Walking on Water

I love the readings for this week. The Gospel reading is one of those stories that even unbelievers are familiar with – Jesus walking on the water. It has become a cultural reference, and the phrase “he walks on water” has come to have an immediately identifiable meaning. The Gospel story, for its part, is taken as evidence of (or at least a claim for) the Divinity of Christ.

But, interestingly, in this Matthean version, unlike the parallel in Mark, Peter also walks on water, if only briefly. This suggests some magnificent things about the Church, much like some of the other miracle stories: about how the Church is invited to participate in the transformative power that God reveals in Christ. But the wind caused Peter to become frightened.

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
1Kgs 19.9a,11-13; Rom 9.1-5; Mt 14.22-33

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!”
Matthew 14:29-30 (NAB)

The wind (Gk anemos) is never something good to encounter in the New Testament (the “roaring like a wind” at Pentecost is a different word in the Greek). Whether frightening the disciples at different times on the lake (c.f Mt 8.23-27), driving Paul and his captors toward shipwreck (c.f. Acts 27.14ff), representing the dangers of clever heresy in every wind of doctrine (Eph 4.14, c.f. the reference to John the Baptist not being a reed shaken by the wind in Lk 7.24), or acting as the force that works to topple the houses built on the two foundations of rock and sand (Mt 7.24-27), the wind seems to encompass all those forces in life that press against us in so many directions, and would divert us from our goals – even our walk toward the Lord.

The thing that most fascinates me these days about this story is that Matthew, but not Mark, includes the subtext of Peter also walking on the water. This episode directly follows the miracle of the disciples feeding a “great throng” (Mt 14.14), including 5,000 men, with 5 loaves and 2 fish (Mt 14.15-21, Mk 6.35-44).

As I said, Mark doesn’t mention Peter’s escapade on the sea, and his ending of the pericope seems, at least on the surface, very different from Matthew’s. In Matthew: Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” whereas in Mark: They were (completely) astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened. (Mk 6.51b-52)

This appears contradictory, as if one writer is saying that the disciples really “got it,” while the other writer is saying that they really didn’t. But I think what Mark is saying in his ending is basically the same thing Matthew says in his Peter subtext.

The disciples were not prepared to accept that the power of God is intended to be manifest in the disciples themselves, as lowly and plain and ordinary as they were (and are). We see a similar truth expressed in the Elijah reading: God doesn’t come to the world in the earthquake (or in the wind), He comes in the humble, the lowly, the ordinary, the still small voice. Even in the bread and wine.

In the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus blessed the food and gave it to the disciples, but it was up to them to step out and hand it out to thousands of people – and this happened upon their return from their mission of preaching and healing (Mk 6.7-13). Even so, they would shortly thereafter be perplexed as to how they could get enough food to feed a smaller crowd, when they had even more loaves and fish! (Mt 15.32-39) Likewise, Peter stepped out of the boat and walked toward Jesus, doing something no other sinner had ever done or has done since. But the wind confounded him.

Peter and the disciples had no idea at this point how much Jesus had in store for them – for they themselves to be a blessing for the people. First, they had to learn to ignore the wind, and allow God to be manifest to them, and through them – in the humble and the ordinary.

We live this story still today, and He is with us in the humble and ordinary. It’s not that we couldn’t manifest the very power of God on earth if we were up for it, but we too often become frightened in the wind – even when He bids us “come.”

If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.