Have you ever reacted to something out of fear? Like you just did something without first rationally thinking it through. Has fear ever caused you to hesitate to do something? Like you were struck dumbfounded by a moment and failed to take action? Fear makes us do funny things, or it locks us up unable to do anything. Either way, fear wins, because when we respond out of fear we either function without thought, or we cease to function at all. Our readings today give us important lessons about functioning out of our fears.
When we meet Elijah in 1 Kings we find him already camped out in a remote cave. Fear has sent him into hiding. He claims that back in Samaria, the Israelites have turned on God’s prophets. They’ve destroyed the places of worship, and have gone on a killing spree. Elijah escaped and hides out in a mountain top cave.
God goes looking for him, because Elijah is one of God’s prophets, and he’s right in the middle of a job. Wouldn’t you go looking for one of your employees if he went missing on the job site? God finds Elijah and asks him, “What are you doing here?” God sent him to the wilderness of Damascus, not to a remote mountain hide-aways.
Elijah is still rattled by his experiences back with the Israelites. He pleads, “they’re going to kill me back there!” He tries to explain that he’s been working hard for God, perhaps trying to justify his departure from his post. But the reason he’s in the cave is because he’s overcome by fear. He can’t bury that in tales previous heroic, zealous acts.
It looks like God’s intention in his next action is to demonstrate that God’s anger is more powerful, and scarier than anything Elijah might face in Samaria. You think those guys are scary, God says? I’ll give you something to be afraid of. If you’ve ever experienced a hurricane or tornado, an earthquake, or a wildfire or house fire, you can imagine how frightening God’s display must have been – and God wasn’t even in those! I think what God was trying to illustrate was that violent people can be reasoned with, but natural disasters cannot.
What happens next is almost comical. Elijah, still frightened out of his mind, tries to hide himself in his mantle. He goes out to stand before God… because, what else is he going to do? And God repeats God’s self with the same question as before. I wonder if God was hoping, after that demonstration, that Elijah would reconsider his last answer to that question. Maybe God was hoping for, “What th-? How did I get in this cave? Huh… I must have made a wrong turn as I was headed for Damascus to do prophetic work. I’ll just be in my way now.” But what happens next I can only describe as dumbfounded response. Elijah hears the question and with a thousand-yard-stare, gives the exact same answer.
Can you imagine an exasperated God throwing God’s hands up and saying, “Just go back to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you get there, just do these things.” Elijah’s was rendered so helpless by his fear – spiritually as well as physically – that this great, meteorological lesson God taught fell completely flat. Even someone as great as Elijah can fall victim to debilitating fear.
Even someone as great as the apostle Peter can fall victim to debilitating fear. In our Gospel today we have another example. We can love Peter for many reasons, not the least of which is his lack of impulse control. In this instance the fear in the narrative is clearly stated.
There’s a storm that blows in while the disciples are sailing their boat. It’s a big storm and they are frightened. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, they see a person walking on the water toward them, and they think it’s a ghost. Jesus identifies himself and tells them not to succumb to their building fear. Peter personifies the shift the disciples are trying to make to overcome their fear.
In an awe-inspiring moment, Peter is able to break the hold that fear has on him. He steps out of the boat, and he walks on water. Jesus is able to do this because he’s divine. Somehow, Peter has transcended the boundaries of mortality.
In spiritual terms water is understood as chaos. Chaos is where such things as fear are born. It was from the chaotic deep that God called the dry land into being in the Genesis creation story. The waters of chaos yielded to the Israelites during the exodus. God’s power over it was go great the water formed walls on either side so the people passed through the Red Sea on dry land. Now God once again demonstrates authority over chaos by walking on it, putting that which generates fear under his feet. Jesus is completely unaffected by its power. When Peter begins to behave like divinity, he displays for us what can happen when we become completely impervious to fear. Can you imagine how free Peter must have felt?
For a brief moment, Peter lived into the fullness of discipleship; became the apex of God-given potential; showed his fellow disciples what is possible when we deny fear it’s power over us. But then… “Lord, save me!” Peter calls out as he begins to sink.
What happens in this story for us is no less a parable than the seed sowing stories, the net and pearl of great value stories, the parables Jesus taught us just a couple weeks ago. Do not think, sisters and brothers, that Jesus teaches by way of disconnected stories, and episodic events. This is not a weekly television show with unrelated storylines. All that we read is a continuous moment that we happen to break up into bite-sized lectionary readings each Sunday. There’s a continuity in Jesus’ teachings that transcends pericopies, vignettes, and stories-within-stories.
Let’s look at “the parable of walking on the water” in the same way Jesus describes some of the other parables. The disciples are sent out to do ministry. Jesus commands them to get in the boat and sail away to parts unknown. We are each commanded by Christ to go out into the world – into the unknown – to do the work of discipleship. The disciples are us. The boat is our vehicle for ministry. The sea is the world.
A storm blows in, which requires the best of their sailing skills. The storm is all the things that make preaching the Good News difficult. What do you think those things would be? People don’t want to hear it. People try to discredit it. People call you naive or stupid for believing in something you can’t prove.
Remember that the storm is the waters of chaos, and that’s where fear comes from – the fear that causes us to hesitate to act, or to act without thinking. The storm is the power we give to being called naive and stupid, to being rejected, or disbelieved. If I asked you to go out and evangelize the people you work with, or people you meet on the street, or go door to door and share the good news of Christ, how many of you would jump up and shout, “send me!”?
Evangelism is the basic work of discipleship. It’s what we’re sent out by Jesus to do. “Evangelism” might as well be a 4-letter word the way people respond to it. Asking someone to go door-to-door to talk to people about Jesus, to strike up a conversation in the break room, or to stop a stranger on the street, makes their eyes grow large, their palms sweat, and they stammer out all the reasons why they can’t do it. My favourite expression of the fear of evangelism so far is, “I can’t. I have to take my cat to the vet.” “By this time the boat was battered with waves, for the wind was against them,” the Gospeler Matthew writes. “The disciples were terrified and they cried out in fear.”
Something remarkable happened to Peter. Something happened to him, deep in his soul. His love of Jesus became stronger than his fear of outside forces. With his eyes and heart firmly focused on Jesus, Peter suddenly becomes impervious to chaos and fear. These things no longer have power over him. So strong, centered, and focused is his being, so finely sharpened is his discipleship, that he steps out of the boat. Stepping out of the boat is transcending the artificial limitations of what’s possible according to human reason. Where last week, Peter shared in miracle-making, this week he moves beyond the need for miracles at all. But then… “Lord, save me!” Peter calls out as he sinks into the water.
Peter’s inner focus on Jesus is replaced by the outer perception of fear. The storm doesn’t make him sink into the water – he allows fear to drag him into it. Peter allows fear to disempower him, and he begins to be sucked into it’s chaos.
Can you remember a time when you were so gripped with fear that it threatened to overcome you? Can you recall a time when you believed you were about to drown in chaos? Like water, fear can cut off our oxygen supply, take away our consciousness, and leave us adrift to be carried wherever it wills. Fear doesn’t care about us. Jesus cares about us. Love cares about us – and love is stronger than fear. Can you remember a time when when your great love for someone caused you to act without thinking? Can you recall a time when your great love for someone caused you to transcend the “impossible” to make something good happen out of something bad? Peter calls out, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus pulls him from the waters of chaos, and denies fear it’s victory over his disciple. Jesus is God, and God is love, and love is stronger than fear.
Paul writes to the Romans, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Peter called, and Jesus was there to save him. Jesus never turns his back on the outstretched hand of a disciple. Whatever it is that makes you afraid to spread the good news, has power over you only if you allow it. It’s only your fear holding you back from living fully into discipleship that transcends mere ministry.
Share the good news of Jesus my sisters and brothers. Talk about him to your co-workers, to strangers on the street. Let them say you’re naive and stupid, or reject you, or refuse to believe. None of that can harm you. Paul writes, “No one who believes in [God] will be put to shame.”
We have been put on the boat of ministry, our vehicle from which we serve as Christ’s disciples. Pay attention to Jesus when he calls you to go beyond what you think your limitations are. Keep your eyes and heart on Christ when you are commanded to step out of the boat. In the parable of the walking on water, we are the disciples, but more specifically we are Peter. At some point we’ve all got to get out of the boat and walk on water. In doing so, we glorify God in our very being. Deny the power of debilitating fear that leaves us frozen in place. Don’t let yourself be rendered so helpless by fear – spiritual as well physical – that this great lesson from God falls completely flat on you. “Take heart. Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. Everyday the Lord is commanding us to get out of the boat and walk on water with him. Will you step out of the boat when you hear him call?