“I am with you. Don’t be afraid.”
The Gospel According to Matthew 14:22-34
At that time, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up into the hills by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they entered the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.
Today’s Gospel account takes place immediately after the miraculous feeding of the five thousand men. The Lord made His disciples get into the boat and cross over to the other side of the lake. They had heard the words of wisdom that came out of His mouth. They were fed spiritually. Then, the compassionate Lord satisfied even their physical needs. He provided for them abundant food, as He did of old with the Israelites in the wilderness. The mass was satisfied, especially the disciples. But the Lord sent the disciples away, while He dispersed the crowds. Have you given any thought as to why He would separate Himself from His disciples, and why He would stay behind alone to disperse the crowds?
These crowds were ready to declare Him their King! They experienced His wisdom, listening to Him for three straight days, mesmerized by His divine teachings, for no one spoke like Him before. Then they witnessed the great miracle of the multiplication of the loaves. Of old He had fed their forefathers in the desert with manna. Now He gives them food in abundance–for “those who seek the Lord shall not be deprived of any good thing.” For all these things they were convinced about one thing: He was their man. He was the Messiah, and right there and then they were ready to proclaim Him their King. That’s why the Lord had to send away His disciples who were waiting for such an opportunity for a long time. Then He tried to calm down the excited crowds and disperse them peacefully.
So the disciples left, and as they began to sail back the Lord went to pray. Let us pause here before this awesome event, narrated almost casually, or rather, routinely by the Evangelist. The Son of God prays to His Father. Not only does He pray, but He prays for hours, until “evening came.” It was customary for Him to pray. We read in Luke, “He went out to the mountain to pray; and He spent the night in prayer to God” (Lk. 6:12). Here again He spends all night in prayer to God. The obvious question is, How come? Since He is the Son of God what need does He have to pray? And why pray with such intensity? Before we attempt to answer these questions let us turn to the disciples.
While the Lord prayed alone, the disciples had their hands full. All of a sudden the small, tranquil and pacific lake Gennesaret turned into a raging tempest. Who could imagine such a turn? That’s life, of course: a wide, open sea. Our boat glides on a mirror-like surface, and we enjoy the ride. There are blue-green crystal waters, swan-white seashores to explore. Youth weaves dreams with hope, makes plans. And then… the sea swells, rises, surges, swallowing boat and rider. The dreams sink to the bottom.
It is not only the life of the fisherman and mariner that is full of dangers and unexpected turns, but life in general. Life without tears and suffering is a utopia. “In the world you will face suffering” (John 16:33), the Lord warned His disciples. Yes, don’t we all know. This is the “valley of tears.” No one is immune. Even those who believe and trust in God. Perhaps they more so than others. And that’s a problem: Double jeopardy. Let us explain.
Perhaps the pious and devout people have certain expectations, and perhaps others have certain expectations of them. That’s why the Psalmist says,
“My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” (Ps. 42:3).
In other words, You say you believe in the true God; why then doesn’t your God listen to your prayers and rescue you from tribulation and affliction? And again,
“O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Ps. 80:4-7).
Well, the disciples were handpicked by the Lord. So surely He would protect them. Especially when He Himself had constrained them to leave Him. Yet, there they were, in the middle of the lake, wrestling with the high waves that threatened their boat and their lives. How is it possible that the Lord would abandon them in their greatest need? Jonah was involved in a great storm—but He was fleeing from God! Whereas the disciples were doing God’s will. Was God unfair to them? Obviously not. He was with them, as He is with us, even when everything seems pitch dark around us; when one calamity succeeds the other. When one is sick, another dies, another’s business is not doing well, another has marital problems, and another’s children go astray: all this while our prayers remain unanswered. What gives? Has God abandoned us? Why is He behaving as the false gods, the Baals, when their prophets prayed to them and did not reply? But our God, the true God, why does He remain silent to our pleas?
Discipline is hard to swallow, isn’t? Yet this is what the Lord teaches us through the scripture:
“Know in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the LORD your God disciplines you” (Deut. 8:5).
And again in Proverbs we read:
“The Lord disciplines him whom He loves, and chastises the son in whom He delights.” (Pr. 3:12).
St. Paul in his letter to the Hebrews quotes this passage, and adds the following:
“Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?… For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share His holiness.” (Heb. 12:6-13).
We may consider ourselves God’s people, deserving special consideration. We may consider ourselves good and honest, doing our best not to violate God’s commandments. It would never occur to us that God allows “bad” things to happen to us, precisely because He loves us, because He wants to draw us closer to Him, because He wants to strengthen our virtues through pain and suffering: our patience, our humility, our endurance, our steadfastness, our continued trust—virtues which lead us to holiness.
So the good Lord allowed the disciples to be tested. While the disciples were fighting for their lives, at the height of their despair, when all seemed lost, then the Lord appeared to them, out of nowhere, walking on the foamy waves as if they were a smooth dance floor. What else could they think, upon seeing Him, but that He was a ghost? People don’t walk on the surface of water, especially when it is wavy. To the fear of the waves was added the fear of this strange apparition. Help!
Isn’t it strange? Help is right here, next to us. We’ve been praying for divine assistance, and when it arrives we don’t even recognize it. At times, all we have to do is to stretch out our hand to receive the helping hand we are seeking, yet fear, generated by incredulity, blinds us, paralyzes us. Fear and trembling came upon them, when they were confronted by the unknown. Fear and trembling comes upon us when we feel all alone, abandoned, desperate. It is precisely then, as we begin to sink in the abyss, that we hear those magic words, full of confidence, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” “It is I.” Sweet words, piercing the howling wind. “It is I.” Who? The I AM. God almighty. The One Who Is. “Fear not. It is I.” Words which still give courage to troubled souls.
At the sound of His words confidence returns; calm on the water and to their spirits. The presence of the Lord strengthens us, brings us peace. Even Peter, after vacillating and losing the little confidence He acquired, upon hearing the words of the Lord, finally recovers. “From the depths” he lets out a cry of desperation: Save me! He found the Savior. Was it possible that He would abandon His creation. Is it possible, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, that God’s love will diminish for us? This is all He wants to hear from us: Save me! And His omnipotent right hand is stretched to grab us and bring us to safety, to salvation.
When we lift up our heart to the Lord in prayer, something strange happens: fear goes away. Full confidence returns. “With the Lord I can face any situation.” That’s why the Lord did not command the wind to cease, as He did on another occasion. Why? Responds St. John Chrysostom: Because when our faith is strong we can face winds and every other difficulty in life: because God strengthens us and protects us, and as St. Paul says: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). The Lord shows us the way to face every adversity and test in life with confidence and trust: through prayer.
May we turn to Him with this simple request, full of confidence and dependence, my dear Christians: “Lord, save me.” If we do, we have nothing to fear, because we hear His reassuring words, “Take heart. It is I. Have no fear.” Then we feel His hand grasping securely our hand. We are safe. Glory be to God.
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis