Step out of the boat

Pencil Preaching for Sunday, August 9, 2020

“If it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matt 14:28).

Nineteenth Sunday of the Year

1 Kgs 19:9a, 11-13a; Ps 85; Rom 8:1-5; Matt 14:22-33

For those who follow the daily readings, this is the third time this week we have seen Matthew’s account of the storm on the lake. The story is rich enough to merit more than one pass.  First, it connects the Eucharist to the Resurrection. Second, it is about the storms facing the early church and the need for faith in the risen Jesus. Today, it is about the role of Peter in the church.

By this time in the composition of the Gospels, Peter is clearly designated as leader of the Apostles. This is despite of or because of his traumatic experience of failing Jesus and still being affirmed as the one who knew best the Gospel of mercy he and the others were to preach. Today we might consider the obvious symbolism of the boat as the church with Peter at the helm.

Peter knew boats and he knew the lake, and we can imagine him directing the others to manage the sails as he steered into the troughs and waves tossing the boat to and fro.  When the mysterious figure approaches them on the sea, these veteran fishermen may have imagined death coming for them, a wraithlike terror signaling the end. They cry out their last, desperate prayer. 

At this, Jesus speaks to them. Against the howling wind, his voice may have been for them like the whisper Elijah heard on the mountain telling him he was in the presence of God.  Peter leaps to the moment and bravely tests the identity of the ghostly vision: “If it is you, Lord, order me to come to you on the water.” It is an audacious request, and when the Jesus answers, “Come,” Peter steps out of the boat. It is here that we understand the role of Peter as leader of the church.

To know if it is Jesus, Peter must leave the safety of the boat and risk walking on untested waters in response to the still mysterious voice inviting him forward. The boat is battered and tossed, rudderless and lost. Only by daring to go out ahead of the church to Jesus will the church find rescue. Even faltering in fear, Peter shows the foolish courage needed to take the next step. Those who demand continuity and certitude will never know the future Jesus is asking the church to test out by stepping forward. 

Isn’t this the risk John XXIII took in calling the Second Vatican Council? Isn’t this the uncharted path Francis has proposed by asking bishops to leave the familiarity of their institutional roles and go to the margins, to put encounter and accompaniment before doctrine and law?  Each of the pope’s exhortations, on evangelization, the family, holiness, young people and the Amazon, has been an exploration into a new way of being church, less about defending principles and more about listening to people’s problems in the storms of life.

The Risen Christ is the future coming toward us in the present inviting us to “Come.” The voice within our hearts is not a ghost from the past, but the Lord saying, “Take courage, it is I; Do not be afraid.”

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