“Do Not Be Afraid”
In this beautiful homily for 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Father Hanly says Matthew is telling us the story of our own lives, because we, too, very often, are driven by fear and doubt, and he wants us to know that in these times of terrible storm, terrible difficulty, fear, this is the time that you walk with Jesus, who walks across the water to bring you back into the boat and safely home.
Readings for Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
- First Reading: First Kings 19:9, 11-13
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14
- Second Reading: Romans 9:1-5
- Gospel: Matthew 14:22-33
The great German poet and playwright Goethe felt that this passage of scripture was, for him, the most important, the most beautiful and the most engaging, so that he always held it as his favourite passage of the Bible.
After hearing it, you might not know what makes it so wonderful. And what I’ve decided to do, instead of explaining everything, I’ve decided to explain, so, if you have the book, it would be better if you just took it out and turned to page 27, and we’ll reread this most famous, this very, very important, gospel. If you don’t, just listen carefully.
Now remember, last week, Jesus fed the five thousand. And it was such an awesome thing, not the miracle, but the idea of bringing this mangy crowd of five thousand people, who probably wouldn’t even talk to each other going down the street, into a community praising God and filled with joy.
And remember we mentioned that it’s the sign of later what takes place at the Last Supper. And it’s this Last Supper is what takes place all the time when we say Mass.
Now that story is told very, very well. But this story that followed it, for some reason Matthew can make it a little confusing, because it’s a strange story, and even scripture scholars say they don’t know why this story is here in this way. Because there’s reminders in the story that what took place didn’t take place right after the great banquet in the desert. What took place came after Jesus rose from the dead.
And now we will go over it, but to give you an idea, because that’s very important to keep in mind. So we begin.
“After Jesus had fed the people,
That’s the Eucharistic banquet now, the prelude to the Last Supper and the banquet that we come to each week here, it is the Eucharistic service.
“Jesus made the disciples get into a boat
and precede him to the other side,
while he dismissed the crowds.
After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
Remember last week, he heard of John the Baptist’s terrible death — he beheaded at the request of a dancing girl, at a party of King Herod — and he wanted to be alone. And when he arrived at the place where he thought he would be alone, across the other side of the lake, all the people came. And he just turned to them immediately and he healed those who needed healing and he preached to those who needed preaching. And he gave himself totally and completely, all day long.
And, of course, this is after he had fed them, Jesus made the disciples also to go away and he went up to the mountain to find his Father and to talk and pray and be with Him in this very difficult time.
“After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
When it was evening he was there alone.
All day – or what was left of the day – into the night.
“Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore,
was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.
Now the sea of Galilee had these terrible — it’s almost like being on an ocean liner in a hurricane — the winds come down and they disturb the water so much that they throw these little ships up, and sometimes over, and many people die. So the water means the place where so many valiant men died, drowned in these terrible storms.
Anyhow, they were in great fear, for the wind was against them.
“During the fourth watch of the night,
This is Roman time. The fourth watch is three o’clock in the morning. Three o’clock in the morning, they’re still trying to get to the other side.
“he came toward them walking on the sea.
When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.
‘It is a ghost,’ they said, and they cried out in fear.
At once Jesus spoke to them, ‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.’”
Now this is post-Resurrection. “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.” When the women come to the tomb the angels say, “Do not be afraid. He has risen.”
Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, it is I.” He is talking about the Risen Lord is with his people and he will stay with his people and remain with his people.
So they see him walking on the water – beautiful image – walking on the water, for he has risen and come back to be with them, the same Jesus that walked with them and preached on the side of the same sea, many, many times, to the people.
They were terrified, because, even though they knew that Jesus would have risen from the dead, they didn’t know what to make of the words “risen from the dead.” And he told them he would rise from the dead and they still couldn’t make it out.
But here he comes, walking across the water. At what time? When the ship was about to be destroyed. It’s being tossed by the waters in grave danger and they thought all of them would perish.
And then, of course, Jesus comes to save them, to heal them, to be with them. “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Thoreau once said, and I think it’s true, “Most men’s lives are lived in quiet desperation. They have a song in their hearts, but it never gets out, because their fears die, and they die with fear in their heart and the song unsung.” It’s a beautiful image.
All we can do with our freedom, because the greatest problem in human beings is not the graciousness and the goodness and the wonderful things that happens to us, but the fear tends to die with us. And this fear is rampant.
Now this is why it’s a post-Resurrection story. Because, remember Peter, Peter is the one that denies Jesus three times. Denies him three times the only time Jesus really needed a friend. Peter denies him when he’s on trial and then he dies on the cross. And he says, “I don’t even know the man.”
And so here comes the Risen Lord, and Peter looks out and he sees and he hopes. Because he’s done the unforgivable and he cannot be forgiven.
And yet he can be forgiven. Because Jesus says to him, when he appears to him at another time, he says three times to him, “Peter, do you love me?” And Peter says, “Yes.” And he says, “Peter, do you really love me?” And he says, “Yes, you know I love you.” And the third time, he says, “Peter, do you really love me?” And Peter is so ashamed and he feels that he couldn’t possibly be forgiven. And then Jesus says, “Take care of my sheep.”
And so it is that Peter, with great courage, says, “If it’s really you, the one that can forgive me for the terrible denial of you yourself, if it’s really you, let me walk on the water.”
And, of course, Jesus says, “Come.”
And he jumps out of the boat and he starts walking on the water. And, all of a sudden, he realises that he is walking on the water, and he doubts and he begins to sink. And Jesus reaches out his hand and he grabs him and lifts him up and brings him back to safety. And together they get into the boat and the whole storm dies down and they continue their journey.
This is a wonderful story. But Matthew is not writing to tell us the story of what happened, he’s telling us the story of our own lives. Because we, too, very often, are driven by fear and doubt. And he wants us to know that in these times of terrible storm, terrible difficulty, fear, and it seems like everything around us is falling apart in our lives, and Jesus comes walking towards us, (inaudible) the water that we experienced in baptism, the guarantee of God and Jesus when he says, “Do not be afraid. It is me, and I will be with you all days even to the consummation of the world.”
Of course, Peter is the great example, the first Pope, the one who also is crucified and dies on a cross, but lives for all eternity as the forgiven one for denying Jesus. And yet Jesus’ love was so great that Jesus forgave him even before he said all those words of denial when Jesus was on trial.
So this is the reason why Goethe loved this. Because no matter what happens in your life, no matter how dark it gets, no matter how hopeless it seems and you think God is far away — because of sickness or illness, or just plain fear and desperation and nowhere to turn, or even if you just lost your way and you’re looking around and you’re not so sure and you begin to doubt and you begin to doubt yourself and the people around you, even your own family — this is the time that you walk with Jesus, who walks across the water to bring you back to the Barque of Peter and to get back into the boat and begin your journey, all the way home, across the lake and even further, because it is the beginning of going home to the Father and to live forever in the presence of Jesus, our Lord.