As we heard last week, just before the events of today’s Gospel, the Lord worked a notable miracle in the wilderness, multiplying five small loaves of bread and feeding with them a crowd of five thousand men, not counting women and children. These people had followed Christ eagerly out into a deserted place, to hear his words and be healed of their diseases. They were not concerned so much about how they would feed themselves when they got there—they simply wanted to be near Christ. Seeing them, the all-merciful Lord was moved with compassion. Though he had withdrawn into the wilderness to be alone with his disciples, he did not disdain the poor, broken-hearted people who flocked to him and disturbed their solitude. He welcomed them with open arms, taught them, ministered to them, healed them. When they grew hungry, he miraculously fed them—all were sated, and there were even twelve baskets of bread left to spare.
The marvel was not lost on the people. They were in rapture and wanted to make Christ their King—lift him up on their shoulders and storm Jerusalem, inaugurate the Messiah’s reign. Christ knew what was in man; he needed not the glory of man, nor the testimony of man. He was sympathetic to their human needs, but he respected their freedom. He would not stoop to bribing their bellies in order to establish his kingdom.
The imperfect disciples were carried away with the triumph. They would have marched at the head of the crowds who wanted to install Jesus as King. How confused they must have been when the Lord told them to get in the ship and go off without him: “We follow you everywhere. Why are you sending us away? If we leave you here without a boat, how will you catch up with us again?” Then, as now, there are times in our life when the Lord asks us to do things we don’t understand. So attached were the disciples to their Teacher, so resistant to his command, the Evangelist tells us that they had to be compelled, forced, constrained by Christ to get into the ship, while he stayed back and sent the crowds away. The multitudes were also reluctant to leave the Lord. It took him until nightfall to send them off to their homes; it was already dark by the time they were gone. Then Jesus was there alone, and went up into a mountain to pray.
All night he spent in prayer, in mystical converse with his Father. Who can penetrate through the dark of night, to the lonely mountaintop, into the thunderous chasm of the divine Word’s silent supplications, echoing though eternity? While he tarried in prayer, a storm arose on the sea; the wind blew hard against the disciples’ ship. The headwinds were strong, the waves were high. What grief they must have felt! Before when they were storm-tossed on the sea of Galilee, Christ had been with them in the ship, sleeping. They were afraid then, too, but they had someone to run to. This time, they were already dismayed at having to leave him behind—but now this?! Were they to founder and perish without their Master? On board, there was no one to whom they could turn.
High up from his hilltop, Jesus saw and knew all. Before he had even sent the disciples away, he knew what he would do. He bided his time until the moment was right. Late at night, about the fourth watch, just before dawn, Jesus came down from the mountain, and calmly walked into the storm. The waves fell at his feet like sheep, meek as a lamb. All things are his servants—the waters made him a path. Water like solid earth held up him who fixed the earth upon the waters. The Voice of the Lord is upon the waters, the God of glory hath thundered; the Voice of the Lord with power, the Voice of the Lord with majesty. His way is in the sea, and his paths in many waters; and his footsteps shall not be known.
What a surprise for the disciples to see their Lord, walking on the sea as on dry land! They couldn’t believe their eyes, they were terrified—“Look, a ghost!” they said. Bewildered now by both the storm and the strange vision, the disciples heard those most comforting words from the Lord: “Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.” O disciples of the Lord! hear what the Lord will speak in you; for he will speak peace to his people, and to his saints, to them that turn their heart unto him, when they find themselves in the midst of this life’s troubles, its upheavals and struggles. Christ first calmed the storm in the disciples’ hearts, before he put an end to the visible storm.
Bolstered and emboldened by Christ’s soothing words, the ever-ardent Peter asked the Lord to bid him to come to him on the water. Then the Lord gave the command: “Come. Come to me in the tempest, leave behind your frail man-made vessel. Here will you meet me, in the midst of the sea, and not on the safety of the shore. You called me in trouble; I answered you from the hiding place of the storm. Go down to the sea from the ship, and you will see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”
So Peter came. His heart found a moment of boldness, but the Lord did not still the wind or calm the waves just yet. He was testing him, leading him on, ever perfecting his disciple’s faith. Amidst all the tumult, Christ stood tranquilly on the water, waiting for Peter to come to him, like a mother watching to see her child make its first steps. His eyes fixed on Christ, Peter let his foot out onto the sea. “And look,” he said, “when my desire is set on Christ, even the laws of nature bend to me; and nothing can stand between me and the love of my Lord.”
Overcome by the wonder, he made haste, his eyes wandered. He noticed the wind still blowing, the waters still rolling, waves mounting up over his head. His heart wavered, it turned back from its first resolve, overwhelmed by earthly fears. The firm ground of his faith caved in, and the waters beneath his feet gave way. First his feet, then his knees sunk below the surface; the sea was up to his waist, and his hope grew dim. Then he cried, “Lord, save me! for the waters are come up to my neck. I stick fast in the deep mire, and there is no sure standing. I am come into the sea’s depths, and the tempest hath engulfed me.” No sooner had he said this than Christ reached out his hand, and pulled him up out of the abyss.
Then Christ gently rebuked his disciple, and said:
“O thou of little faith; wherefore didst thou doubt? Have I been so long with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Peter? I am the Alpha and Omega, the same yesterday, today, and for ever; He who was, who is, and ever shall be. I know all things, the first and the last; thine unformed being, mine eyes did see; before thou wast in thy mother’s womb, I knew thee:
O thou of little faith; wherefore didst thou doubt? Mine are the heavens, and mine is the earth. The sea is mine, and I made it; the dry land my hands fashioned. I rule the raging of the sea, and still the churning of its waves. Not a hair of thine head can fall without my will. I preserve both men and beasts—wilt not thou, O son of man, shelter in the shadow of my wings?
O thou of little faith; wherefore didst thou doubt? I clothe the field with grass, I open my hand and fill all things with good; even young lions seek their food from me; I make dragons to play in the vast and wide sea; I smite their heads in the water and leave them as food to the wild beasts. Will I not also by my mighty arm always care for thee?
O thou of little faith; wherefore didst thou doubt? If thou wilt climb up to heaven, there will I be; if thou wilt go down into hell, I am still beside thee; if thou wilt take up thy wings with the dawn, and settle down at the far ends of the sea, even there will my hand guide thee, and my right hand hold thee; if thou sayest, “My foot hath slipped,” my mercy will already be sustaining thee:
O thou of little faith; wherefore didst thou doubt? Even if the darkness shall surely fall on thee, the night shall be turned to light if thou wilt delight thyself in me; for darkness shall not be dark with me, and night shall be light as the day: as is its darkness, so shall its light be, if thou wilt only trust in me; amidst the abundant sorrows of thy heart, my consolations shall gladden thee:
O thou of little faith; wherefore didst thou doubt? Have I ever failed thee? Have I ever forsaken thee utterly? Though I test my sons, and chasten those whom I love, taking vengeance on all their devices, yet I am a just man, and a righteous—if I chasten and reprove thee, it is always with mercy; I will not rebuke thee in mine anger, neither chasten thee in my wrath. My mercy endureth for ever; I will not disdain the work of mine hands. O Simon son of Jonah, believest thou me?”
Then the wind died down as they went back into the ship. And all the disciples, in awe at the Lord’s mighty power, bowed down at his feet, and said, “O come let us worship and fall down before him, and let us weep before the Lord who made us. Let us give thanks unto the Lord for his mercies, and his wonders for the sons of men. Truly thou art the Son of God, truly thou art our King.” To the same Lord Jesus be all glory, honor, and worship, now and to all ages. Amen.