Lessons from Jesus’ — and Peter’s — Walking on Water, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A), August 11, 2002

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 11, 2002
Kings 19:9-13; Ps 84; Rom 9:1-5; Mt 14:22-33

We learn three lessons from today’s Gospel:

a) When we keep our eyes on Jesus, all good things are possible;
b) When we take our eyes off of Jesus, all bad things are possible; and
c) Whenever we fall, we should follow St. Peter’s example in calling on the Lord for help, and the Lord will stretch out his hand to help us.

1) When we keep our eyes on Jesus, all things are possible. Peter and the other disciples were fearing for their lives on the sea of Galilee. They were fishermen, pros on that very sea, and they knew because of the nature of that storm, that they were in a lot of trouble. Yet, in the midst of the storm, after having rowed for hours, soaking wet, in the fourth watch of the night (in other words, about 2:30 in the morning), Jesus came walking on the water. At first, in their fear, they were even more frightened, thinking the Lord was a Ghost. Jesus said in response, however, “Be strong. It is I. Don’t be afraid!” Then Peter spoke up: Lord, if it is really you, bid me to come across to you on the water!” Notice what Peter did not say. “Lord, if it’s you, give me too the power to walk on the waves.” No, he wasn’t interested so much in the extraordinary event, in having Jesus’ power over nature — he just wanted to come as quickly to the Lord as possible. And he had faith enough to ask to do it, and to risk everything. Again, the ferocity of the storm made him fear for his life. The last thing he wanted to do was go overboard. And yet, he loved the Lord so much, that he would take that risk of faith. He stepped out of the boat and he didn’t sink and he headed toward the object of his desire, Jesus.

2) For us, too, all things are possible when we keep our eyes fixed on the Lord in faith. Jesus said — and he meant — that whatever we ask the Father for in faith, he will grant us. He said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we could say to a mountain, be uprooted and thrown into the sea, and it would move. Jesus promised this not because he wanted us to be magicians or open a landscaping business, but to tell us that he would give us anything we need to increase our faith. The great Sr. Briege McKenna, whom some of you might know, has been blessed by the Lord with a gift of healing. She has been God’s chosen instrument to give his healing to countless numbers of people over the past 25 years. But she says that every physical healing she is involved in has a purpose, to bring about a spiritual healing, to bring about a closer relationship between the one healed (and his or her loved ones) and Jesus. Just like Jesus gave Peter the ability to walk on water, not so that he could take short cuts to get from one part of the sea of Galilee to another, but so that he could come closer to Jesus. Today, in the presence of God here in this Church, we can ask God for the grace to keep our eyes on him at all times, to be attentive to his voice, whether it comes in extraordinary ways or in the simple breeze, as it did for the prophet Elijah in the cave on Mt. Carmel. And if there’s anything that is keeping us from Jesus, we can ask him in prayer to give us the grace to overcome that obstacle so that we might come to him.

3) The second lesson we learn from today’s Gospel is that when we take our eyes off of Jesus, almost anything bad is possible. St. Peter was actually walking on the waves, but then he “took account of the winds,” and took his eyes off of Jesus, and then began to sink. He began to sink into waves that he soon recognized seriously threatened his life. The same thing happens with any believer. When we take our eyes off of Jesus, there’s no limit to the depths to which we can sink. This is what countless saints have recognized throughout their lives. One said, clearly, echoing the sentiments of countless others: “But for the grace of God go I!” In other words, were it not for the grace of God, I’d be capable of doing horrible things, all of the seven capital sins and more.

4) This is depicted very well artistically in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Over the main entrance to the Basilica, through which every pilgrim must walk to enter the Basilica, we have a sculpture of Peter’s receiving the keys of the kingdom of heaven from Christ, to symbolize the Pope’s divine mission and institution. But on the inner side of the door, which every pilgrim must see as he or she leaves the basilica, is a mosaic of this gospel, at the moment when Peter is sinking below the waters and Jesus is coming over to him. Why? Because the Church wanted to remind every pilgrim leaving the Basilica, that even though the Popes speak in Christ’s name, even though they have a divine mission and countless graces from God to help them fulfill it, they’re human beings and if they take their eyes off of the Lord and begin to take their faith for granted, they could fall to great depths. And some did, having illegitimate children, becoming greedy, even allowing murders to take place. The Church wanted to have all pilgrims pray for the Pope, so that his faith might not fail, so that he could keep his eyes on the Lord. Well, what’s valid for Peter and his successors, is valid for each of us as well. If we take our eyes off of the Lord, we can fall. And, I presume, each of us is aware in our own lives of times we have taken our eyes off of the Lord and have fallen. What are we to do then?

5) The third lesson we learn from the Gospel is that of St. Peter, that as soon as he had fallen, as soon as he had recognized that he had taken his eyes off of the Lord, he immediately cried out, “Lord, save me.” And Jesus, we read, at once put out his hand and held him. Then he brought him back into the boat, and when both had gotten there, the wind died down. Peter had the faith to know that the Lord both could and would save him and cried out without hesitation. We should learn from Peter and do the same. Whenever we sin, by taking our eyes off of Jesus and falling in any number of ways, we too, without hesitation, should cry out to the Lord to save us from these sins. He will stretch out his hand and save us immediately if we come to him. Normally he does that through the hands of a priest. I applaud those people who come quickly to confession after having fallen, even if it requires coming every week. One of the most serious worries of priests today from the Pope on down to Fr. Jim and me is that when people sin, they don’t come to receive God’s mercy. Some put it off for years. A priest friend of mine in the midwest, recently ordained, told me that his pastor asked him, after he had been in the parish for a few weeks, what he thought of the parish. He said he had never been to a parish like that in his whole life. He almost couldn’t believe it, that no one ever sins in their parish! No one ever comes to confession! Of course, the point he was making was not that people don’t sin, but people never come to feel Jesus’ consoling hands outstretched to save them through his sacraments.

6) And we also learn from what happened next what forgiveness is all about. Jesus lifted Peter up and they got into the boat together and then the ferocious storm died down. Reconciliation happens both with Christ and with his Church. Peter’s boat, his barque, has always been considered an image of the Church. Reconciliation with Christ has always meant reconciliation with his body the Church. This boat, despite the storms that it has encountered over the last 2000 years, has never capsized, because Christ is in it and he has kept Peter and his successors in the boat, never allowing them to veer from him in issues of faith and morals. This is the only boat that we can be sure of will reach its eternal port, because Jesus promised he’d guide it there. What a great gift we have. And no matter how many times we fall out of the boat through our own choices, there’s always a spot back, and that’s where the Lord wants to lead us.

If we keep our eyes fixed on the Lord, all things are possible. Today at this Mass, we, too, behold the Lord, the Lamb of God, who no matter how many times we take our eyes off of him, never takes his eyes off of us, but constantly looks upon us with Love. We will see him today when I lift him heavenward during this Eucharist. What an unbelievable grace! But our Lord will do even more for us. We won’t just see him! We’ll actually take him inside of us and slowly, more-and-more, become him. Let us then, with the apostles in the boat, bow down before him in gratitude and say in prayerful unison: Truly, you, Jesus, are the Son of God! Save us!