19th SUNDAY OF YEAR A, 2020

JESUS IS THE SON OF GOD!

Kings 19:9, 11-13; Rom 9:1-5; Matt 14:22-33

In today’s gospel passage, after feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus disperses the crowd. While his disciples depart in a boat, Jesus goes up on a mountain by himself to pray. When a storm arises during the night, Jesus comes toward the boat walking on the water. The disciples are terrified. Jesus reassures them by his presence. Peter gets out of the boat and begins to walk on the water toward Jesus. Soon he becomes frightened and begins to sink. Jesus saves him and says: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” The disciples in the boat exclaim: “Truly, you are the Son of God.” Peter seems to steal the show, by getting out of the boat and walking on the water. This incidence seems to give the impression that the gospel is about Peter. This is not the case, at all!

  1. JESUS, THE SON OF GOD, IS THE FOCUS OF THIS GOSPEL EPISODE

A keener look at the context of this gospel text of today shows that the message is not about Peter. It is about Jesus! After all, when Peter and Jesus get back in the boat, the other disciples do not congratulate Peter for doing pretty well and wish him better luck next time! The real hero and focus in the story is Jesus whom the disciples worship as the Son of God (for the first time in Matthew’s Gospel). Through this episode, Matthew helps to reveal the divine person of Jesus. We recall that the other evangelists reveal the person of Jesus right at the beginning of their gospels:

  • (Mk 1:1) – MARK emphasizes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”
  • (Mk 3:11, 5:7) “And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God’”
  • (Lk 1:35) – LUKE announces through the angel of God: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow; therefore, the child to be born will be called holy—the son of God.”
  • (Jn 1:34) – JOHN: John the Baptist testifies about Jesus’ divinity: “And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
  • (Jn 1:49) – “Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!’”

Matthew, who addressed his gospel to a purely Jewish audience, chooses to leave the revelation of the identity of Jesus to a later stage in his gospel.

  1. MATTHEW’S TWO EPISODES OF JESUS CALMING THE STORM

It should be noted that in Matthew’s gospel, there are two episodes where Jesus calms a storm at sea: in Chapters 8 and 14. Therefore, the gospel text of today (Matt. 14:22-33) needs to be read in parallel with the account on the stilling of the Storm in Matt. 8:23-27. In the first story, there is a great storm, waves swamp the boat, and the disciples fear for their lives while Jesus sleeps in the boat. Waking him up with the plea, “Lord, save us; we are perishing!”, Jesus calls them cowardly “men of little faith,” Next, Jesus rebukes the winds and sea, and brings about a calm. In response, the disciples are amazed and can only wonder what sort of person Jesus is that “even the winds and sea obey him.”

In contrast, in the 14:22-33 lesson, there is again wind and waves, but no storm, and the disciples are not fearing for their lives. What causes them to be afraid is seeing someone walking on the water and thinking it is a ghost. Jesus reassures them without scolding as before, and then Peter poses his challenge to Jesus. He starts to sink because he “sees the wind,” becomes afraid, and cries out “Lord, save me!” Jesus grabs hold of him, and this time only Peter is called “one of little faith” and questioned for doubting. The wind simply ceases once Jesus gets into the boat, and this time the disciples worship him as the Son of God.

Now, we may ask ourselves what new thing has developed between the two stories. The disciples’ fear is more reasonable the second time: Jesus is not with them, and the phantasm they see is beyond anything they have experienced. The main difference, of course, is Peter’s request for Jesus to identify himself by allowing him to also walk on the water.

In this second instance, Jesus clearly identifies himself by telling the disciples to “Take heart, courage!” He declares, “I am,” with its divine overtones. Jesus’ self-identification (“It is I”; “I am”) of Matthew 14:27, just as the “I am” of Exodus 3:14, means “I am here to save you. ‘Do not be afraid’.” The expression, “Don’t be afraid,” is a regular declaration of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel: Mtt. 9:2 and 22, 10:26, 28, 31; 17:7; 28:10. Thus, when Peter says, “If it is you…”, then he is joining the company of SATAN (who at the temptations of Jesus utters “If you are the son of God…”) in Mtt 4:3, 6, or with the HIGH PRIEST (During Jesus’ trial, the High Priest says, “if you are the Christ, the son of God, tell us.”) in Mtt 26:63, or the MOCKERS AT THE CROSS in Mtt 27:40 (those who passed by mocked: “If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross”). All these persons put the same challenge to Jesus. In each case, just like Peter, they want Jesus to do something in order to verify his identity. This is, definitely, not a good thing.

  1. JESUS IS THE SON OF GOD

In first and second accounts of the calming of the storm at sea, Jesus demonstrates that he is Lord of the wind, waves, water, and sea, all of which are characteristic of the chaotic elements in nature. Quite appropriately then, we also notice that at the end of the second account, instead of just wondering what sort of person Jesus is, the disciples worship him as Son of God. After all, in the book of Job (9:8), we are told “Only God walks on water.”

 

The next time Matthew records that the disciples worship Jesus is when he appears after his resurrection in a frightening manner (Mtt 28:17). It seems, then, that Peter’s question is not whether one who walks on the sea is the Son of God, but whether that person is Jesus. When you start adding all the pieces together, however, it comes out clearly that this is an episode that confirms Jesus’ identity. Later on, at Caesarea Philippi, among the apostles it is Peter alone, having learnt his lesson in this incident, who would readily give the true identity of Jesus. (Mtt 16:13-16) “Who do people say that the Son of Man is? … Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

  1. LESSONS FOR US TO TAKE HOME

The whole incident of the calming of the storm at sea had a profound effect on the disciples. Their faith was deepened. Their commitment was strengthened. They were going to need that faith in the years ahead. Here, also, are a few lessons for us to take home today:

  1. a) Daring or teasing God is forbidden in the Scriptures: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (Deut 6:16). This is exactly what Peter did, when he tells Jesus, “If it is you…” As said earlier, this is the same tactic that Satan uses in the temptations of Jesus. The Jewish leaders also did same, when they dared Jesus to perform miracles. They challenge God, and test his divinity. We must remember that God is not there to satisfy our curiosity and tease our emotions. He is a God who loves us, and gives us what is good for us. He does not play games of “hide and seek” with us. He has our good always at heart. We do not need to dare him in order to get what we are asking for. As the first reading of today teaches us, through the experience of the Prophet Elijah, our God is not to be confused with awe-inspiring natural phenomena like earthquakes, ferocious winds or blazing-hot fire; but he can be found in the sound of a gentle breeze.

  1. b) A ship is one of the earliest symbols for Christianity. In both episodes of the calming of the storm, Jesus ends up in the boat with his disciples. This fact indicates why this symbol was so attractive: when the Church and her sons and daughters are surrounded by adversity, safety and salvation are experienced in the church with Jesus in its midst. The church in every age is threatened by the chaos of evil (the night) and the powers of death (the stormy waters). The Church in Cameroon has also not been spared of these ‘storms’! (You can list some of these storms in our local church.) Matthew assures us with the good news that the Risen Lord, with “all power in heaven and on earth”, is present to save us, just as Yahweh, with mastery over all the forces of nature, saved a slave-people from the powers of death in Egypt. In this way, Jesus assures us: “I am here to save you. Do not be afraid.” We are constantly called to respond with total trust to the saving presence God in his Church.

3)       Most of us, Christians, behave like Peter in today’s gospel. There is no doubt in our minds that we believe in the presence of the Lord by our side. But very often our trust is quite conditional. We tend to panic when a sudden storm arises in the middle of the night, and things get out of control. Like Peter we may start out with confidence, but soon we notice that the wind is really strong and the water is really deep! Sometimes our lives are so full of chaos and turmoil that we feel as if we are trying to walk on a terrible, turbulent ocean. School, work, finances, relationships, sickness, all add to our stress. We wonder how we are going to make it through it all. At such moments, our confidence turns to fear. We feel like we should just hide ourselves from everything. But we cannot. Jesus, the Son of God is there always. Today’s gospel assures us that Jesus also stretches out his hand to save us with those words that must have been spoken with affection: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” All we have to do is trust him.

4)       Peter, the ever-impulsive disciple, asked Jesus to call for him. It is worthy to note that, first, for a few steps PETER DID WALK ON THE WATER. As long as he stayed focused on Jesus, Peter was fine. When he focused on the waves, he lost his courage and began to sink. This is an important lesson for our lives. There are many scary things in the world. There are lots of things of which we can be afraid. We can focus on the potential problems, the disease, the mountains, the barriers, and the size of a task, or we can focus on the SIZE AND POWER OF OUR GOD! When you and I start to feel anxiety and fear, it is because we are looking at the problems or potential problems and not at the one who solves problems, calms wave at sea and move mountains. The times when the situation seems most impossible are the very times when God can show himself most clearly and powerfully. “Do not be afraid, God is in charge!”

 

  1. e) Another life implication emerges if we shift our focus from the disciples to Jesus. Matthew notes that before the episode on the stormy sea, Jesus had gone up on a mountain by himself to pray.  Jesus’ humanity, through intimate communion of prayer with the Father, is completely transparent so that divine power flows through him to overcome the destructive powers of evil. As Christians we are not meant to be helpless victims when storms threaten to destroy us. We too are called to be in close communion of prayer with the Father so that with Christ’s courage and love we can confront the powers of destruction in our world. In this regard, we might take to heart that astonishing passage in the fourth gospel: ” . . . whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:12).

CONCLUSION

Jesus is present and aware of our circumstances. The disciples felt alone but they were never alone. The Lord’s eye was on them and he was praying for them. Even when we feel that we are alone, forgotten by God, he is with us. If he is delaying in meeting our need it is a purposeful delay. There is something he is doing or teaching us through this situation. God is greater than anything (or anyone) that comes against you. He is bigger than any storm that we may encounter in life. He is bigger than cancer, corona virus, loneliness, debt, persecution, and death. This God of ours tells us to come and walk with him on water. The only way we can walk on water is by being willing to get out of the boat. We tend to criticize Peter because he started to sink. But by the same token, Peter was the only one who ever got to walk on water. Why? Because he had the faith to get out of the boat. Quite often, we think it is more rational to stay in the boat! It is safer. However, we will not grow in faith as long as safety is our goal. If we want to experience the power and love of Christ, we must be willing to take a step (or more) outside of our comfort zone. The point is that we will never know victory if we never dare to get out of the boat. We pray that we may heed the command of Jesus: to be courageous, so that we may have the faith to trust in his abiding presence by our side, and in our midst.

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