Some people get seasick rather easily. Others such as myself really enjoy travelling by boat, even when the waves are rather choppy and the deck heaves from side to side. However, even the most hardened sailor might think twice about sailing on a rough sea in a fragile little boat. We tend not to think of the Sea of Galilee as being subject to such storms yet, I assure you, the microclimate in that place often leads to such rough weather. The gospel account of Christ walking across to the disciple’s boat and then Saint Peter’s hesitant first steps onto the waves can be interpreted literally as the divine Logos having ultimate control over the creation that he made. We might then go on to explore how such an amazing miracle can strengthen the faith of believers and all this would be well and good. However, there is profit in digging deeper into this story and considering how it might help us to weather the storms of life. We need good spiritual counsel on how the sometimes restless, even frightening, waves of our soul in our innermost life might be calmed by Christ and our faith strengthened by His overcoming of our fears.
Firstly we might consider why God allows us to experience these dangerous situations if His nature and actions are those of perfect unconditional love. We have a difficulty here because our own society and culture have become increasingly risk averse. Modern parents worry if their children start climbing trees or going out on their own or even with friends. In consequence many children are not learning the nature of risk and when and how to avoid danger. Furthermore they are missing out hugely on a stimulating and testing childhood which is so necessary for adult growth and development. It is exactly the same with our spiritual maturation as believers being taught by our heavenly Father, protected by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit when we necessarily have to experience many dangers, trials, conflicts and temptations. Without learning to exercise our faith in such situations our spiritual life will be impoverished and as persons we shall remain weak and ill-equipped to face the challenges of life. This is what John Chrysostom says of the matter in relation to the gospel that we have just heard:
For this the Lord ever does; when He is to rescue from any evil, He brings in things terrible and difficult. For since it is impossible that our temptation should continue a long time, when the warfare of the righteous is to be finished, then He increases their conflicts, desiring to make greater gain of them; which He did also in Abraham, making his hot conflict his trial of the loss of his son.
Yes, God even increases the conflict toward the end of the trial to get those spiritual muscles of faith honed and toned, strong and capable. However distressing the experience we should welcome and give thanks for such opportunities to test ourselves and trust in God utterly, which is the hallmark of true faith. This St Peter knew full well and so in that same faith he asked that Christ might bid him to come to him across the waves. Again let us listen to St John Chrysostom on this little word “bid.”
See how great his warmth, how great his faith. He said not, Pray and entreat for me; but Bid me; he believes not only that Christ can Himself walk on the sea, but that He can lead others also thereon ; also he wishes to come to Him speedily, and this, so great a thing, he asks not from ostentation, but from love. For he said not, Bid me walk upon the waters, but, Bid me come to you. And it seems that having shown in the first miracle that He has power over the sea, He now leads them to a more powerful sign; He said to him, Come. And Peter, going forth of the boat, walked on the sea, that he might go to Jesus.
We must learn that we are not stepping out of our comfort zone, the boat, blindly but with one person in view whose voice we hear and whose command we obey, even Christ Himself. Our Lord calls out to us with love and we come to him with love and that love casts out our fears. Moreover, we learn from St Peter that we must not look down in terror at the waves but rather keep our faces and our vision firmly fixed upon Him because it is to him, Christ, that we come.
God, however, is ever understanding and compassionate concerning our condition. He knows that we are learners in the spiritual life and that fear so often takes over, even when we know, or perhaps precisely when we know, that we are walking on water ourselves, for this does not as yet come naturally to us, something to be expected rather than something extraordinary. When, with St Peter, we begin to sink beneath the waves Christ holds out His hand that we might grasp it and be lifted with His strength and grace to safety. We will do better next time. We are confident to try again because we know that although our own faith is weak, He is strong and we can take that strength from Him. Again let us listen to St John Chrysostom:
He bade not the winds to cease, but stretched forth His hand and caught him, because his faith was required. For when our own means fail, then those which are of God stand. Then to show that not the strength of the tempest, but the smallness of his faith worked the danger, He said to him, O you of little faith, why did you doubt? which shows that not even the wind would have been able to hurt him, if his faith had been firm. But as the mother bears on her wings and brings back to the nest her chick which has left the nest before its time and has fallen, so did Christ.
There can be no doubt that God wants us to live fulfilling and rich lives but we are inclined to make these lives dull and flat through an undue concern for safety and self-preservation. We need to learn that fullness of life comes through sacrifice, through taking calculated risks, by exercising our faith, trusting God and walking out brightly into the distance, which although unclear to us, is perfectly clear to God. He will guide and teach us through these challenging circumstances and we shall learn what it is to be a people of faith imbued with divine power and not a craven human timidity. Let us then take courage and walk out of the boat with courage, resolution and undaunted faith toward Christ and then with Christ so that we shall become natural water walkers for the kingdom of God. Every storm in our lives will then submit to our word because that word is His Word in us.