full of fear. But many cannot deal with such terrors unless there is an enemy, an unacceptable person, group, nation or race, upon whom or which I can offload all my fear and loathing, all my hatred and disgust. This is the source of all evil and it is the language of punishment and its ultimate source is devil himself. So now we have unmasked the antagonist, the true enemy… not other people but the devil himself! He is the one who tries to pull us all down beneath the waves of his chaos and drown us.
It is Christ who lifts us clear of chaos and death in order to show us the truth that fear has no place in love. Love makes all men and women our brothers and sisters, even the hateful, the despised and the outcasts… perhaps especially these. The gospels are so crammed full of examples of this truth in Christ’s life and work it is surprising that the devil so easily blinds many Christians to its significance; yet there are hate-full Christians who use their piety to conceal their inner rottenness and death as whitewashed sepulchres… to use Christ’s evocative and powerful phrase. May this never be true of us!
So, what do we learn from today’s gospel about Christian living? There is a gospel truth here in two parts. First, the world can live without fear because Christ is risen from the dead. But that is not enough. There is a second part without which the first would remain unknown to most. We can walk on water with Christ, that is without fear, and only by so doing will the world learn through us that a life without fear and universal love is a practical, realisable hope in God. Everything that we are, everything that we say and everything that we do should be with unwet feet, that is, walking way above the waters of death and chaos, of fear and doubt. Fearless and loving, just and true, this is how we should acquit ourselves with others. They also need to walk on water toward Christ!