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 bad 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 testify that it’s truly a frightening experience, and the Apostles, being experienced fisherman, were quite likely somewhat nervous that night. But the Gospel tells us they truly became frightened, indeed terrified when they saw Jesus coming toward them on the dangerous waves. The Apostles immediately assumed it must be a ghost they were seeing, because they thought only a ghost could move 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, because they may well have thought that the ghost was an omen of their coming death, and so they were understandably petrified.
But then Jesus tries to calm them by identifying himself and assuring them not to be afraid. Peter, quite amazingly, decides perhaps to put Jesus’ self-identification to the test. If it is really Jesus walking on the water and not a ghost, then Jesus surely can enable Peter to do the same. And so, at Jesus’ challenge 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 just what is this miracle meant to teach us. It seems that Jesus, who has just that afternoon manifested His divine power in the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, evidently has decided 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 laws regulating the 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 their logical conclusion that it must be a ghost. Only when Jesus Himself climbs into the boat and the winds died down do they recover their senses and finally recognize the miracle as such. And so they proclaim Jesus divine, “truly you are the Son of God.” The first point of the miracle seems to be the power of faith.
But another theme of the miracle obvious has to do with Peter and his connection to Christ as Head of the Church. The miracle shows us that Peter has no power in himself to be Christ’s Vicar, to do what Christ does. He is simply a man, and so when he steps out of the boat, it is solely Jesus who, responding to Peter’s faith, makes it possible for him to walk on water like Jesus, to do what Jesus is doing. It is also a significant point of the account that it is Peter alone who has sufficing faith here to step out of that boat and Peter alone who does here what Christ is doing.
So, Peter is to be the first Vicar of Christ, the first Pope, the alter-ego of Christ on Earth who acts for Christ. And thus shortly thereafter in Matthew’s Gospel, Christ himself will declare him to be the Rock upon which Jesus will build His Church. And He promises that Peter will have the powers to act for Christ, 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 Peter have such incredible powers? It will be solely the power of Jesus that Peter will 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.
But to make this point clear – Peter’s absolute dependance on Christ – we mustn’t miss another most important aspect of this miracle. For Matthew tells that Peter waivered in his faith and began to sink! His wavering demonstrates that he has absolutely 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 and that he 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 all too human instrument as the visible Head of Christ’s Church on earth! He must ask for this help constantly, or he will surely sink under the weight of his office.
However, Just as the Lord reached out and kept Peter safe, so the Lord will never abandon His Vicars not abandon His Church. He may well rebuke a Pope occasionally for his weakness of personal faith or failure of courage, or even for a moral failure. Recall how Jesus early on 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 formal heresy, 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 intimate relationship between Christ and Peter It teaches us in action that Christ will never let Peter’s faith fail, and not simply because of His love for Peter, but primarily for the sake of the whole Church that he died for and most 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?
So Christ’s unique relationship 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, and not just his faith, is the key to his intimate relation to Christ and the duty to safeguard His flock. It was both his faith and his love that inspired Peter to go to the Lord that night on the water. And it is his love and personal faith that ultimately enables him to be faithful to the command, feed my sheep. And we can apply all this to mourselves as well.
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. Christ will never abandon those who love and believe in Him. And 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 all of us that His voice will guide us through Peter, so long as Peter remains faithful to Christ and to the whole Petrine succession – for it is also Peter who mysteriously speaks through all his successors. So long as we cling to Peter’s faith, then we trust that Christ will grasp our hand too, and our faith, like Peter’s, will also never fail.