19th Sunday of ordinary Time
“Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter,
and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
There have been a lot of jokes made about people trying to walk on water, but the event recorded in the Gospels shows us that it was no laughing matter when the Apostles witnessed Jesus doing just that one stormy night on the Sea of Galilee. Anyone who has been in a small boat being tossed about by a stormy sea will tell you that it’s truly a frightening experience, and the Apostles, experienced fisherman though they were, perhaps were somewhat disturbed that night. But the Gospel tells us they truly became frightened – in fact the text says they became terrified – when they saw Jesus coming toward them on the rough waves. The Apostles immediately assumed it was a ghost they were seeing, because they thought only a ghost could travel like that on water. And seeing what they thought was a ghost may well have made them think they were going to die for sure, that is, they may have thought that the ghost was an omen of their coming death, and they were understandably petrified.
So Jesus tries to calm them down by identifying himself and telling them not to be afraid. Then Peter, amazingly, decides perhaps to put Jesus’ self-identification to the test – if it is really Jesus walking on the water, then Jesus surely can enable Peter to do the same. And at Jesus’ invitation to come to Him, Peter actually gets out of the boat and begins himself to walk on the water toward the Lord.
At this point we have to pause and ask ourselves what is going on here. Clearly, Jesus, who has just that afternoon manifested His divine creative power in the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, evidently decides to confirm the faith of His Apostles by manifesting once more His absolute dominion over nature. As God, Jesus created the waters and the earth, and now he miraculously alters the normal physical relation between His body and the water, so that he can make His away across the waters as if they were a solid and not a liquid. The Apostles seem to conclude that whatever they are seeing has no body, since it doesn’t sink, and they are terrified at the conclusion that it must be a ghost. Only when Jesus Himself climbs into the boat do they finally recognize the miracle as such, and so they proclaim Jesus to be the Son of God, “ truly you are the Son of God.”
Peter, on the other hand has no such divine power in his nature. When he steps out of the boat, it is solely his faith in Jesus that makes it possible for him to walk on water like Jesus. It is of course significant that it is Peter who has the faith to step out of that boat and Peter who here does what Christ does. Peter is to be the first Vicar of Christ, the first Pope, the alter-ego of Christ on Earth, who as Christ himself declares in the very next chapter of our Gospel, will have the powers to bind on earth and it will be bound in Heaven, to loose on earth and it will be loosed in Heaven. And from whence will he have such incredible power? It will be the power of Jesus that will be exercised in his judgements, just as it was the power of Jesus that sustained his body on the water of the stormy sea that night.
However, we cannot stop there in the story of this miracle, for we are told that Peter waivers in his faith, showing absolutely that he has no power whatsoever in himself, but depends totally upon the Lord for whatever power he will exercise in the Lord’s name. Peter and every Pope afterwards, must humbly recognize that he is nothing in himself, has no power from himself, but must constantly cry out “Lord save me.” He must pray constantly that the Lord enable him to be His Vicar, His instrument, the visible Head of Christ’s Church on earth! He must ask this constantly, or he will surely sink under the weight of his office.
But Just as the Lord reached out and kept Peter safe, so the Lord will never abandon His Vicars. He may well rebuke a Pope occasionally for his weakness of personal faith or failure of courage, or even a moral failure. Recall how Jesus rebuked Peter through Paul when Peter was acting hypocritically in forcing Jewish dietary customs which he himself did not observe upon Gentile converts in the Church at Antioch. This was only a disciplinary matter, but for the sake of the Church, Christ will never allow His Vicar on earth to sink into heresy, false teaching, at least when he is solemnly exercising his Office of supreme teacher in order to safeguard the faith of the Church.
The whole miracle then is like a parable of the relation between Christ and Peter, of the promise that Christ will never let Peter’s faith fail, not simply because of His love for Peter, but for the sake of the whole Church that he died for and likewise deeply loves. Had he allowed Peter to drown that night for his weakness of faith, for his faltering courage in the face of the storm, what would have happened to the faith of the others in the boat?
Christ’s unique relation to Peter and his faith is ultimately established for the sake of the little ones whom Christ will pasture through Peter and the Apostles. That is why after His resurrection, Jesus will ask Peter three times do you love me more than these, and three times command Peter to feed His sheep. Peter’s love, not just his faith, is the key to his relation to Christ and the duty to safeguard His flock. It was not simply his faith but his love that moved him to go to the Lord that night on the water, and it is his love that ultimately enables him to be faithful to the command, feed my sheep.
In the storms that we all inevitably live through in this world, this great gift to Peter is, or should be, a great consolation for the rest of us. We will always have Peter to depend upon when it comes to our shaken faith, for the power of Christ ultimately protects Peter’s faith, for our sake. Christ lovingly sustains us all, guarantees to all that His voice will guide us through Peter, and if we but cling to Peter’s faith, then Christ will grasp our hand too, and our faith, like Peter’s will never fail.