Today’s Gospel picks up almost where it left off last Sunday, when our Lord healed the Centurion’s servant, and compared the faith of that Roman officer to many of the “children of the kingdom” who would not feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. There was a brief stop at the home of Peter, where our Lord cured his ailing mother-in-law, and, later that evening, healed a large number of the possessed and the sick.
As our Lord made his exit, he was stopped by a scribe – a lawyer of the Mosaic law – who wanted to go along with Him. Our Lord was frank with Him: “The foxes have dens, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere even to lay His head.” Another man, already a disciple, who asked for time to go and bury his father, received the classic answer: “let the dead bury the dead.”[ii] There is an air of urgency in our Lord’s voice – time is short – some divinely appointed deadline begins to loom in the unspecified future.
They got on a boat and left Capharnaum for the “other side” of the Sea of Galilee; in fact they were to cross its longest dimension. But among the Apostles we know there are at least four experienced fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James, and John – there were not yet twelve of them – and virtually all of them were from somewhere around the sea. The Gospel doesn’t say, but it is easy to imagine Peter taking charge of the voyage, and telling Jesus, who was from the hill country of Nazareth to just go below and relax – “I’ll take care of it; we’ll let you know when we get there; nothin’ to worry about.” When Jesus went to sleep, there was probably a good deal of discussion among the Apostles about the things they had seen in the past weeks and days since their calling to become “fishers of men.”
They were a ways out into the deep when, all of a sudden, the wind picked up, and began to remind them how frail a craft they were in when compared with the crashing of the waves. If we use our imagination once again, perhaps it is the young John who suggests to Peter that: “Maybe we ought to wake Jesus, and see what He wants us to do?” To which Peter might have replied: “Jesus is a carpenter … and a great preacher … but we’re the sailors here.” (The ladies here understand this: it is almost as though John had told Peter to stop and ask for “directions.”) But it didn’t take very long before these experienced fishermen began to realize that they were in trouble beyond their abilities to deal with it. “Lord! Save us! We are perishing!
“And He rebuked the wind, and there was a great calm.” Imagine that … you can rebuke a man who intends to harm you; you can threaten him, or appeal to his mercy, or even reason with him … sometimes you can even get an animal to back down if you make enough noise or wave a big enough stick. But Jesus rebuked the waves and got the wind to back down! In a sense, this was more than just healing a few sick people – physicians healed the sick often enough – but this was the ability to command the overpowering forces of nature: the wind, the waves, the rain, maybe even some lightning! “What manner of man is this that such things obey him?”
At was a sufficient demonstration of divine power that, on a later, similar occasion, when the Apostles were alone in the boat, and Jesus came to them walking upon the water, our impetuous Peter asked Jesus for an invitation to join Him in His walk. And of course, we know that Peter did walk upon the water – at least until he began to think about what he was doing – and faith gave way to fear – when, of course, Peter began to sink. When Jesus calmed the water on that occasion, it seems to have dawned on Peter and the others – as it had never dawned on them before – “Truly, Thou art the Son of God!”[iii]
In commenting on this Gospel, the fifth century doctor, Saint Cyril of Alexandria reminds us that there are at least two ways in which we can interpret these great miracles of our Lord.[iv] In one way, we should be inspired with holy fear. He reminds us that in the Old Testament, through the Prophet Jeremias, God reproved the almost universal corruption of Jerusalem:
We ought to be terrified by the notion that all of our sins take place in the presence of God Himself. God sees everything that we do.
But Saint Cyril closes on a hopeful note:
Remarkable, isn’t it? The presence of God can – and should be – terrifying to those who act wickedly, and preach falsehood, and judge unjustly. But that very same presence can change “mourning into joy” for those “who love one another” and keep His Commandments. Our Lord’s miracle, today, is a wonderful consolation in these troubled times, when our very civilization seems to be falling around us. Let it be, for none of us, a justifiable warning.
“God averts not His face from those who trust in Him.”