A Cycle – 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time 20
I invite you to read the two other accounts of Jesus walking on water one found in Mark’s gospel (Mk.6:45-52) and another in John’s gospel (Jn. 6:10-21). There are some very striking differences in the three stories which are important for us to consider along with this account recorded by Matthew. In fact, it is these kinds of differences which are used by critics of the scriptures as proof the scriptures cannot be the unerring word of God because they vary so much.
We who believe in the word of God as the unerring word of God should not be caught up in the differences for we know the scriptures are God’s revelation of himself and they contain for us a clear path to respond to God’s revelation. It would be easy for us today to focus on Peter’s response to the invitation to walk on water and how that invitation applies to us. I do not know about you but to accept the story demands great faith from us because we know physical laws cannot be suspended or changed, yet that night they were.
Is this an invitation to us to believe we can do the same? No, not really but it is an invitation to pay attention to the things Christ is revealing to us. To tell you the truth, annually I go to the lake and say to Jesus, I believe and then I take a step on the water. I have not yet to remain on top of the water but that does not prevent me from my annual attempt. I have come to realize that my doing this is not successful because Jesus has not invited me to take that step of faith. But I do it because I do believe it is possible and more recently, I stand there listening for that quiet whispering sound inviting me to see the power of God at work.
But I do not want to talk about Peter’s walk or the disciples lack of faith today. What I would like to do is to see how even with differences the three gospels have a common message for us and we need to hear that as much as we need to hear about Peter.
In all three accounts the disciples are sent by Jesus to the other side of the sea while he remains behind. They are in the boat alone, it is late in the night, the fourth watch, sometime between 3 am and 6 am. In all three stories there is a storm and they are struggling against the strong winds; they were frightened by the storm and Jesus comes to them walking on water. In the account by Mark and John Peter does not speak to Jesus and he does not leave the boat at the invitation of Jesus. In Mark’s gospel Jesus “intends to pass them by” but instead he responds to their cries for help. Jesus calms the storm winds and he gets into the boat with them. In John’s gospel as he gets into the boat, they reach the other shore.
Perhaps for us the key to the story is what happens just prior to this story and how that impacted the response of the disciples as they see Jesus walking on water.
In all three accounts of Jesus walking on water occur just after the multiplication of the loaves. On that day, the disciples were concerned the isolation of the place where Jesus was speaking. The disciples were concerned as the day went on that there was no shops or markets nearby for the people to purchase food. So, they strongly recommended Jesus dismiss the crowd. We know the disciples were challenged by Jesus to feed them themselves and we know they failed that test for they were looking at their own inability to feed thousands. They had not yet come to believe they could accomplish the impossible by tapping into the power of God as disciples. Yet, they were participants in the miracle by boldly following the instruction of Jesus to go among thousands of people with a few loaves and fish and feed them.
I believe there is a reason this story of Jesus walking on water follows the multiplication of loves for this event is a continuation of the challenge of Jesus to us and to the disciples to never let circumstances of life dictate the strength of our faith. In fact, the differences in the stories are not significant for there is a commonness within the three stories. In each of them the disciples are alone, but Jesus is near, and Jesus is aware of their struggles and fear. In fact, John, and Mark’s gospel state that fact. The statement by Mark that Jesus intended to pass them by is relevant for us because we often believe Jesus is not concerned with what we are going through. Yet he is very aware of all our thoughts and our fears and our inability to see beyond the circumstances causing us to struggle and lose faith.
There is another common message given to us in each of these stories. Jesus identifies himself to the disciples saying, “it is I.” This exactly how God identified himself to Moses when Moses spoke with God on the mountain as he said “I am.” God is telling us something significant through this story. It is a moment of revelation for each of us as it was for the disciples. It is also a moment of revelation about who we are as sons and daughters and who we are to become. The disciples in the gospels are astonished by the calming of the storm and Jesus walking on water. This is a significant part of the story for it is a vivid picture of our life with Jesus and us as disciples.
The story of Peter in Matthew is another variation of what can happen if we respond to the invitation of Jesus to do what we believe we cannot do. In fact, that is the real challenge of accepting the mantle of discipleship. Do we dare respond when the outcome seems to be beyond our abilities or of our belief structure? Are we too formed by what we believe is possible or what is not possible because we fail to see how God’s power is available to us? Are we willing to call ourselves Christians and at the same time we are not willing to become disciples called to do something we are uncomfortable doing?
In fact, Mark’s gospel tells us after Jesus calms the storm the disciples were astonished by his calming the storm. But he also tells us the disciples “…had not understood the incident of the loaves, on the contrary their hearts were hardened.” How can we be astonished at the things God does among us and still not understand we are called to do the same.
Consider this, the disciples failed to understand the multiplication of the loaves. That very night they struggled and were failing to overcome the waves buffeting the boat, they failed to recognize Jesus even as he told them not to be frightened. They remained frightened until the storm calmed, and Jesus was in the boat with them. Beyond all of this is an invitation to listen to Jesus inviting us to listen because his voice is drowned out by what surrounds us.