Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out because they all saw him and were terrified.
Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (New International Version)
Sometimes, we are afraid – even terrified. And Christians aren’t immune to the feeling of fear and terror.
The truth of the Christian life is that it is a herky-jerky process of three-steps-forward, two-steps-backward, not always knowing with certainty everything we encounter.
The expectation that we will have a consistent upward trajectory of spiritual development with no scary experiences is wrongheaded and misguided. Throw into the mix that our self-awareness is often skewed, and that we have difficulty assessing ourselves with any accuracy, and voila! we have a recipe for the true human condition.
Doubt, fear, failure, and stubbornness aren’t just endemic to other people – it also characterizes many Christians, as well. We will face severe storms in life. They will be harsh. We will wonder if we’ll even make it out alive, or not. And it may very well seem like Jesus is nowhere to be found. Then, when he does show up, we don’t recognize him, and it scares the bejabbers out of us.
This was the experience of Christ’s disciples, who too often reflect our own stories of faith and fear all rolled up in one person. Today’s Gospel lesson is this: Our fears and foibles do not need to define us because Jesus is Lord over the water, the weather, the wondering, the waiting, the wildness, and our own whimsical natures of seeing miracles accomplished in others, then not believing it can happen in our own lives.
So, what are we really afraid of? Failure? Fear itself? Death? Irrelevance? Loss? Change? Perhaps, everything? Yes, all of life is a risky scary business. There are no guarantees, except one: Christ is present with us, whether we are aware of it, or not.
If the worst scenario you worry about in your head would actually come to pass, it will still never change the reality that God loves you and is with you. And it will not stop Jesus from assuring us of his presence and climbing into the boat to be with us.
We don’t have any accounts of Jesus freaking out in fear, or when other people flip out in their own fear. Jesus was a person of prayer, completely grounded in his relationship with the Father.
Jesus made his disciples get into a boat and go out on the lake – all the while knowing what they were about to face with the weather. Even though the disciples were doing God’s will by going out on the lake, they were not spared from adversity. In fact, Jesus wanted them to experience the storm because it is through the storm that we really learn faith and to face down our fears.
There is no shame in being afraid. We all experience it. And there is no shame in admitting we’re scared. Where shame exists, our instinct is to run away like our ancestors Adam and Eve and hide, thus hiding ourselves from the grace that could be ours.
Being out on the middle of a lake during a storm did not prevent Jesus from being present with the disciples – he just walked on the water to be with them. Even though the disciples had just seen and participated in the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand, they were not looking for another miracle – which is why they did not recognize Jesus and were afraid when they saw him.
Jesus never chided his disciples for their fear, or their hard hearts. He simply invited them, with the tone of grace and mercy, to not be afraid. And the Scripture is replete with continual encouragements to not be afraid because of God’s presence. Along with psalmist, we can say:
But when I am afraid,
I will put my trust in you.
I praise God for what he has promised.
I trust in God, so why should I be afraid?
What can mere mortals do to me? (Psalm 56:3-4, NLT)
I sleep and wake up refreshed
because you, Lord,
Ten thousand enemies attack
from every side,
but I am not afraid. (Psalm 3:5-6, CEV)
When I called, you answered me.
You made me bold by strengthening my soul. (Psalm 138:3, GW)
Ultimately, fear has to do with disconnection. It is to feel powerless, separated from any resources, unable to do anything about what is presently staring us in the face and scaring us.
Yet, when we have an awareness and a sense of connection with Jesus, there are unlimited resources of grace to accept, cope, and transcend any and every storm we find ourselves in the middle of.
May the risen and ascended Christ, mightier than the hordes of hell, more glorious than the heavenly hosts,
be with you in all your ways.
May the cross of the Son of God protect you by day and by night, at morning and at evening, at all times and in all places.
May Christ Jesus guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, from the assaults of evil spirits, from the wrath of the wicked, from all base passions, and from the fear of the known and unknown.
And may the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.
*Above painting of Jesus walking on water by Brian Whelan
**Above Orthodox icon of Christ walking on water
***Above painting: Christ walking on the sea, by French artist Amédée Varint (1818-1883)