WALKING ON WATER
I think most of us would be happy to describe our lives as they unfold over weeks, months, and years as a journey. From the day we are born—though we can’t remember anything of that—we are being shaped by all the experiences that come our way, some happy, some painful; sometimes with a strong sense of purpose and direction, sometimes feeling we are floundering around, not getting anywhere in particular.
Those of us who have the privilege of being believers know that our journey through life has a beginning and an end beyond what we can presently see and feel. At the Last Supper, on the night before he died, Jesus made a magnificent statement to his disciples:
I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father” (John 16:28).
Though Jesus said that about himself, there is a sense in which it is true of every human life seen from the perspective of faith. Each one of us has come from God and each one of us is going to God. Pope Francis, citing his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, put it this way:
We were conceived in the heart of God and for this reason ‘each one of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary’ (Laudato Sí 65).
As people of faith our lives may not seem all that different from the lives of others who do not share our beliefs. But what we are trying to do as a community of believers, when we come together for Mass each Sunday, is keep in mind that deeper story of our life that has a beginning and an end—though it is hardly an end but rather a new beginning of life—in God.
We are trying to deepen the sense that accompanying our journey through life is a journey of faith, which is not something quite separate from our journey of life but rather its deepest meaning.
These two journeys—our life journey and our faith journey—are in dialogue and interaction with each other throughout our lives. When we are young, we may take what we are taught about our faith in a very accepting and simple way—even though there are many aspects that we may not understand. As our life journey proceeds, especially as we enter that questioning stage of adolescence and young adulthood, our understanding of the faith will have to grow if we are not to slough it off as we discard old clothes when we grow out of them—through age or putting on more weight!
Wider experience of life, especially painful experiences—loss, sudden death of family members and friends—will severely test our faith in the power and goodness of God, and sometimes seem to blow it out of the water entirely.
We may give up on God. What we do know is that God never gives up on us. And God takes a long range view of our lives and is patient with our failures and sins far beyond anything we can hope or imagine.
I think we can see Peter’s walking on the water as described in the Gospel today as something like the journey of faith that we all have to make. I’ve never quite made up my mind on what it was that prompted Peter to want to leave the safety of the boat and walk on water towards Jesus. Clearly, there was a bit of bravado as well as spontaneity in his character. I bet the other apostles said, “There he goes again!” But that might be being a bit unfair. Surely, it was also love and faith that made him want to join Jesus.
For a while Peter’s journey across the stormy water went well. But then he made a bad, near fatal, mistake. He took his eyes off Jesus and focused only on the wind and the waves, at which point he began to sink. When he cried out in panic and fear, “Lord, save me!”, Jesus put out his hand at once and held him.
Can we imagine what it was like for Peter to feel that strong hand of Jesus holding him up out of the water and bringing him back to the boat? And Jesus’ gentle chiding, “Man of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Our own journey of faith towards Jesus probably has many moments that are rather like the journey of Peter across the water: times when we feel the force of the wind and waves, and are tempted to concentrate on those—whatever shape they may take in our lives—rather than towards Jesus; times when our faith seems “little” and doubts swamp over us—sometimes big doubts, sometimes just little waves of doubt that niggle at us and crush our spirit.
Jesus is always there to put out his hand and catch us, as he caught Peter. That is surely one message we should draw from our Gospel today.
And, when Jesus and Peter come back to the boat, we’re told that all the apostles fell down and worshipped him, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God”. The whole experience had led them to know more deeply the divine presence in the human Jesus that they had come to know so well.
In the dialogue between our life journey and our journey of faith that goes on continually in our lives it is perhaps through the challenges and difficulties that we come to know God more clearly—not as someone remote and mysterious watching us from afar but more like what Peter experienced when he felt the strong, loving hand of Jesus lifting him up from the sea and walking with him back to the boat and a new sense of life.
The First Reading tells a similar—and wonderful—story about the prophet Elijah. But perhaps we should leave that for another day.
Brendan Byrne, SJ
8 August, 2020.