A few years ago I had a revelation while talking with someone who was a non-church goer. He had asked me some questions about what it meant to live as a Christian, and I gave him my very best theological responses—exactly the responses every good priest learns early on during his studies. I expected him to be suitably impressed with my breadth and depth of knowledge and to come to the humble realization that he was wrong and that I was right. But that’s not how it went. Instead, he said simply that my answers to all his questions were abstract and theoretical, and that wasn’t what he was looking for.
His observation was valid because his questions were really about seeking clear, concrete directions on what he ought to do in real life situations. But as I recall, the situations he was concerned with weren’t directly addressed in the Scriptures, so all I had to draw on were broad statements made by Jesus in the Gospels that the Church had spent centuries refining into abstract theological principles.
Today’s Gospel is a good example. We have Peter and the other disciples in a boat in the middle of the night, with a storm raging around them. Jesus has gone off to pray, and, having finished, is walking across the water to catch up with the boat. The disciples see him and are terrified, thinking maybe they’re seeing a ghost, at which point he tells them that it’s him, and not to be afraid. Peter asks him to prove it by calling him out on the water, and Jesus says, “OK, come on.” So Peter steps out of the boat and starts walking on the water toward Jesus, but partway there notices the storm, gets scared, and starts to sink. In his fear he cries out to Jesus for help, and Jesus reaches out a hand and saves him. Jesus says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Then they both get back into the boat, everyone worships him and calls him the Son of God, and they continue on their way.
This is really an abstract story, and so that’s how we interpret it. We take from this story that we’re supposed to be like Peter and ask for Jesus’ command or will. Once we receive it we’re to step out in faith, even when we’re called to do something seemingly impossible like walking on water. If we take our eyes off Jesus and let ourselves worry about other things around us, we’ll begin to sink or fail, but even then if we call out to Jesus for help, he’ll be there, and he won’t let us fall, because he is the Son of God.
OK. Great. This is not as easy at it appears because when we pray, we don’t always “hear” God’s voice—and this is where we fall down. In the absence of a voice or a burning bush giving us specific orders, we’re left with a process of discernment. But that gets tricky, because there are so many factors influencing our decisions that we can never be sure what is the voice of God, and what is simply our own preference or limiting view of things. So we default to the abstract answers that so frustrated my coworker. We say that in a general sense we know that God is calling us to live in faith, and if we keep our eyes on him and maintain our faith in him, he’ll get us through the storms of life. That makes this reading a really nice story.
But, I don’t think God intends it to be just a nice story. I think God means for us to take that discernment seriously. So we look at the big, once-in-a-lifetime situations. We’re stuck in a dead-end, soul-sucking, relatively well-paying job in a career field we never liked, and we feel called to do something else, maybe something that gives something back to society. So, using this story as our guide, we believe that Jesus is calling you to do this other thing. It seems impossible, but we step out in faith, leaving the security of the job we don’t like in order to go back to school, retrain, and become a less-well-paid teacher, or nurse, or social worker, or (God forbid!) even a pastor. It’s a scary, stormy, turbulent transition, and we cry out in fear many times, “Lord, save me!” But Jesus is there, and sees us through, and it all works out.
Or we’re looking for a place to worship, and we join a small congregation that has dwindling resources or, worse, one that doesn’t even own its own building. Over time we feel called to get involved and begin inviting our friends and neighbors to church with us. Or we decide it’s time to get our hands dirty in building up the congregation, even though it seems like a huge undertaking that seems impossible. And, because Jesus is the Son of God and he’s the one you’re focusing on, it all works out and things come together.
These are a couple examples of how to apply today’s Gospel to our present situations, but they’re not the only ones. Discernment doesn’t have to be limited to big, life-changing events. God’s actions in our lives don’t have to be dramatic–most of them aren’t. And much of what we’re called to do seems small and insignificant, so small and insignificant that we often don’t think it matters to God, so we don’t bother trying to discern.
We’re on the golf course and someone starts badmouthing someone that the two of you know. He’s complaining and judging this other guy, and although you didn’t start the conversation, you listen and nod occasionally and try to be understanding about this person’s willingness to triangulate. At no point do you stop him because, after all, it doesn’t seem so bad to allow someone to tear down someone else since you didn’t start the conversation. It’s not like the Gospel relates to this situation….or does it??
Maybe the Gospel could apply if that scenario had happened llike this: You’re on the golf course and someone starts badmouthing someone else you both know, and you remember Jesus’ admonition not to judge others and to love your neighbor. That remembering translates into the feeling that you should try to put a stop to this triangulation and tell the complainer to speak directly to the person he is upset with. It’s awkward, perhaps, but you step out in faith and say that maybe this isn’t such a good conversation to be having, and your friend needs to have this conversation with the other person.
Maybe your friend is polite and changes the subject, but now he looks at you funny. Maybe he resents you for saying something to him about talking behind someone’s back. Maybe the next time you see him he gives you the cold shoulder because his feelings for you have changed since your refusal to engage in criticizing someone else. You notice all this and wonder if it was really worth it? And you wait for things to get better, for Jesus to calm the storm, knowing that you could calm it yourself by just joining in the badmouthing with your friend. But you also know that that’s not what you’re called to do. So you continue to wait, and wait, and wait, remembering that Peter got an instant response, wondering why you’re still waiting. Weeks go by, months go by, maybe things blow over, maybe they don’t. Either way, your relationship with your golf buddy is never the same as it was. And then you remember: Peter was sinking when Jesus saved him. I don’t know how deep he sank—up to his knees? Up to his waist? Maybe up to his neck? And when Jesus pulled him up and they got into the boat, he was wet. And cold. And probably shaken from his experience. He was not unaffected by it. And neither are we.
Being a disciple of Jesus changes who we are, how we act. I think it’s easy for us to apply these lessons to the big events in life because they don’t happen that often. Some of us may never be in a situation where we’re called to step out in faith in a big way. But remembering that everything we do in every aspect of our lives is a response to Christ’s call to follow him is a lot more challenging. There is no aspect of our lives that Christ doesn’t claim, and there is no aspect of our lives in which Christ isn’t there for us. We will have times when we misinterpret our call and step in the wrong direction. But Christ will be there then, too, ready to save us and help get us back on our feet. Following him is not always an easy ride; in fact, following Christ pretty much guarantees us a stormy time. We will experience fear and we will have times when we feel like we’re sinking. But in every instance, Jesus will be there to hear our cry, and he will raise us up and he will see us safely back in the boat, maybe wet, maybe cold, maybe shaken, but in the presence of the one who alone can calm the storm.
When we get to the point where we can truly respond to Christ’s call, we will come to know him truly as the Son of God, and we will then be able to truly worship him. Even when we’re cold and shivering and wet up to our necks, shivering in the aftermath of life’s storms. Amen.