Updated: Aug 31, 2020
19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A readings can be found: [HERE].
There’s a lot going on in our recent gospel scenes, which could cause one to wonder: “what’s real? And what’s fantasy?” After hearing about his cousin’s death, Jesus retreated into the solitude of the desert with his disciples. He was searched for and discovered by the crowds; and moved with pity, Jesus miraculously multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish to feed five thousand men, and their wives and children.
Then we see Jesus dismiss the crowds in the evening, and send his disciples across the sea. They’re assaulted by severe winds until late into the night. Their terror peaks when they see Jesus walking on the water, believing him to be a ghost.
It’s then that Peter does something very striking. When all of reality seems to be crumbling around him, Peter abandons even the last remaining shards of security. He leaves the boat.
Now, any sane person would understandably cling to the most stable thing around them during a tempest at sea, but Peter abandons it. As if it’s dissolving beneath his feet, he takes one last sure footing to launch himself to the water towards Jesus.
When I was younger, I never truly understood Peter’s impulse to leave the boat. I used to think that he was trying to prove something. But not anymore; not when I meditate on the context of his action.
That very day, Peter had witnessed Jesus do something completely unheard of: he fed five thousand men, their wives and children by multiplying loaves and fish.
Previously, after Peter had fished all day and caught nothing, Jesus commanded Peter to launch into the deep; which led to a staggering catch of fish. It was so startling and unexpected, that Peter left his trade—in that very moment—in order to radically follow Jesus as his disciple.
That’s how supernatural and re-defining an event it was for Peter. But for the skeptic that hides in a corner of many hearts, there could have been a natural explanation for the abundant catch of fish. After all, no one sees what happens beneath the surface of the waters. That leaves room for doubt and other explanations.
But to see Jesus personally up close multiply bread and fish—from five and two—into so much more—you can’t hide that. It was plain as day to the disciples who witnessed it: Jesus created something from nothing; and only God can create. That shook Peter to the core.
So much so that everything of his previous worldview was again called into doubt. What’s real? What’s fantasy? Everything he previously understood and believed slipped through his fingers like sand.
And now that Peter is on unsteady waters, being thrown about by the wind in the darkness, existence seeming to dissolve around him; Peter does what actually is the most sane thing to do in that moment. He clings to what is real. Jesus is real. When everything is shifting left and right, up and down, and going sideways, Jesus walks towards the disciples steadily. He cuts through the wind, darkness, and doubt with sure step. And so, Peter calls out to him: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
We witness what unfolds immediately after. Peter’s initial inclination was the right one: to redirect his entire focus to Jesus. But his human frailty gets the better of him. He gives in to fear, and begins to sink. In desperation, Peter cries out: “Lord, save me!”
At that point, Jesus could have done anything to save Peter. Without a word or action, with a mere thought, he could have lifted Peter up onto sure ground; he could have silenced the winds and steadied the waters; he could have summoned the sun to banish the darkness. Anything. But in the end, he chose to grasp Peter by the hand.
In our day, every now and then, our worldview may be shaken by any number of events: a death in the family, the loss of a job, the coronavirus pandemic, riots in many cities, the dismantling of society that we see. As troubling and serious as they are, there can be even worse crises ahead.
Imagine if our country, the United States, simply ceased to exist as a nation—things like that happen in history. The USSR, the Ottoman Empire, Tibet, Prussia, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and may others no longer exist as they once did—all of that is modern history. Think of plagues that have ravaged humanity throughout all of history. Think of the Great Wars that have wiped out generations and changed landscapes. The seeming unraveling of reality is always a present possibility. We dare not place our ultimate faith in any human institution, organization, political figure, party, or person. For all of these are doomed to change and decay.
But what is unchanging—or rather who is unchanging is our Lord. As he walked steadily through the darkness, unmoved by the tempest, and above the deep waters, he does so today.
And as he was with Peter, so he is with each one of us. He is within arm’s reach. Think of that today when you extend your arms out to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. And when you do so, recall Peter’s words and make them your own, crying out to him: “Lord, save me”.