Walking on the Water with Jesus, Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (A), August 7, 2005

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 7, 2005
1Kings 19:9,11-13; Rom 9:1-5; Mt 14:22-33

1) 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, who wants stretch out his hand to help us.

2) First, when we keep our eyes on Jesus, we can do amazing things. 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, in the fourth watch of the night (in other words, about 2:30 in the morning), soaking wet and after having rowed for hours, Jesus came walking on the water. They were already fearing for their lives; when Jesus came toward them walking on the water, their first response was that he was a ghost, a figure of death, rather than a Savior and bringer of life. Jesus said in response, however, “Be strong. It is I. Don’t be afraid!” After hearing those words cutting across the fierce winds, 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.” He wasn’t interested so much in the extraordinary event, in having Jesus’ power over nature; he just wanted to come as quickly as possible to the Lord. And he had faith enough to ask to do it, and to risk everything. The ferocity of the storm up to that point had made him fear for his life and he and the others had been rowing with abandon for hours to prevent their little boat from capsizing and sending them overboard. Yet he loved the Lord so much that he would take that risk of faith and hop overboard. He stepped out of the boat and by Jesus’ power didn’t sink as he headed toward the object of his desire, Jesus.

3) For us, too, all things are possible when we keep our eyes fixed on the Lord in faith. It seems that Jesus was asking the impossible when he told Peter to “come,” but Jesus never gives a command without giving us the ability to fulfill it. And through prayer, he has given us the ability to seek God’s help to do amazing things. Jesus said — and he meant — that whatever we ask the Father for in faith, he will grant us (Mt 21:22; Mk 11:24; Jn 11:22; Jn 14:13; Jn 15:7; Jn 15:16). 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 (Mt 17:20). 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. 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. The Lord wants to do the same with us. He knows that many of us are afraid because of personal or familial or other types of crises that are weighing on us. He knows that very often we feel we’re fatigued because we’ve been “rowing” for weeks or months and still seem to be in great danger of capsizing. If we keep our eyes on the constantly coming waves of worries, we, like the apostles in the boat, know that eventually they’ll overcome us. But Jesus wants us to learn from Peter’s example that if we keep our eyes on him, if we ask for the grace to come to him, he’ll give us that grace, even when it seems impossible. Today, in the presence of the same God here in this Church, we can ask Him 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 to give us the grace to overcome that obstacle so that we might come to him.

4) 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, by Jesus’ power, was actually walking on the waves, but even amidst that great confirmation of faith, his faith began to waver. St. Matthew tells us he “took account of the winds” — in other words, he took his eyes off of Jesus and began to worry again — and then started to sink into the life-threatening waters. 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. St. Philip Neri, a great 16th century apostle of Rome, used to greet the Lord every day in his morning offering: “Lord, it’s Philip, please help me lest I betray you again!” So many other saints have made famous the saying, “But for the grace of God go I!” All of them knew that, were it not for the grace of God in helping them to keep their eyes fixed on Christ amid the storms of their personal lives, they’d be capable of committing almost every sin.

5) 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, there is a sculpture of Peter’s receiving the keys of the kingdom of heaven from Christ, to symbolize the Pope’s divine mission and institution (cf. Mt 16:16-20). But over the inner side of the same door, through which every pilgrim walk to exit the basilica, there is a mosaic of this gospel, at the moment when Peter is sinking below the waters and Jesus is coming over to him. Why is this place there? Because the Church wanted to remind every pilgrim leaving the Basilica, that even though the Pope speaks in Christ’s name, even though he has a divine mission and countless graces from God to help him fulfill it, he’s a human being — just like the first pope! — and if he takes his eyes off of the Lord and begins to take their faith for granted, he could fall to great depths. And when that mosaic was being finished 400 years ago, Christians were well aware that many popes had taken their eyes off of Christ and had sinned very badly. 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. What is valid for Peter and his successor is valid for each of us as well. If we take our eyes off of the Lord, we can and will fall. I presume each of us is aware in our own lives of the times when we have been distracted by various winds, taken our focus off of Jesus, and sunk. Some of us may be treading that very dangerous water right now. The question is what we are to do about it.

6) That brings to the third lesson we learn from the Gospel. St. Peter, as soon as he had fallen, as soon as he had recognized that he had taken his eyes off of the Lord, immediately cried out, “Lord, save me.” And Jesus at once put out his hand and held him. He lifted him up, brought him back into the boat, and when both had entered, the wind died down.

a. The first thing we see is that 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. Jesus will stretch out his hand to save us. 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 the new parochial administrator of St. Anthony’s is that when people sin, they don’t come to receive God’s mercy. Some put it off for years. A friend of mine who’s a recently-ordained priest in the Midwest, told me that his pastor asked him what were his first impressions of his new parish. My friend, who has a great sense of humor, told the pastor that it’s the greatest Catholic parish he’s ever seen. The pastor was surprised at such an endorsement and asked him, “Why do you say that?” My friend replied, “Because after having been here for six weeks, I’ve become convinced that no one ever sins here!” — in other words, no one was ever coming to confession. My friend asked me what my impressions were of St. Anthony’s in that regard. And I told him, on the basis of the confessions I’ve heard, that it seems that those who speak Portuguese must sin much more than those who speak English, because I hear five times as many confessions in Portuguese as I do in English. Why that is, maybe you can tell me.

b. The second lesson we learn is what forgiveness is all about. Jesus lifted Peter up and they got into the boat together and then the ferocious storm died down. When Jesus stretches out his hand to save us through the hand of his priests, he brings about a reconciliation not only with himself but with his Church. Peter’s boat, his barque, has always been considered an image of the Church, and reconciliation with Christ has always meant reconciliation with his body. This boat, despite the storms that it has encountered over the last 2000 years, has never capsized. This is the only boat that we can be sure of will reach its eternal port, because Jesus promised he’d guide it there. Therefore,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. And it is in the boat of the Church with Jesus that we experience the peace, the calm, that Jesus died to give us.

7) 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 have taken our eyes off of him, has never takenhis eyes off of us. He constantly looks upon us with Love. We will see him today when I lift him heavenward during this Eucharist. He’ll tell us again, “Be not afraid! It is I! Be strong!” But he will do much more than that. He’ll allow us to 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!”