Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 10, 2014
1 Kings 19:9.11-13, Ps 85, Rom 9:1-5, Mt 14:22-33
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
God’s shocking revelation
In today’s readings, we see that God’s love for us is often expressed in surprising and very challenging ways. In the first reading, we see how the Lord came to the Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb. For the previous 40 days and 40 nights, Elijah had been fleeing for his life across the desert, escaping from the murderous intentions of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, who had sworn an oath to see him executed. At the end of the journey, taking refuge in a cave from the brutal heat, Elijah complained to God. “I have been most zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.” He thought working for the Lord should have brought him blessings but instead it seemed like he had only encountered hardship and persecution. God told him, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by.” God was going to give him a manifestation of his presence to strengthen him. A ferocious storm came, something that would have been an obvious exhibition of God the Creator’s power over nature, but God wasn’t present in the tempest. Then there was an earthquake, perhaps an even more impressive display from the One who had created the foundations of the earth, but God wasn’t there either. Third, there was a big fire, which would have been a fitting sign of God’s presence a month and a half after God had shown his power by coming in a fire to consume Elijah’s drenched sacrifice in his showdown with the priests of Ba’al near Mount Carmel. But God didn’t reveal himself that way either. He came in a tiny whispering sound, like a gentle breeze flowing through the leaves of a tree.
God revealed himself to Elijah not in a huge spectacle, in a massive display of force as Elijah might have expected, but rather in a very quiet way, to show that he’s with us, passing by us, speaking to us through these ordinary, daily, humble occurrences rather than exclusively through extraordinary demonstrations of power and might. The lesson is that God doesn’t come always how we expect him to, when we expect him to. He comes as he wants and as he knows we need. We see this obviously in how he entered the world, being born not in a royal palace but in a poor stable, and in how he triumphed, not amid jubilant fanfare but among jeers dying ignominiously on the Cross. We see it, too, in how he helps the apostles grow in faith and trust in today’s Gospel. He gave them a startling crash course in Christian trust that is far more surprising, even jolting, than anything he did with the Prophet Elijah. What the Lord did with the apostles, and especially St. Peter, to help them confront and overcome their primal fears and transition from fear to faith helps us to see how he often deals with us in order lovingly to help us grow in faith and trust as we confront our fears of failure, abandonment, struggle, sickness, pain, the past, the future, death, the possibility of hell and anything and everything else, too. So let’s enter into the drama of the scene, the main elements of which are repeated in some way or another in the life of every disciple.
The apostles’ crash course in Christian trust
Since Jesus in last Sunday’s Gospel had had everyone sit down on the green grass, we know that it must have taken place between mid-March to mid-April in the Holy Land, because the grass begins to get sun-scorched by the end of April. At that time of year sunset happens in Galilee about 6 pm, which is the time the apostles got into the boat to begin the journey across the top of the Sea of Galilee for a 5-6 mile journey that should have taken a few hours. The storm began to rage, St. Matthew tells us, when they were in the middle of the Sea, so about an hour or two along their trek. Jesus came to them in the “fourth watch of the night” — the period stretching from 3-6 am — which meant that by that point, they had been in the boat 9-12 hours, battling a ferocious storm, fatigued, soaking wet and fearing for their lives. Jesus was placidly praying on the mountain as they were struggling for hours not to drown to death. Why did Jesus — who probably could hear them on the mountain and see them from a distance from his prayerful promontory — wait so long when his friends were in peril? It brings us back to the other time that they were afraid for their life on the Sea, when Jesus was asleep in the bow of the boat as they thought they were about to perish. In both cases, Jesus waited to act in order to increase their faith. Jesus was introducing them to a central truth of the spiritual life: that in order to be able to abandon ourselves to God, we must first feel what appears to be total abandonment by God. I want to repeat that sentence because it’s so counterintuitive and crucial for us to grasp: in order to be able to abandon ourselves to God, we must first feel what appears to be total abandonment by God. It’s only then, when all human means have been exhausted, when even God seems to be absent, that’s we’re able to make the supernatural leap of faith to believe in him and in his providential care and love even when we’re not sure humanly he’s there or that he cares.
One of the clearest illustrations of this truth happens in our prayer. When we finally make the commitment to serious prayer every day, like a half-hour meditation or a Eucharistic holy hour, the Lord normally begins to flood us with graces. We begin to love to pray. We feel strengthened and full of peace and joy. And that continues for a while. But eventually, out of love for us, God takes away all of the consolations and even the sense of his presence. We begin to feel nothing. We begin to wonder whether he’s really there and listening to us. This is all a grace to help us to make a transition of faith from coming to pray for the consolations of God to coming to pray for the God of consolations, from seeking God for the “spiritual chocolates” with which he delights and rewards us to seeking Him solely for the purpose of being with Him whom we know in faith is present even when we feel nothing. We really can’t take a quantum leap in the progression of faith God wants to give us in prayer unless we continue believing and praying even when we continue to believe in Him and make time for him when we feel in the midst of a dark cloud rather than the burst of light prayer was for us at the beginning.
The spiritual force greater than physical laws
Let’s return to the scene. After hours of struggling for their lives, Jesus comes walking along the white caps of the churning sea. Their first reaction was to think they were seeing a ghost — after all, no one had ever seen a man walk on water before, not to mention “surfing” waves without a surfboard. There was also a superstition that there were monsters at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee and likely that played into their alarm as well. But Jesus said to them across the howling winds, “Take courage! I am (here)! Do not be afraid!” Jesus used those words, “Ego eimi” in Greek, “I am,” which God spoke to Moses from the burning bush, that Jesus would use against to say before Abraham was, “I am.” They were an expression of divine accompaniment, words that could help assuage their fears and give them courage. We see the first fruit of that in Peter. “Lord, if it is you,” he said, “Bid me to come to you across the water.” He first refers to the walking “ghost” as “Lord,” but then he qualifies it by saying, “if it is you.” He was hovering between belief and unbelief. But at the word of Jesus, “Come!,” he did what he had precisely been trying to avoid or the previous 7-10 hours or more: he went overboard. The time fearing for his life made him that much more desirous of being with the Lord Jesus. He wanted to get to him as soon as he possibly could. The whole scene in some way summarizes the mystery of the Incarnation: as Jesus comes into the stormy seas of our world walking toward us and we’re all called to get up from where we are, to overcome our fears and insecurities, and head out to meet him. That’s what Peter did and what God wants us to do.
Being saved by Jesus
Let’s continue with the scene. Lifted up temporarily by faith, Peter’s density in a sense changed. He was lighter than water and capable of walking above it. But then something happened. St. Matthew tells us that Peter “took account of the winds.” He took his eyes off of Jesus. He began to focus on the human impossibility of what he and Jesus were both doing and then the negative buoyancy or downward force of gravity, corresponding to the downward glance of his heart, overwhelmed him. He began to sink in the waves. Though an expert on that sea and a good swimmer (as we see in John 21 when he jumped into the Sea of Galilee and swam to meet Risen Jesus on the shore), Peter began to fear for his life. The words from Psalm 69 began to take on new meaning: “Do not let me sink. Rescue me from … the watery depths. Do not let the floodwaters overwhelm me, nor the deep swallow me” (Ps 69). In response to Peter’s cry for help, the Lord reached out to save him. The real word is that he “gripped” him in his arms. The storm was still raging. The winds were blowing. The waves were swirling all around. The Sea was still 140 feet deep. But he was safe. Jesus had saved him in his grip of love.
It’s so important for all of us to have this experience of faith. We call Jesus Savior not out of piety or because it’s a nice title to give him. We call him Savior because he has in fact us from the depths of sin just like he saved Peter from the depth of water. It was crucial for Peter to have had this experience of fear and abandonment to appreciate even more the loving care of the Lord. Likewise for us it’s important sometimes for us to have been in very difficult circumstances for us to experience God’s saving interventions. There have been many times people have told me that they took God for granted until they got cancer and needed his help, until they were lost and needed to get back on right track, until they had hit rock bottom and recognized that the one Person whom they could still rely on was God. Even though none of those difficult experiences would be labeled good or fun, they turned out to be spiritual graces, just like the ferocious storm on the Galilean Sea. But the most important experience of us is for us to be saved from the spiritual suicide of drowning due inundation in the waves of sin. The future Pope Francis talked about this in a 2010 book length interview. “It’s one thing,” he said, “when people tell us a story about someone’s risking his life to save a boy drowning in the river. It’s something else when I’m the one drowning and someone gives his life to save me.” That’s what Christ did for us to save us from the eternal watery grave of the deluge of sin. That’s what we should celebrate every day of our life, just like someone whose life has been saved by a hero would never be able to forget it, not to mention thank him enough. Unfortunately, he said, “There are people to whom you tell the story who don’t see it, … who always have escape hatches from the situation of drowning and who therefore lack the experience of who they are. I believe that only we great sinners have this grace.” In order to know Jesus as Savior and who we are — as those he loved enough to save — we first need to grasp that Jesus has done more for us on Calvary than he did for Peter on the Sea of Galilee!
Peter’s spiritual schizophrenia
The words Jesus said to Peter as he gripped him are highly significant. “O you of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” The verb translated “to doubt” here really means in St. Matthew’s Greek “to be of two minds.” Peter was divided. Part of him believed, part of him doubted. Part of him trusted in Jesus, part of him attributed more power to the wind and the waves. But in order to live by faith one can’t really “half-trust” in God. That’s what this whole crash course of faith on the Sea of Galilee was meant to train Peter and the others to grasp. Peter would be of two minds elsewhere as well. He would confess Jesus to be the Messiah and Son of God but then would forbid him to suffer in order to fulfill his mission. He would swear during the Last Supper that he would never betray the Lord even if he should have to die for him, but then he would swear an oath denying him three times in the high priest’s courtyard. The Lord was trying to help him to become of one mind. That’s an important lesson equally for us to grasp, because many of us are temped to be “of two minds” in our living the faith as well. We hear Jesus’ words about storing up a treasure in heaven, about selling all we have to obtain the pearl of great price and we partially act on them, but we still hold on tightly with the other hand to our mammon as an insurance policy in case this “Christianity thing” turns out to be a crock. We hear Jesus’ words about the need to forgive others 70 x 7 times, about turning the other cheek, about praying for our persecutors and part of us knows that this is the path to peace, but the other part wants to strike back and knock the person’s whole set of teeth if he’s knocked out one of our baby teeth. We hear Jesus’ call to acknowledge him before others, to bring the Gospel to all creatures, including everyone we know, but on the other hand we hesitate to do so eaten alive by worries that doing so may get us labeled and teased and maybe even lead us to losing a friend or a job because of our fidelity. We come to Mass believing that it is truly Jesus who comes to meet us in the Holy Eucharist, but at the same time we can’t wait for the experience to be over as if this is just a religious duty rather than a thing of love and many of us, even though we’d sing “Happy Birthday” for a four year old we love won’t sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” for the Holy Lord we claim to love before he comes on the altar.
Peter’s experience on the Sea, as difficult as it was, helped him to get over his spiritual schizophrenia. The Lord allows us to experience various storms in order for us to get over our own and convert to him with our whole mind — and soul, heart and strength as well.
The fruit of having been saved
The last part of this scene takes place when Jesus — still gripping and carrying the grown man Peter (think about that: Jesus’ gripping a grown Peter as if we were a small child and carrying him across the waves — enters the boat. It’s only then that the storm dies down, when Peter and Jesus are back in the boat, Peter’s boat, which has always symbolized the Church. We learn a valuable lesson: often storms die down only when we return to the Church — and it’s to the Church that Jesus gripping us wants to lead us. The Church is a life raft founded by Jesus. When Peter returned to the boat, he and the other apostles, St. Matthew tells us, fell down and worshipped Jesus and called him not just the Messiah but “The Son of God.” The culmination of the whole experience not only led them to faith as a cold belief in a set of truths, not to faith in Jesus as someone having power over the wind and the waves, but to an act of worship, which is a combination of love and faith-in-action. Likewise Jesus seeks to grip us and bring us to Church. When we recognize all that he’s done for us, we, like the first apostles, can’t help but fall down to adore him.
Just like with the apostles, Jesus has created us not to drown in fears and anxieties, but to live by faith, to immerse ourselves in the depths of his love, to adore him on land and on sea, to be strengthened by him and to know that we’ve got nothing to fear because he is with us, even if we’re in the midst of ferocious storms.
The same Lord Jesus who walked on water to save and strengthen the faith of his beloved apostles comes to meet us here at Mass. He wants us not to stay where we are in the pews of the nave (a word that comes from the Latin navis, for boat) but jump overboard with trust to go meet him. Like those in the boat, we here drop to our knees and adore Him as the Son of God, asking for the grace to keep our eyes always on him, begging him for his help not to be of two minds but of one mind and heart with him, and imploring his assistance to remember that no matter what storms we’re in now or will be in later, that he’s with us, seeking to grip and save us, and help us grow in faithful union with him.
What happens here is greater than what Jesus did on the Sea of Galilee
Today at this Mass, we, too, behold Jesus not looking like a “ghost” but under the humble appearances of bread and wine. We approach the Lamb of God, who, no matter how many times we have taken our eyes off of him, has never taken his eyes off of us, who constantly looks upon us with love. As he’s lifted heavenward after the Consecration, he says to each of us, “Be not afraid! It is I! Be strong!” With the apostles in the boat, we bow down before him in gratitude and say in prayerful unison: “Truly, you, Jesus, are the Son of God!” Save us!” And he seeks to save us not just from the outside. He grips us from the inside as we receive him in Holy Communion so that his courage may fortify us from within to overcome all our fears, both primal and personal, and hop overboard with him to go in search of others who are trying to face the storms of without him.
God tells us today not to go outside and stand on a mountain for the Lord to pass by, but to stay inside for the same Lord not just to pass but to enter. And as he speaks to us he does so not in the gentle whisper of a soft breeze rustling through leaves, but in the hushed words of consecration, saying, “This is my body given for you!,” a manifestation far greater than hurricanes, earthquakes and forest fires.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
1 KGS 19:9A, 11-13A
Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
Then the LORD said to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.
PS 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14
I will hear what God proclaims;
the LORD — for he proclaims peace.
Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him,
glory dwelling in our land.
R/ Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.
R/ Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
The LORD himself will give his benefits;
our land shall yield its increase.
Justice shall walk before him,
and prepare the way of his steps.
R/ Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
Brothers and sisters:
I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie;
my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness
that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ
for the sake of my own people,
my kindred according to the flesh.
They are Israelites;
theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants,
the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;
theirs the patriarchs, and from them,
according to the flesh, is the Christ,
who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
and precede him to the other side,
while he dismissed the crowds.
After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
When it was evening he was there alone.
Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore,
was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.
During the fourth watch of the night,
he came toward them walking on the sea.
When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.
“It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.
At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter said to him in reply,
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
He said, “Come.”
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.
But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened;
and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter,
and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
After they got into the boat, the wind died down.
Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying,
“Truly, you are the Son of God.”