Walking upon the Water, Matthew 14:22-34

22 August 2021

After the multiplication of the five loaves and the two fishes in the desert and the feeding of the multitude, the Gospel states that Jesus ‘constrained’ His disciples to board the ship and go to the other shore of the lake so as to disperse the crowds.

The multitude had been following the Lord and were amazed at the signs He was performing. However, they had not been able to enter into the mystery of His word. Having been satisfied by the bread and fish, and, of course, the blessing that went with them, the crowd were ready to declare Christ King, in the worldly sense.

Before the Resurrection and, more specifically, before the coming down of the Holy Spirit, the disciples were also not free from this temptation. The word of the Lord was not yet construed by them in the Holy Spirit, so they failed to understand that Christ was not just the redeemer of Israel but the Saviour of the whole world. In order to protect the apostles from the spiritual defilement of lust for power the Lord constrained them to go on ahead of Him.

The Lord sent the multitudes away and went up into a mountain apart to pray. In prayer before His Heavenly Father, He most likely interceded for His people, and more especially His elect, that they might be freed from the temptation of worldly power and led to understand the mystery of His Person and His Kingdom ‘not of this world’.

Gennesaret is a small lake, but if a storm rises up it can become a great tempest. In today’s Gospel reading, the wind was against the voyaging ship of the disciples and it stirred up such great waves that they were in peril to sink. It is actually the second time that this Gospel refers to the disciple’s boat being in danger of shipwreck.[1] Once again the disciples were tossed to and fro, but this time they were alone. Last time, the Lord had been with them. Even though He had slept, His Presence had created a sense of security in His disciples. As soon as they felt in peril, they ran to seek His help and there followed a ‘great calm’.

Now Jesus left them alone for the whole night, in torment upon the tempestuous sea without any hope of salvation, so that the trial might prove them, and stir up a great desire for their Saviour in their hearts. During the fourth watch of the night, that is between three and six in the morning, He visited them walking upon the raging sea. Of course, for the almighty Lord, the Creator of Heaven and earth, Who suspended ‘the earth upon the waters’, it was nothing miraculous to walk over the sea like upon dry land.

For the disciples, the dread of imminent disaster was followed by a further fear. When they saw the Lord approaching their boat, they were alarmed and cried out in terror. Perchance due to the darkness of the night, they could not fully recognise Christ, they grasped that it was their Teacher, but feared that He had died and His ghost was coming towards them. They might have thought that this apparition was an omen of their death. They all let out a cry from the very depths of their souls to the ‘only one able to save them from death’.[2]

The Lord put their fear to rest forthwith by His familiar and beloved voice, which dispelled their distress and inspired courage all of its own, when He said: ‘Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.’

Life in this world is an endless wild sea, just like the lake of Gennesaret on this night. The passions, afflictions of all kinds, and trials are great threatening waves raised up by a stormy wind, that is the murderous spirit of the devil who ‘as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’.[3] Confronted by this harrowing spectacle, man is filled with fear. His thoughts are in tumult and darkness covers his soul. He is plunged so deep in despair that it seems that the violent waves will crush his soul and he loses hope to find help anywhere.

If at this point man turns towards God with the energy of the profound grief that is tearing his soul apart, if he pours out his heart, crying out to his merciful God, then that moment, when he feels he will sink into the abyss, will become the beginning of a great and indescribable miracle: his eternal salvation within the communion of the saints and all ‘the spirits of just men made perfect’. For the Lord reveals His Light to man when he suffers, so as to console him and heal his wounds.

Thus when the afflictions, temptations, illnesses and trials of this life descend upon man, if he finds the strength to cry, ‘Lord, have mercy; Lord save me,’ then God as a Comforter answers with a sweet and familiar voice in his heart: ‘Fear not, my people.’ ‘I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour.’[4] ‘Fear not: for I am with thee.’[5] With these words an unspeakable peace springs forth in his heart and he finds the might to walk without fear over the sea of the cares of this life, over the waves of temptations, directly towards the Lord.

For the man who wants to be saved, the word of the Lord becomes his anchor of salvation. He receives the word of God and strives to apply it. He holds onto it, he bases himself upon it and before him open up all the ‘pathways of salvation’. Then the greatest miracle in creation occurs within him: the union of his heart with the almighty Spirit of God. He leaves behind every care of this life and forgets even the torment of his wounds, because he has found an indescribable treasure, greater than any that the human mind can conceive. Henceforth, he desires to converse with heaven more and more, and when he glances at the earth, he only apprehends its poverty more deeply. He turns again to things above with increased thirst and only wishes to cry out continually to God longing for a more perfect union with Him.

All the miracles of the Lord, which are wrought by His ineffable Providence day by day, will never come to an end. They have only one purpose: to stir up stronger faith and to lead to a greater fulness of gratitude and tender loving union with Him for all eternity.

The Church has also been compared to a ship that sails and is tossed on the furious ocean of the world. Often it is in peril, yet it never sinks, precisely because there are some on board who release a great cry to God, interceding for the salvation of all the crew of the ship and that of the whole world. The cry of the apostles in today’s reading is also the cry of the saints of all times, ‘Lord save us,’ and Jesus Christ Who is ‘the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever’[6] answers: ‘Be of good cheer, fear not. I have overcome the world.’[7]

Let us turn back, however, to the Gospel narration. Peter had a lot of warmth and love for his Teacher. He had however an impulsive character and somewhat bold. This is why he often provoked the Lord to reprove him. When he tried for example to deter Christ from relentlessly walking towards the Cross, the Lord called him ‘satan’. In this instance, the imploring but also challenging words spoken by Peter to the Lord, ‘If it be Thou, bid me come unto thee on the water’,[8] show the tender love that he had for Him, and also that he had the tendency to put himself above the other apostles. It was as if he had forgotten their presence.

During this incident, Christ did not rebuke His disciple. He only commanded him: ‘Come.’ And Peter obeyed in actual fact, he jumped from the boat and began to walk on the waves, longing to hasten to his meeting with the Lord. Indeed, for anyone to draw nigh to the Lord and know Him, demands all the upsurge of his heart. In order for man to walk on the white-wash of the world’s waves, in haste to meet the Lord, he needs a heart like Peter’s.

 While Peter in the beginning was all one uprush of the heart, in the midst of his steps he suddenly began to consider. He had rushed into the turbulent sea with his gaze fixed on the Face of the Beloved Lord and managed to walk like Him upon the water. For as long as he had his gaze fixed on the figure of Christ, he transcended every temptation of the world and the threat of death. He became supra-cosmic.

However, when he turned his gaze away from the Lord and looked around him at the tumult of the waves, his inner fire drowned. His faith ailed and thus its grace, which had strengthened him and made him light, forsook him. Sense-perception and the fear of death took over, and Peter began to sink. However, he knew where to seek help. ‘He cried saying, Lord save me’. And straightway the Lord caught him up.

What happened with Peter is a pattern that reoccurs in our everyday spiritual life. If a man has faith and obedience in simplicity of heart, then for as long as he keeps gazing steadily at the Face of the Author and Finisher of our faith, he can tread upon snakes and scorpions. Of course, he needs a great fire in his heart in order not to turn his gaze away from the Lord. He needs a flame that will consume all else. Then come what may, illness, slander, persecution, he will not be shaken. He knows that the Lord gave him life, He preserves and lengthens it, and He can take it away. Whenever calculations enter the mind, man immediately becomes prey to the passions of the world.

Just as God left the disciples all the night to be chastened by the sea, He also tries man with afflictions, and permits him to be tempted, so that he might be troubled, suffer pain and finally cry out from the depths: ‘Come, O Lord, and perform Thy will in me. Thy commandments find no place in my cramped heart, and my poor mind cannot discern their content. For if Thou wilt not come and abide in me, I perish.’[9]

When lack of faith finds an entrance into man’s heart and starts to drown him, if he remembers the goodness of the Lord, he will not be lost, but will cry: ‘Lord, save me,’ and immediately the Lord will be there, extending a helping hand. He snatches him up from the gloomy abyss and rescues him. Wherever the Lord appears, the most violent tempest is transformed into a great calm. And man full of awe and gratitude, confesses to his Saviour: ‘Truly, Thou art the Son of God Who hast come into the world to save sinners of whom I am chief.’[10]

Man was made out of nothing, he is naught. Neither does God owe him anything; He saves him out of His unsearchable goodness. All power, glory and salvation belong to Him. This time Christ does not rebuke the wind, but the little faith of Peter. The storm abated only after the Lord boarded the ship with Peter, yet Peter had already become stronger than the temptation by Christ’s help.

All those who follow Christ must undergo grievous temptations in this life to taste of the ‘judgment of the Son of God’.[11] This is the hand of our Father chastening us, as He desires that none be lost, but that all remain unswerving and steadfast on the path of salvation so they may finally become like unto Him. For Christ has already traversed this path, He has cleared it for our sake, and in our place, He has overcome the world.

By defeating temptations, the Christian acquires a deeply rooted awareness that he never accomplishes anything on his own. However, by the power of God, he can make the leap over the wall raised up by the pride and arrogance of this world. He learns to overcome temptations by the grace of God. He knows his own weakness, and thus he becomes forgiving and sympathetic with his brethren. He realises that he must not put his hope in the things of this world, but must continually make a new beginning and a new leap of faith. In tribulations and perils he learns to turn to God and cry out to Him with all his heart, because only then the Lord will accept him, as He desires his whole heart.

Man reaches the point of confessing with humble gratitude that this faith which overcomes the world and death is the gift of God, and does not belong to him. He constantly gives glory thereby to God and takes upon himself the blame for his failures, his mistakes, and his sins. He strives to diminish himself, so as to magnify and glorify his Benefactor, the only true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the life, the light and the peace of the world. Amen.

[1] Matt. 8:23-37.

[2] See Heb. 5:7.

[3] 1 Pet. 5:8.

[4] Isa. 43:3.

[5] Isa. 43:5.

[6] Heb. 13:8.

[7] John 16:33.

[8] Matt. 14:28.

[9] We Shall See Him as He Is, p. 130.

[10] Cf. 1 Tim. 1:15.

[11] Cf. 1 Pet. 4:17.