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 him,
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.”
To me, this Gospel reading is incredibly representative of the spiritual life. Really, when you think aboutit, most of our spiritual lives can be boiled down to a few phases: we encounter God, we commit to following God, we get scared or distracted, and then God saves us—then, we are so moved by his mercy that we encounter him again and the whole cycle repeats itself.
I just got home from the Diocesan Catholic Youth Conference in Dallas (woo hoo!). Last night, I realized that I was supposed to write for Father for Monday. I went over the Gospel reading so that I could pray about it. Many of you reading this blog may be involved in youth ministry or have teenagers or young adults of your own, so I want to reflect on this gospel from my own perspective as a teenager.
During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea. “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.”
Imagine this encounter with God from Peter’s perspective. Here he is, with the rest of the disciples getting tossed around in a violent storm in the very early morning hours while his teacher is MIA since last night. Then, he sees a man walking towards them, unmoved by the water or the wind. The man doesn’t immediately offer anything either, if you notice. He’s just content to chill in the middle of the Sea ofGalilee. Then, they cry out in fear and the man commands them: “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid??? Are you crazy?
Jesus loves to catch people off guard. Have you noticed? Think about St. Paul on the road to Emmaus, or Peter and the sons of Zebedee at the Transfiguration, or Mary at the Annunciation. Truly, God’s timing is a mystery. We will never be able to understand why God acts at the most seemingly inopportune and unexpected times. Not only is His timing surprising, but also the way He works—walking on water? Becoming incarnate of a poor virgin? Turning dazzling white on a mountaintop? More succinctly, God loves surprises. However, for humans, surprises are terrifying.
Now, imagine how surprising it is for teenagers to encounter God. A good portion of the teens who are involved in ministry in the Diocese of Dallas (and I would venture to say the entire country) were not born with a Bible in their hand and evangelical zeal in their heart. For a lot of us, the call to follow Christ camelater in our teenage years, when we realized that what the world had to offer us as young men and women was doing absolutely nothing to fulfill us. Personally, this surprise in my life has given me inexpressible joy… but has also terrified me like no other.
Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” It is very clear that Peter is afraid here. If you notice, Jesus did not ask him to walk on the water. No—that was entirely Peter’s idea. That was his own response to an encounter with God. This raises the question: how should we respond calmly and clearly respond to God when we encounter Him? Well, to be truthful, it appears that very few humans have mastered that. Think about St. Francis, who heard the call to rebuild the Church and then went out and built an actual, physical church. Or think about theactions of the early theologian Origen in response to Matthew 19:12 (draw your own conclusions). I remember one of my theology teachers told me the story of how a woman she knew gave away all of her winter coats after hearing the Gospel reading where Jesus commands us to sell our possessions. At the time, she lived in Ohio and it was mid-winter.
Young people are notorious for being questionable decision makers when it comes to day-to-day life. How then, do we respond to an encounter with the living God? We know we have to do something with ourentire lives in response—anything else seems inadequate. As a result, many of us become fearful and try to make a “game plan” as I like to call it: “here is where I am going to college, then I will do this job where I can serve God and still make enough money to be happy, and I will have eight children and have a perfect husband/wife.” Or: “I am going to be a priest/religious/missionary and nobody or nothing is going to stop me.” Or: “I am afraid that this life decision isn’t God’s will, but I am going to make it anyway because I am afraid of knowing otherwise.” When God pushes us out of our comfort zone, we force Him back in with us.It terrifies us to be out of control. “Doing His will” quickly turns into doing my will and sending God the memo later.
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!” Doing our will never works. Ever. If we live a life dictated by human-made decisions, we have to be prepared to face human-made consequences: bitterness, fear, pride, constant uncertainty, etc. We will sink, just like Peter did. However…
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Our sanctification comes from acknowledging that we are powerless before the Lord. As soon as Peter cries out, Jesus comes to save him. As young people, our pride leads us to try to figure out all the answers. We want God to fit in a box. Well, guess what? Our God walks on water and raises the dead—there is no box for Him. When we acknowledge, even out of desperation, that we are out of control of our lives, we will be saved and redirected by Him.
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.” When God saves us from ourselves, we begin to know Him for who He is—a Savior. God doesn’t stop any of us from following our own self-devised paths.He didn’t tell Peter, “Hey man, you really shouldn’t get out of that boat. You are just afraid of what is happening before you.” Sometimes, for those of us who are Type A personalities, we think it is impossible for our first instinct to be unwise. It takes time, grace, and good-old-fashioned humiliation for us to figure out that we are not entirely in control of our lives. But what a grace it is for us to be humiliated! Then, and only then, do we realize that our God surpasses the highest reach of our intellect and the most heroic act of our will. Then, we can say without a doubt that we have encountered a human being who is truly God.
Total surrender to the will of God is a very romantic idea on paper. But how do we do it, especially as young people? A speaker at the youth conference put it in the best terms I have ever heard. Many of us are looking for God to give us a “floodlight”, to give us all the answers and to never surprise us. But read Psalm 119: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” A lamp provides just enough light to see the next step ahead of you. There is no knowing what lies even a mile ahead, but yet there is enough light to stay on the path. That is all that matters.
“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”