Sunday, August 17, 2008

Walking on Water

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

From this morning’s gospel lesson we heard the account of our Lord Jesus Christ walking across the surface of the sea in the midst of a terrible storm to meet His disciples in their boat. Starting with verse 22 of Matthew 14 we see Jesus making his disciples get into the boat to sail across the sea while He remains behind to dismiss the multitudes that had just been miraculously fed from five loaves and two fishes. In the King James translation it says He constrained His disciples to leave. The word “constrain” means to compel or to force, and indicates that the disciples didn’t go willingly. Their desire was to remain in Jesus’ presence always and to never depart from Him.

By comparison we can see how imperfect our love for Jesus is. When our minds and hearts are constantly filled with other thoughts and other loves, when we can barely drag ourselves to church or to stand before our icons at home to pray, it is perhaps more accurate to say that we must be constrained to come into the presence of Jesus, rather than the other way around. And while that is truly a dreadful spiritual condition, it is better for us to acknowledge it than ignore it, to change it rather than perpetuate it.

One way to change it is to follow our Lord’s own example from this story, for Matthew tells us that immediately after dismissing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. We need to understand that He did this entirely for our benefit and our instruction, for the Lord Himself has no need of prayer. We however, do have need of prayer, and Jesus did this to show us that we simply must make time in our lives to be alone with God and to pray.

I know we are all very busy and think that we just don’t have the time to do this. But it is perhaps better for us to understand that our true problem is not a lack of time, but a lack of love. When we don’t love God as we should, prayer is always a chore, and one that is very easy to neglect. But prayer is exactly what we need to warm our cold souls and to bring the love of God into our lives. If we wait until we feel more love for God to begin to pray or be more faithful in coming to church, it will never happen. We pray in part in order to love God, and to gain that same desire to always be in the presence of Christ that the disciples knew so well.

As the disciples sailed across the sea, a great storm hit that frightened even the most experienced sailors aboard. Finally, Jesus came to them in the fourth watch of the night, which is the last watch, just before the break of dawn. This means that Jesus didn’t rush to their aid the moment the storm first hit, but allowed them to go through the dark night of their distress, seemingly alone.

Of course, the disciples were not alone, but were safely in the hands of God during the whole experience. Everything that happened to them, from being in the midst of the sea at that precise hour, to the storm itself, was preordained by God and allowed for a greater purpose. And that purpose was to teach us to have patience in our times of fear and struggle, to not despair and lose hope if our problems aren’t taken away instantly, to recognize that God’s good and loving will governs all, and that He always has a higher, more beneficial, and saving purpose for whatever we go through. The bottom line is that we need to learn to trust in the good and sovereign will of God in all things.

Unfortunately, the only way for us to learn to this kind of trust to go through our own storms; to suffer trials and difficulties and discover for ourselves that we truly are not alone, but that our Lord is right there with us. Life in this fallen world will inevitably bring forth pain and sorrow, fear and suffering. For many people these are destructive forces that extinguish hope and lead to despair. For the Christian who has anchored his hope upon God and upon the life of the world to come, these same forces can usher in our greatest joy and sense of peace. They can also bring spiritual growth and progress. We should notice that it was because of the storm that the disciples finally recognized Jesus as the true Son of God and became worshippers of Him. It is often because of our sufferings that we too finally come to know Jesus and truly worship Him in and through our lives.

Finally, there is the bit where Peter asked to join Jesus on the water. Was Peter merely an impulsive and adventurous man who wanted to try something that looked fun? I don’t think so. Notice that Peter didn’t say to Jesus, “Hey, Let me try that!” but rather, “Lord, permit me to come to You on the water”. In other words, Jesus was the object of Peter’s attention, not the stunt. His desire in the midst of the storm was to get as close to the Lord as possible.

This wasn’t thrill-seeking; this was courage, and spiritual desire. The other disciples were paralyzed with fear and were all hunkered down in the boat, which to them represented earthly safety and security in the raging sea. Peter left behind such flimsy security, not out of recklessness or foolishness, but out of a spiritual vision that Jesus alone is the true hope and salvation, and out of a desire to be near Him. People put their trust in so many things, such a money, good health, friendships and so on. But only Jesus is the hope that does not disappoint.

Peter's walking upon the waves toward his Lord is a vivid demonstration that God shares His glory and divine powers with the saints, and allows those who believe to accomplish what is otherwise impossible for men. Much later Peter would write that we are partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). This he knew from first-hand experience. But when Peter saw the wind, he became frightened, and taking his eyes off of Jesus, he began to sink.

Notice that it wasn’t the fearsome storm or the giant waves that distracted Peter, but only the wind, a much lesser threat. Life is like that. We might be on our guard against the big and terrible sins, and still be taken down by a host of familiar sins we weren’t watching out for. It’s so easy to get comfortable with certain sins like judging others, talking about them, having wandering eyes and thoughts, always complaining rather than learning to give thanks, being spiritually lazy and careless. These things may not seem as bad as murder or adultery, but they are just as deadly to our souls, and they’ll sink us just as deep.

As Peter discovered, we need to keep our eyes on Jesus and stay focused each moment on Him. That’s not impossible to do. It’s certainly easier than walking on water! With practice and patience, with proper spiritual guidance, and with the help of tools like the Jesus Prayer, it is entirely possible to keep our Lord in the forefront of our thoughts at all times, and to judge every thought and potential action by what we know to be His will. When we make a habit of this, almost without our knowing it we begin to get used to the sweetness of the presence of Christ in our souls. When, due to our own carelessness He is momentarily absent from our thoughts, we soon discover that we miss Him as never before.

Perhaps this is why the disciples had to be constrained to leave Jesus, or why Peter willingly leapt overboard to be nearer to Christ. Imagine having that kind of love for your Lord. This is exactly the sort of love that He wants us to share.

+To the glory of God the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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