'Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.’ (Matthew 14:22-24) These words of today’s Gospel remind me of the description of the disciples post-crucifixion: ‘On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews.’ (John 20:19) With Jesus’ violent death, the prevailing winds in the society of their day were blowing seriously hard against them (C.f.: Acts 5:33), and they are all alone and they are fearful. For Jesus had gone away, so to speak, was taken from them, was not with them — through his crucifixion, Jesus had gone up to heaven where he now is ‘living for ever to intercede for all who come to God through him,’ as the Letter to the Hebrews has it, or as today’s Gospel puts it: ‘He went up on the mountain by himself to pray.’ (Hebrews 7:25. C.f..: John 13:36) Either way, they are left all alone battling an adverse wind.
Then, the Church is often referred to as ‘The Barque (or boat) of Peter.’ So these words from the beginning of today’s Gospel could well be a description of our Church in times of trouble or persecution … of the Church in our times. For the persecution of Christians has never been more prevalent; people have stopped going to Church, have stopped practicing their faith, perhaps even stopped believing, because of a hostility that plays on our doubts; and in the face of it all, we have, at best, grown timid as people taunt us continually with that age-old mockery, “Where is your God?” … and we are left feeling all alone and vulnerable and left to wrestle with the question: “What are you doing here?” (Psalm 42:3, 10; 1 Kings 19:9) We, too, live in troubled times for faith. Today’s Gospel is a story for us and for any age, for in any age, in the midst of what was seemingly a sure and peaceful calm, storms can and do blow up and leaving us fearful — one has only to look at the situation in the Ukraine, to see how fragile peace is.
Today’s First Reading can help us know how to respond to our situation. (1 Kings 19:9ff) Elijah, a prophet of God, was faced with the apostasy of his people; all had left right way to follow other gods. Elijah challenged the prophets of these other gods to a duel, and in which Elijah proved himself to be the stronger and he slew all these other prophets. This, of course, only provoked further hostility from the followers of these gods, and which then forced Elijah to flee. (C.f.: Matthew 20:25-26) So, we find him fearful for his life and hiding in a cave on Mount Horeb. There in that dark night, God comes to Elijah and says, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” He replies, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away” — he’s done everything he could and it hasn’t changed a thing, but has only made his lot worse! God then tells Elijah to leave his hiding place and go out and he will show himself to Elijah. Then we are told: ‘And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” This is the disciples’ situation: the strong wind, the earthquake, and the fire are all that threatens to overwhelm their small boat and against which they are powerless despite their best efforts. But, great and dreadful though they are, we are told: “God was not in the wind, … God was not in the earthquake, … and God was not in the fire”; our God is mightier than all of these — though we ourselves might not yet know this, and so they still have power over us to intimidate us.
After the fire, we are told there came in the sound of a ‘low whisper/in the sheer sound of silence,’ a voice which said, “Elijah, what are you doing here? … Go, return on your way [and do all that I command you].” There in facing all which shook the ground beneath his feet, Elijah knew what he had to do and found the courage to do it. This is Jesus coming to the disciples amid the storm that besets them, saying to them: “Courage, it is I. Do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27) This is Jesus saying to Peter, “Come,” and giving him the courage to get out of the boat, his place of security, and walk across the seething waters and all that threatens him. (Matthew 14:29) And the wind that threatened turned out to be that Spirit of God which empowers, giving strength. (Acts 2:1ff)
This Gospel tells us that in these troubled times it will do us no good just to sit fearful behind closed doors; there we will only remain afraid and alone in the dark. It urges us to go out and confront all that assails us (Matthew 10:19. C.f.: 26:46); there we will find our God coming to us amid all that makes us fearful, there even to uphold us though all that is hostile blows and blusters and threatens to sink us; there we will come to know our God as a God who saves and a God we can rely on. There we will come to know and understand Jesus’ words, “In the world you will have trouble. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Matthew 14:29); there we will find a peace (Matthew 14:32) that the forces of this world cannot give nor take away. (John 14:27) This is Christ’s gift to us, which we will find in that fearful place. (Matthew 14:25-27)This is no small feat; it will require every last little drop of trust we can muster. (Matthew 14:32) But in it we will find Christ’s peace, a peace that, for us, will prevail. (John 14:27; 2 Thessalonians 3:16; 1 Peter 3:11)