Homily for 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2011
In 1986 the water level of the Sea of Galilee was very low. So low that the remains of an ancient boat were found in the newly exposed mud. It was 8.07m long, 2.2m wide, and 1.3m deep. Originally it had a sail. There are places for four oarsmen and one on the tiller. A boat this size could hold a crew of five plus ten passengers (See Matthew 14: 22), or the crew plus cargo, for instance, a catch of fish in excess of one ton (See Luke 5 :4-11; John 21:1-14). Archaeological evidence suggests that it was built between 40BC and 70AD. It seems very much to be the kind of boat that Jesus' disciples Peter and Andrew, John and James used.
The fishing boat of Peter and his friends became, very early on in the history of the infant Christian community, a symbol for the Church. As you read St Matthew's Gospel, written late in the 1st century, you can understand why.
Last week we heard how Jesus' grief for John the Baptist led him to try to go to a lonely place to pray. But the crowds followed him. Subsequently, we heard how he fed the 5000 men plus women and children in the wilderness. Immediately after this, Matthew tells us, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead across the Sea to the other side while he dismissed the crowds and went up the mountain to pray to the Father who is source of all he is and does. Presumably he went to pursue his interrupted grieving and praying about John and the fate of his own mission. But in this instance his prayer was certainly for his disciples as well. After battling a heavy sea all night the with the wind against them the disciples saw Jesus coming towards them on the water in the morning. They were terrified thinking he was a ghost. But he said ″Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid″ (v27).
A recurrent theme in Matthew's Gospel is that Jesus is ″Emmanuel″, God with us. He was announced as such at his birth (Matthew 1:23). He promised to be that for the Church in the very last verse of the Gospel at his ascension, "I am with you always to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). This passage gives the same message. Here he is sending his Church on its mission in a turbulent world symbolised by the sea. And just as he would send them to Galilee ahead of him after his resurrection here he sends them ahead of him as well.
The point of it is, of course, that he is not leaving them alone to live their discipleship or their mission. On the mountain as he prays in union with the Father, he has the disciples in his heart as well. In the midst of their fear He comes to them on the Sea. That is a divine prerogative as the Psalmist says of God (Psalm 77:19), "Your way was through the sea, your path,through the mighty waters yet your footprints were unseen." (See also Isaiah 43:15,16: I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King. Thus says the LORD,who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters.)
Here again Jesus is Emmanuel,even using the divine name as told to Moses, "I am" (Exodus 3:14). He comes in the midst of the wild sea as a voice of peace just as God came to Elijah on the mountain in the midst of the wind and earthquake as the sound of a gentle breeze. Without God we, like the disciples in the boat, will make no headway against the stormy sea.
Jesus will always be with his community of disciples. He had already demonstrated to them that they should be the ones to feed the crowds themselves. Now he shows again that it is not by their own strength that the do this but by the grace of God alone.
When we are engaged in our daily battles and struggles with life we can often not give God a second thought. We are so engrossed in our own situation, as we do need to be. Yet, on the other hand, God has not left us out of his thoughts for a single moment. God will come across the deep and dangerous sea to restore our courage. We may have a little faith like Peter who wants to be faithful and walks towards Jesus. But he is also capable of betrayal and begins to sink. But that little faith is enough for Jesus. We are no different. Jesus reaches out to hold us, "You of little faith why did you doubt." He is saying this to us as we approach Holy Communion.