In today’s Gospel reading, the apostles are all in a boat a few miles from shore. Jesus stays behind to comfort a few more people, then goes to pray, then walks on the lake to the boat, where the apostles realize that it’s Him. Peter says ‘Lord, if it’s really you, command me to walk on the water’. Jesus commands him, and Peter eagerly gets out of the boat and walks, but when he sees what he’s doing, he loses faith and begins to sink. Jesus helps him, and chides him. This is sort of like the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke is training in the swamp when his boat sinks. Yoda tells him to will it out, but because of his doubt he cannot. Yoda does it easily.
From the earliest centuries a ship or a boat has been a significant symbol of the Church. Many Medieval Cathedrals were designed as replicas of a ship with Christ at the helm. In our time, the World Council of Churches has chosen a ship with the cross of Christ as its mast as its logo to represent the universality of the Church.
This use of the boat as a symbol for the Church appears again in today’s Gospel story which relates the fear and panic experienced by the disciples in the face of a storm at sea.
Following the instructions of Jesus, the disciples row merrily along across Lake Gennesaret. They expect the sea to remain calm forever. Such was not the case and soon a bad storm began to toss their boat. This scene confronts us with a hard-to-believe but undeniable truth: In the face of strong head winds, these hand picked leaders of the Church were panic-struck.
In the terror of disaster the disciples cry out and Jesus hastens to reassure them: ‘ Get hold of yourselves! It is I. Do not be afraid. ‘
The boat symbolizes the Church, tossed about amid the waves of the centuries. In the panic of her darkest hour the Lord Jesus assures the Church of his quiet presence. ‘ Do not be afraid, I am Yahweh, the God who comes to save you. ‘ These soothing words are a sneak preview of the climactic and final verse of Matthew’s Gospel: ‘ I am with you always, until the end of the world! ‘ (Mt 28:20).
The seed of twenty tempestuous centuries of Church history is encapsulated in this Gospel passage. The agony of the crucifixion, the violent persecution of the early Church by the Roman authorities, the laxity of Catholics which led to the rise of monasticism in the fifth century, the intolerance of the Inquisition, the scandal of the Protestant Revolt — the isolated frames of the flickering film of history flash before our eyes.
In the wake of Vatican II, little has changed about this old story of disciples facing a storm. There remain disciples who are ready and willing to turn back on a moments notice. Threatened by the storm of aggiornamento, they long for retournello. As Church we cannot stem the tides of change but we can learn to navigate them safely. If we are tempted to fear for the bark of Peter, listen to the voice of Christ. ‘ Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come follow me, and I will give you rest. ‘
In addition to the boat in a storm as a symbol for the Church, this story also speaks to us as individuals. Jesus teaches a parallel personal message through impetuous Peter’s attempt to walk on water.
At Jesus’ invitation Peter gets out of the boat and begins to walk. Suddenly, he is overcome by the strength of the wind; he becomes frightened; and immediately he begins to sink. Peter cries out, ‘ Lord save me! ‘ Slowly Jesus reaches out his hand to lift him up.
‘ How little faith you have! ‘ Jesus says to Peter, ‘ You panic too quickly in the face of adversity. You trust me in little things but when the going gets tough you’re afraid I will let you down. You trusted me enough to take the first steps. Why can you not believe that I will stick by you until the end? ‘
The Lord continually invites us to get out of the boat. Deal with your hang-ups. Straighten out your troublesome relationships. Handle that tough situation. Be open to God’s will for your job or career. Ask God what he wants you to do. And go for it!
In the early days of sailing, a boy was on his first training voyage. One day he was assigned to climb the mast. Halfway up, he made the mistake of looking down. He became dizzy and was in grave danger of falling. An old sailor called out to him, ‘ Look up at the sky, boy! Look at the sky! ‘ The boy followed the instructions and resumed his climb safely. Peter made the same mistake the boy did. He took his eyes off his goal. He looked down into the wind-whipped sea and began to sink. When we face a difficult decision or situation, where do we look? Do we face a storm with our eyes cast down on the waves or do we look up to the Lord? Has he not stood by us this far? We have faith in him to a point. He encourages us to come farther; take another step.
‘ Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come, follow me! ‘ Whether we identify with the boat of the Church in a storm or on a personal level with Peter, the frightened disciple, the message is the same: ‘ Get hold of yourselves! It is I, the Lord. Do not be afraid. What little faith you have! I am with you always. ‘