by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
Among all the diplomas and certificates I have accumulated, there is one of which I am especially proud. Signed and dated, it testifies that I completed the learn-to-swim course of instruction at the Flushing YMCA and passed the test (just barely). Here’s the test: “Jump into water over student’s head (which, I should note, wasn’t very deep at all), come to surface and level off, swim a minimum of 25 feet, turn around and return to the starting point.”
I have become a more confident swimmer since then, but even that much younger me did better in the water than Peter does in this Sunday’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel. I make that boast with trepidation because it’s one of the few ways I can claim to outperform the great apostle who is among my patron saints!
Here’s the story: after they’ve fed more than 5,000 people, Jesus tells Peter and his companions to get into a boat to sail to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, while Jesus himself stays behind to take some private time for prayer. With Jesus alone on the mountaintop, the disciples make their way through the waves, perhaps discussing the miracle in which they had just been involved and wondering what to make of the one who fed so many people with so little.
As the night wears on and with the boat already several miles offshore, Jesus decides to rejoin his disciples, walking toward them on the water. The disciples are more terrified by that sight than they are by the wind and waves, so they mistake Jesus for a ghost. “Take courage,” Jesus reassures them, “It’s just me—don’t be afraid!” Peter still has doubts, so he challenges the still-mysterious figure, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
On Peter’s lips, the word “Lord” does not echo with the solemnity that this title would acquire, with “Jesus is Lord” becoming an affirmation of Jesus’ divinity as early as Paul’s letter to the Philippians. For the Galilean fisherman, “lord” was simply a respectful form of address, but that hardly diminishes the audacity of what Peter asks to make sure it’s really Jesus.
Unfazed by the request, Jesus tells him “come,” and so he does! Yet as Peter walks toward Jesus on the water, the force of the wind frightens him and he begins to sink. “Lord, save me!” he calls out, the first of countless times since that these words have been uttered in prayer! Jesus reaches out to take Peter by the hand, gently asking him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
All doubt dissolves as Jesus and Peter get into the boat and the wind dies down. What the disciples do and say makes it clear that any uncertainty they may have been harboring is gone. Bowing down in reverent homage, they declare, “Truly, you are the Son of God,” the first time in Matthew’s Gospel that human beings refer to Jesus this way. Up to this moment, it was the tempter who used this title to mock Jesus as he sought to lead Jesus astray in the desert. A bit further on it was the demons Jesus drives out of the afflicted man in Gadarene territory who cried out, “What have you to do with us, Son of God?”
Although this was the first time the disciples recognized who Jesus really is, it was not the first time they found themselves in a boat on the stormy sea. No doubt they recalled how Jesus slept soundly as the waves threatened to swamp their boat. “Lord save us,” they cried! When Jesus chided them for their insufficient faith and rebuked the winds and the sea so that the storm abated, they marveled, “What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?”
As they once again see him master the elements, they learn that Jesus is no ghost and no mere human, but the Son of the true God by whose command earth and sky and sea were made. Fear gives way to faith! With the cross still ahead of them, their faith would be shaken. Still, God’s power would not fail, proving victorious on Easter morning even over death itself.
While I would not feel too confident diving off a boat and into the water if Saint Peter were the lifeguard, there’s so much I have to learn from him. His prayer, “Lord, save me!” is the sort of prayer we all need when we find ourselves sinking beneath whatever waves threaten to overwhelm us in body, soul, or spirit. It is Jesus, the Son of God himself, who calms every storm and who hears that prayer, stretching out his hand to save us.
Readings for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 19:9A, 11-13A
Psalm 85:9, 10, 11-12, 13-14
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.