9 Pentecost, August 10
As Jesus sends away the crowd, he commands his disciples to get into a boat and sail across the sea. The story is familiar: late in the night, the disciples are still struggling against wind and waves. The Greek word basanidzo can mean “to torture, to vex in body and mind, to torment, harass, distress” (Thayer’s Lexicon). The disciples are not merely struggling: they are experiencing hell on water, tormented by the wind and the waves. Perhaps far out of their course, exhausted with hours of struggle, surely wet and chilled to the bone, they see Jesus coming to them, walking on the water.
It is easy to criticize the disciples for thinking that Jesus was a phantasm. But beside the clear fact that he was walking on water, there were other reasons that he must have seemed unnatural. For one, the same wind and waves that were tormenting the disciples were opposing Jesus, but he was not inconvenienced in the slightest. The distance that had taken them all night to cover Jesus covers quickly while experiencing the same waves and wind. Jesus does not float over the storm or magically appear at his destination: in walking on the water, he shows solidarity with the disciples in their struggle, yet the wind and waves cannot master him.
As the disciples in a boat are often used to symbolize the Church, there is a parallel here to the vision of St. Paul: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Our Lord does not disdain to experience the opposition that his Church faces.
Of the torment, Jesus says, “Have courage; it is I. Be not afraid.” He does not say, “I will end this for you” or “Hang on just a minute while I finish off the bad guys” or “Now is the time to restore the kingdom to Israel” or “Follow me to avoid suffering.” His word is, “It is I.” Come wind and waves, “It is I.” Come torture and death, “Take courage.” Come severity, instability, change, and opposition, “Do not fear.” He is master of wind and waves before even Peter steps out of the boat or the wind is rebuked. He is Master of torment and persecution, and though he joins us against the forces that oppose his Church, he walks where he wills. Neither the strength of the opposition, nor the weakness in body or faith of the Church in the boat, will obstruct his purpose.
Untouched by trouble or fear, he reaches out his hand to rescue. Heaven reaches out to save humanity. The one who can bridge that gap between phantasm and flesh with a word and an outstretched hand must be unnatural, must be more than a man. Truly, this man is the Son of God.
Look It Up
The acclamation of the disciples in the boat (Matt. 14:33) is almost identical to the affirmation of the centurion at the foot of the cross (Matt. 27:54).
Think About It
Iconography of the Church often shows the disciples in a boat. The image is sometimes called the Barque of St. Peter. Fr. Jonathan Hemmings writes in an article for the Orthodox Research Institute: “We should not think of the Church as an ocean-going liner built for comfort and ease; rather, we must think of the Church as a lifeboat from which we can throw life-belts for those who are drowning.”