The Gospel we’ve just heard is surely one of the most vivid and gripping of them all. It would make a great sequence in a film. It’s crammed with symbolism, too. Water and wind have a great place in the Bible. At the moment of creation, as Genesis presents it, there’s a great wind blowing over a vast expanse of wild water. There’s the water of the Flood from which Noah and his family and the animals are saved. The people of Israel have to cross the Red Sea to leave Egypt, and the wind opens the way for them. They have to cross the River Jordan to enter the Promised Land. When the Psalmists suffer, they think of themselves as drowning. ‘Save me, O God, for the waters have risen to my neck…I have entered the waters of the deep and the waves overwhelm me’ (Ps 68:2,3). Then through Isaiah comes the promise: ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you’ (Is 43:2).
So, in today’s Gospel, the water of Lake Galilee stands for the world, for life. The boat is the Church: the community of disciples, crossing the water to the other side, eternal life. Peter too is us, is the Church. The wind and the storm are life’s trials and tribulations. And Christ is Christ: the same yesterday, today and forever; the Rescuer. It’s the whole Gospel condensed. It comes at the very centre of the Gospel according to Matthew.
Let’s just follow the narrative. ‘He made the disciples get into the boat’, and his command to us is to sail through life in HMS Church – to go together before him over the sea of life to the further shore of the Father. And Jesus leaves the disciples to get on with it. He, meanwhile, dismisses the crowds and goes up into the hills to pray. Here’s the mystery of the ascended Christ, hidden in the Father, interceding before his face for us in peril on the sea. Time passes, our lives pass, the centuries pass, but always, in the stillness of eternity, he is carrying us in his prayer. And the boat runs into a storm, a headwind. ‘The wind was against them.’ As Christians we may feel this, surely. The cultural winds are against us. They often want to take us in another direction than the one pointed out by Christ. And the wind doesn’t let up. Only in the 4th watch of the night, between 3 and 6am, Christ intervenes. He has been apparently absent the whole night, the long night of history or those problems and battles that never seem to end.
Then Jesus appears. But there’s a further twist. They don’t recognize him. They think it’s a ghost, a phantom risen from the sea. They’re ‘terrified’. They scream. It’s as though a second wave, a second gale breaks over them: a second fear, worse than the first. There’s something very true here. Animals suffer. But it seems they suffer simply whatever it is they are suffering: a wound or hunger or whatever. We suffer too. We suffer x or y: illness or a painful human situation or whatever it is. But in the midst of that suffering, something else often opens up, breaks surface in our minds and emotions, an abyss beyond the abyss. Beyond the particular suffering lie deeper fears, and ghosts, if you like. Is it the fear of abandonment, of relapsing into nothingness? These fishermen from Galilee: they could just about cope with a storm at sea, but when they see this strange glowing form walking on the water, that is something different. Before they were just worn out. Now they’re terrified.
And then – at this precise point – Jesus calls out, ‘Courage. It’s me. Don’t be afraid.’ He had let it all surface: their fear, dread, angst, their human weakness, the primal scream. And then he speaks. He let the storm be unleashed, not just on the outside, but on the inside. And then he speaks. Because he is the master of everything. He is the Lord of life and death, of the soul and psyche as well as the body, of the unconscious as well as the conscious. He’s the stronger one, the risen one, the Saviour. And when he speaks faith prevails over fear. Perhaps it’s only when we feel abandoned that we can abandon ourselves to God.
Then the story moves on. Peter comes on stage. It’s like a replay, but focused now on one man. What love of the Lord, what trust, what courage, what initiative Peter shows: clambering out of the boat in the midst of a storm! It’s beautiful. ‘Come’, said Jesus. And he did. But then his focus slips. The Greek says, ‘Seeing the strength of the wind, he was frightened.’ He had shifted his gaze from Jesus, and he began to go down. ‘Lord, save me.’ With that cry, he turns back to Jesus. He looks at him again. ‘And stretching out his hand at once, Jesus grasped him’. This the the Lord’s right hand. The Bible is full of it. It drove back the waters of the Red Sea and took Israel out of Egypt. It led Israel back from exile. It would grasp Jesus himself and raise his human life in the empty tomb. ‘The Lord’s right hand has triumphed; his right hand raised me up. The Lord’s right hand has triumphed; I shall not die, I shall live and recount his deeds’ (Ps 117:15-17). It’s the same strong hand with which, in the harrowing of hell, Jesus grasps Adam and leads him out. ‘Why did you doubt?’, asks Jesus as he grasps Peter. The Greek word for doubt, and the English word too, go back to the idea of being ‘double’, two-fold. Why did you go double when you should have stayed single? Why did you start looking at the wind when you should have just looked at me?’ This is us, again and again. Grasped by Jesus, Peter reboards the boat. The wind drops. And in a liturgical chorus, the disciples fall on their faces: ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’
On the sea, in the storm, against the wind, may we keep our eyes on Jesus! It was the ending of last week’s Gospel too: ‘They saw Jesus only.’ Here’s the whole thing. Here’s the reason for all the troubles: that we may realise who he is and the saving power of his hand. Without him we drown, with him we live.
‘Let us see, O Lord, your mercy, and give us your saving help’ (Ps 84). Let us see your face and feel your hand!
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 13 August 2017)