9th Sunday after Pentecost
A Reflection on Today’s Gospel
22 And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away. 23 And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone. 24 But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. 26 And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear. 27 But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. 28 And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. 29 And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. 31 And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? 32 And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased. 33 Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God. 34 And when they were gone over, they came into the land of Gennesaret.
In today’s Gospel, set immediately after the feeding of the 5000, there are a multitude of important lessons packed into a relatively short reading. It begins with Jesus sending his disciples away, while he goes up to the mountain to pray in solitude. St. John Chrysostom writes that Jesus does this “To teach us, that loneliness and retirement is good, when we are to pray to God.” And indeed we see in many occasions when Jesus goes to pray, he goes alone to a place of retreat, of silence and of peacefulness. The Golden Mouth tells us that this Gospel is “teaching us earnestly to seek such quietness in our prayers, as the time and place may confer. For the wilderness is the mother of quiet; it is a calm and a harbor, delivering us from all turmoils.” Compare this to the situation of the disciples, together but tossed about on the storms of the sea. The waves and the storm are like the constant temptations and troubles of the world which assault us every day as we wander through this fallen world. When we are separated from Christ, even in numbers, we are unable to safely navigate our way and are in constant peril of being overcome by the storm. St. John tells us that Christ sends them to sea without Him in order to create “a greater longing for Himself, and a continual remembrance of Him.” This same longing and remembrance of Christ must be in our hearts each day, if we are to overcome the temptations of the world.
Now in the midst of this storm, Christ comes to the disciples, walking on the water. The Gospel tells us he comes in the fourth watch, toward the end of the night. Blessed Theophylact tells us that he comes in the fourth watch to teach us not to ask for a swift solution to our misfortunes, but to bear them bravely. Now this is an important lesson. Too often we expect that God will come swiftly and lift all of our cares from us. And if he doesn’t we curse him or we let doubt come into our hearts. But God gives us what we need in His time, not on our worldly schedules. Patient endurance is a great Christian virtue. It requires that we tamp down the passions of pride and egoism; that we cast off anger and wait in faith and in obedience. These are not things that are valued by the world today, but they are God given gifts to the faithful. As James writes in his Epistle, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12. The tribulations of the world must never be allowed to shake our faith in our ever loving and compassionate Lord. Instead let us “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” (Romans 12:12), knowing that when Christ comes, the tempestuous seas will be calmed.
Even this is seen in the Gospel, as we read of Peter’s encounter with Christ as he comes to the disciples walking on the water. At first they think it is just a spirit, but Christ speaks to them assuring them, “Be not afraid.” Peter, the leader, says to Christ, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” Blessed Theophylact notes that in this request, Peter shows humility, and not pride, because he asks not to be commanded to walk on the water, as Christ does, but to be bidden to come unto Christ. And he does, walking on the water, overcoming nature itself by Christ’s command. But his focus on his Lord and Savior is disturbed by the rush of a great wind. Wind, which by itself is so less a peril than the mighty ocean, draws the chief apostle’s attention from Christ and back into the world, and straightway he begins to sink into the sea. The lesson here could scarcely be clearer to us. In fact, we might use the same language figuratively if we were to describe the harm that can befall a faithful Christian whose gaze is torn from Christ by the worries of the world. St. John Chrysostom writes, that this concern over the lesser things “is human nature; not seldom effecting great things, it exposes itself in the less; as Elias felt toward Jezebel, as Moses toward the Egyptian, as David toward Bathsheba. Even so then this man also; while their fear was yet at the height, he took courage to walk upon the water, but against the assault of the wind he was no longer able to stand; and this, being near Christ. So absolutely nothing doth it avail to be near Christ, not being near Him by faith.”
Yet still, our loving Savior, pulled Peter out of the sea and went up into the boat, calming the seas. And this should give us some hope, that in our weakness neither will Christ desert us. If the Chief of the Apostles can lose faith and still be saved, so too may we. In fact, Peter’s leadership of the 12 seems to be marked by constantly falling just short of what is expected of him. Yet Christ just as constantly reconciles him and redeems him. We must never lose sight of this. We all know people, who, having fallen into sin or gotten onto the wrong path, fall away, certain that they cannot be forgiven or reconciled. What pride! What arrogance! Do any of us have such a sin so great that it is greater than the Lord’s capacity for forgiveness?
Brothers and sisters, as we reflect on today’s Gospel in this afterfeast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, let is draw near to him in faith, knowing that our own failings never put us beyond the reach of his grasp. Let us cultivate in our hearts, the prayerful constant longing for Christ, knowing that by doing so, the tribulations of the world and the wiles of the enemy will not be able to turn our focus from Christ. And let us endure patiently the waiting, knowing a greater reward lies ahead for us all. Safe, here, in the ark of the Church, let us turn our gaze to Christ who calms the seas of our troubles. Amen.