It is maybe a little difficult for us to imagine the persecutions of the early Church. Their viciousness and cruelty seems somewhat removed from our own world, and relatively peaceful life. But as St. Matthew was writing his Gospel, he was faced with the reports of the violent attacks on all the Christians of Rome, of the persecutions in Jerusalem, the difficulties in Palestine, not to mention the general struggles throughout the whole Roman world.
In this context of the violent attacks on the newborn church Matthew probably thought this story of the storm at sea and Peter's walking on Water would be important for the early church to call to mind. And the primitive church cherished this event in the life of the Jesus and the apostles, because they must have seen many similarities with their own life.
Jesus was not present on the boat, when Matthew was writing his Gospel Jesus had already ascended into heaven. Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and probably even helped to push the boat off the shore out into the sea. So he had done when he founded the Church calling his disciples together and then sending them out, to preach, to heal, to baptize all the nations. The boat with Peter at its head, which was that night, being tossed about on the waves, is an image of the Church, the barque, ship of Peter, being tossed about in a sea of persecution.
The most important element in common however is this: the presence of Jesus. He came at the fourth watch after the long dark night, and he was present to his early followers in the Church. Where did they find him? There were miracles certainly: Like the wind rending mountains and crushing rocks, like the fire and the earthquake. But they knew his presence in the silence with Elijah. In the quiet suffering, they knew the peace and the comfort that only he could bring.
In fact Elijah's story bears much resemblance to the story of the early church. Jezebel sought his life for believing and bearing witness to the true God. He traveled forty days across the hot terrible desert hiding from the queen who wanted to kill him. And he calls on the Lord, and God reveals himself to him, in the tiny whisper, assuring him, comforting him and sending him out again to proclaim the message of God.
When the disciples see Jesus walking on water they cry out in fear, but he responds with the peace of his presence: "take courage it is I, do not be afraid." In the midst of the tempest the presence and the words of Christ bring peace to his followers: "it is I, do not be afraid." It was that presence of Jesus, that comfort that led the early Church in its suffering, and brought it peace. Leading St. Justin the Martyr to proclaim to his executioners, "you can kill us, but you cannot harm us."
We can see how the early Christians must have identified with these events. But what about us. The Christian persecutions in Lynnwood have been fairly weak as of late the circuses have been closed for years. But we might look a little deeper. The persecutions sought to separate the Christians from God, from Jesus, from the Church. Certainly there are a lot of anti-Christian and even more so anti-Catholic attitudes and biases, amongst the media, on television, in the newspapers and movies. But this is not the most dangerous threat to us. The best way to effect the separation from God is through sin, and letting the evil one into our lives and this is the storm and wind which leaves us battered and afraid; this is the modern day persecution. And it is in this situation that we need to call on the Lord.
Peter in his brashness and zeal wants to run out to the Lord. But that immediate trust and enthusiasm turns weak in such strong wind and he begins to sink and to lose the faith which had made him get up and go to the Lord.
Many of us make resolutions, promises to do things differently so that we might remove sin from our life, not to gossip, not to be impatient at work, not to waste time watching television, neglecting our family. We are like Peter stepping out of the boat and making our way to Jesus. But seeing the difficulties and struggles, the wind and the waves we begin to sink again. This is where Peter, the prince of the Apostles, is important, because he does not try to turn back, or just give up, but he does the one thing he can do, cries out: "Lord, save me." Our battle to overcome sin in our lives is impossible. It is all grace. We need to be constantly turning to the Lord, recommitting ourselves in our battle for freedom from sin by simply crying out from our heart: "Lord, save me."
And it is in this struggle against sin, in the dark night of stormy seas, in crossing the desert, in the very battle itself that Christ's presence is known. Be very clear on this: it is not in our victory that we win Christ, but in the battle that he is able to win us.
(Homily given at St. Thomas More, Lynnwood, WA)
Picture of Deacon Derek with Fr. Gallagher