Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
The scene put before us in today’s Holy Gospel is one of the most indelible images from the life of our Lord and his disciples and it is an icon for us of the spiritual life and our relationship with God and His Church.
Our Lord had sent the disciples ahead of Him in a boat while He took time to be alone with God, His Father. While the disciples were in the midst of the sea, a storm began to rage and they were tossed about and began to fear for their lives. In the midst of this, imagine the fear and awe that grips the disciples as they see our Lord walking toward them upon the waters – and the relief and joy they experience as He tells them the reassuring words: ‘Be of good cheer! It is I, do not be afraid’. And then we have the remarkable image of Apostle Peter stepping out of the boat onto the waters to walk toward our Lord – initially stepping forth in enthusiasm and great faith, and then beginning to fear and waver as the waters toss all around him. He begins to sink and calls out to the Lord to save him and immediately our Lord is there to stretch forth His hand and lead him back into the boat. Today’s Gospel reading concludes with the disciples all safely in the boat with our Lord - the seas have been calmed and they prostrate themselves before Him proclaiming ‘Truly, Thou art the Son of God!’
There is so much to learn from this Gospel passage: we have the image of the disciples together in the boat upon the stormy seas, which many holy fathers take to be an image of the Church, our safe haven and ark in this world – keeping us afloat among the storms of sin and worldliness. We are also amazed to see the miraculous power and authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and His great care and compassion for his disciples as He walks upon the waters and calms the stormy seas. And, unforgettably, we behold the Apostle Peter stepping out upon the waters.
The Apostle Peter sees his Lord walking upon the waters and, in his impetuous enthusiasm, he wants to go to Him. When our Lord permits him to come, Apostle Peter steps out upon the waters in a moment of self-forgetting, Christ-focused faith in God. As long as he kept his eyes on Christ, he walked upon the water as if it were dry land. But what happened?... The moment Apostle Peter took his eyes off of Christ and began to concern himself with himself, with his fears and doubts, this is when he began to sink. Thanks be to God, our Lord was close at hand and when Peter cried out, ‘Lord save me!’ Jesus stretched out His hand and brought him safely back into the boat.
There are many lessons for us here…
The first lesson I would like draw - and it is especially relevant on this day upon which we celebrate the Holy Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils, those holy ones who helped to defend the faith - is the importance of ‘staying in the boat’. Christ our Lord established His Church, and He gave to her the Grace of His Wisdom and of His Sacraments. It is in the Church that we may hope to work out salvation. St Cyprian of Carthage stated: ‘No one can have God for his Father, who does not have the Church for his mother.’ It is in the context of our Mother Church that we may know and receive God, our Father. We are not created to ‘go it alone’… the Christian life is a life of love… and love requires relationship – both with God and with His Church.
Just as the Apostle Peter placed himself in a position of peril when he stepped out of the boat and into the stormy waters, so too do we imperil ourselves when we place our own wisdom above the centuries of grace and soul-healing wisdom abundant in our Mother, the Church.
The second lesson to be drawn from today’s Gospel, is the necessity of focusing our gaze and our hope upon Christ our Lord. As long as Peter kept his gaze upon Christ, he was granted the grace to walk upon the waters. But as soon as he lost sight of Christ, and looked around himself in terror, then he began to sink.
We too, in treading the stormy waters of this life, must keep our eyes focused on Christ.
This distinction of the target of our focus, between having our heart, our mind, and our affections turned toward God vs. having our heart, our mind, and our affections preoccupied with our selfish concerns is absolutely foundational… it is the key to our spiritual life and our spiritual health.
Where do we place our hope? The disposition and focus of our heart and mind is either going to be placed upon ourselves – our abilities, our talents, our concerns, our pride – and also our problems, our sins, our insufficiencies. Or that disposition and focus of our heart and mind will be placed upon God and His Grace.
The Christian life is a struggle between this self-centered pull of pride and the Christ-centered pull of Grace. We all may find ourselves sinking from time to time… but what is our response? Do we madly flail about trying to stay afloat by our own insufficient powers? Do we give up and start to go under? Or do we, like the Apostle Peter, cry out ‘Lord save me!’?
God grant us the wisdom to lay aside pride, fear, and anxiety which lead us down into the depths of the waters of despair and instead grant us the courage of faith, hope, and love which lead us up into the arms of Christ our Lord and into the safety of His trustworthy vessel, His Holy Church.