Over 25 years ago I was in Italy, my first trip to Europe. I took a boat trip from Bari to Patras, Greece; it’s a long ride, and you can go overnight. As it got dark I stayed out on deck and watched as the last distant lights on the coast winked out. I realized that it was completely black. Only the stars overhead. And I thought about the world before electricity, when night was very dark indeed and how much darker still it must have felt to be at sea. Then I realized with a sort of cold horror what must have been so terrifying about being adrift in the dark. How frightening it must have been to be afloat in the midst of a vast ocean without a single light visible on land to guide your efforts to rescue yourself from drowning.
No wonder the disciples were terrified.
Jesus has just fed the 5,000, an extraordinary miracle, and no sooner is this over than he immediately dismisses his disciples and the crowds he has just fed. He wants to be by himself in order to pray.
And he wants to be alone for some time it would seem. Evening has fallen, and the disciples have been struggling against an unfriendly wind for hours. Matthew tells us that it is in the fourth watch of the night that Jesus appears on the water.
The fourth watch, as the Romans reckoned time, is the final of four three-hour blocks of time that ends the night, from 3 AM to 6 AM. So the multitude was fed yesterday in the late afternoon, and now it’s probably almost dawn, which explains why the disciples can see Jesus at all by the early light of the rising sun.
Still, the sight of him walking on the water is a terrifying one, and naturally they assume they are seeing a ghost. A ghost after all could appear on water, while a flesh and blood person would obviously sink.
The sea was a dangerous place, and the Hebrew Scriptures speak of it often as not just a place of literal danger but also a place of chaotic evil. It would have been quite possible to imagine that the ocean harbored evil spirits or perhaps even the spirits of those nameless thousands who had drowned in its waters.
But Jesus immediately dispels the disciples’ fear: “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”
The commands to “take heart” and to “have no fear” bracket the reason why we should “take heart” and “have no fear”: Because “it is I.” It is Jesus, the man whom the disciples recognize at the end of this passage as being none other than the Son of God.
One commentator put this incident in the same category as the Transfiguration, which the church marked this past Thursday; both reveal clearly, to a few close disciples, the divine nature of Jesus. Only God himself is depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures as striding across the sea; that Jesus can do it too means only one thing, that he acts with the same mighty power as God himself.
But this story is not yet over. Matthew’s version alone tells the part of the story about Peter.
Convinced it would seem that this really is Jesus and that he really has divine power, Peter appeals to him to join Jesus on the water.
The reasons for his request are far from clear.
Does Peter want to take part in yet another miracle, like the feeding of the 5,000, which just happened yesterday?
Is he being impulsive, which we know he can be?
Does he just want to be close to Jesus, having been sent away by him not long before?
Hard to say, but the important part is that he could have stayed in the boat. But Peter chose to take a risk.
And at first it works. Peter is able, like Jesus himself, to walk on water. What this shows is that a faithful follower of Christ, empowered by Christ, is able to do wondrous things.
But when that same follower’s faith falters, then like any of us would, Peter begins to sink.
Now Matthew tells us fear comes back into the picture. In verse 26 the disciples “cried out for fear;” then in verse 27 Jesus “immediately spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart, it is I; have no fear.’” Now in verse 39, “but when Peter saw the wind, he was afraid.”
When Jesus saw that all his disciples on the boat were afraid, he “immediately” spoke to them. And now again, that same word comes up when he sees that Peter is afraid. “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.”
When he sees his disciples afraid, Jesus immediately speaks, and Jesus immediately acts. The same Christ who has compassion upon and feeds thousands of hungry people, who has power over nature and walks on water, also saves from danger and death.
“Have no fear.” Should that not be the message for our time? I don’t think we have heard these words nearly often enough in the past few months. It seems to me every Christian should have these words on their lips and in their hearts, perhaps especially our church leadership.
One great church leader of the recent past made this his theme. “Have no fear” was the message of Blessed John Paul II, who preached a sermon on the day of his coronation as Pope, October 22, 1978. That sermon returned again and again to this phrase: “Have no fear.”
In a development that surprised the Pope himself, this became a sort of rallying cry for his entire papacy.
The words resonated because John Paul II was a man who had confronted plenty of genuinely frightening situations. His mother had died when he was only 8 years old, and his only sibling at age 12. He grew up under first Nazi and then Soviet occupation. As an ordained priest in Communist Poland he was under constant threat of being imprisoned or executed, but he was instrumental in overthrowing this unjust and oppressive regime. He recovered from being shot four times by a would-be assassin and finally was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a degenerative disease that slowly eroded his abilities. Yet at no time did John Paul II fail in his obligations: to God, to his enormous global flock, to his many pastoral duties.
He could have stayed in the boat. But if he had, his exhortation to us to “have no fear” would have had far less credibility. He earned the right to preach this part of the Gospel message by the fearlessness of his own life.
We hear a great deal these days about safety. The life of faith however is not a safe life. What we do here in this church is not safe. Receiving the body of Christ is not a safe act. It has never been safe. We come here not to seek safety but to express our faith in Jesus Christ. And as Fr. Anderson reminded us so eloquently last week, Jesus Christ is a lion.
Approaching Christ the lion means stepping out of the boat and out onto open waters.
We are promised that by faith in Jesus Christ we can do amazing things. We can minister to one another, we can soften human hearts, we can defeat injustices, we can survive disease and death—all miracles no less wondrous than walking on water.
We are not promised that we will never sink. We are promised that Jesus will catch us when we do.
To lose faith in this promise, to lose faith in the command to “have no fear” is ultimately to lose faith in the presence and power of Jesus Christ the Lord. That we must never do. For to lose faith in him is to drown for sure.