Have no Fear
Nineteenth Sunday of the Year. Br Andrew Brookes preaches on the walking on the water as a source of courage.
We live in challenging and testing times, wherever we live. COVID-19 has had a global impact, influencing societies and individuals everywhere, threatening our lives, quite often taking human lives, making us rethink the ways we live and interact. Shaking up the foundations of how we live, it is causing us to question the reasonableness and security of how we walk through life.
The wind which is COVID-19 is still blowing strong, and we remain in a dangerous situation. Though the global situation varies, in the northern hemisphere at least, we seem to have come through the first wave, but are now threatened with a second wave, perhaps more. It makes us fearful, and perhaps doubt; perhaps it is making us give way to despair, either because of the enduring threat to our physical health, or mental health, or jobs, or education. What are we to do? There are parallels with this Sunday’s Gospel, and if we place ourselves within it, we may find deep spiritual resources to deal with this crisis, providing a deeper faith and surer hope, and the resilience to help us keep walking through this difficult, uncertain, shifting situation.
I imagine that when you starting reading or listening to this Gospel you quickly remembered it and so knew how it would develop, even before the words unfolded the details. But it was not so when the disciples first experienced that wind: they genuinely did not know it was Jesus who came towards them on the water. Matthew is skilled as a story teller: he indicates Jesus is on land praying in the hills and then switches his focus to the boat, which is getting pushed further and further across the lake. Someone is seen walking towards them – Matthew does not say who it is at this point, only identifying the figure as Jesus much later in his account. Yes, it could be a ghost, as they exclaim in fear. But the words spoken by the mysterious, partially hidden figure, are typical of God: ‘Have confidence! It is I. Do not fear!’ It seems that Peter, informed by Jewish thought that God can walk on water and has power over this most unruly of forces, thinks it might be God. Willing to believe this is so, he decides to test his conviction: Peter dares to believe that if it is God manifesting his presence, then God can confirm this by enabling Peter, receiving power from God, to walk on the water also. So, he steps out in faith onto the water, into great natural uncertainty. God, working through his faith, enables Peter to surpass the limits of his natural powers and overcome the natural forces around him. This is a theophany: a manifestation of God, for the purposes of helping people. God has manifested himself upon the water, and is now blessing Peter, giving him power to live a supernatural life even in the midst of natural challenges.
Drawing close to the figure, he sees it is Jesus. Perhaps, the concreteness of Jesus, whilst it should point him to the view that God is present fully in Jesus, also triggers another thought: can the vast God of his forebears be fully present in Jesus of Nazareth? For sure, the concreteness of the wind makes it impact upon him at this moment. His faith in God’s presence and power wavers, and as his spiritual life becomes unhealthy, the sea begins to swallow him and his physical life too finds itself in grave danger. But he cries out: ‘Lord, save me!’ He cries to God, and Jesus, who truly is the Lord, stretches out his hand and answers his prayer. This episode is a very important one in the Gospel of Matthew. It is a major step in the development of the faith of Peter and those with him. It is also given to help our faith.
We are asked, faced with this wind which is COVID-19 and the ensuing rough sea, to believe God, working through Jesus, is present, above the situation and powerfully able to help us in it. Yes, we should trust good advice from scientists, but we are to trust still more deeply in God. God is present directly to each of us – even if normal sacramental encounters are not available to us. Jesus promises to be with us to the end of days. God speaks in the storms of our lives to help us keep walking in faith, love and hope, and so experience calm, no matter what blows in our direction. Then we are asked to be witnesses, pointing out his presence and words to others that they too may have faith and walk on the water. ‘Keep having confidence. It is I. Do not fear!’