During this week I have been praying about the dreadful explosion in Beirut, and for the people affected by the horror of this latest disaster. I have also been remembering the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima on the 6th August and the second on Nagasaki, on the 9th August 1945, 75 years ago today.
Approximately 140,000 people were killed in Hiroshima, and another 75,000 in Nagasaki. This followed fire-bombing of more than 60 other Japanese cities, with the worst being Tokyo, which took 105,000 lives.
I watched and read about the explosion in Beirut, one of the largest non-nuclear human made explosions the world has seen. The death toll is mounting, the wounded are counted in their thousands and this is on top of the pandemic with a rising death toll bringing the health system to its knees. Beirut also accepted over one million refugees fleeing from Syria and its apparently corrupt and bankrupt government is unable to respond to the health and safety needs of their citizens. Only the survivors are left to rebuild. I cannot imagine how I would cope with either of these events if I was among them. I saw a woman crying at the bedside of her injured child. ‘I want to live in a place where there is no politics, no violence and no religious fighting.’ A cry from her heart.
We can point to other natural disasters in our own country with fires and droughts in past years which have a similar emotional and physical toll.
Of course, context is essential before we leap to judgement but as I turn my attention to our Gospel reading from Matthew 14:22-36 I hear echoes of these events with Peter and Jesus’ story today.
The texts preceding this passage tell us it has been an exhausting, emotional and powerful day for Jesus and the disciples. They had learned their friend and Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist had been beheaded by Herod on a whim. They have witnessed the impossible feeding of more than five thousand people with just a few fishes and loaves. After preaching, healing, then clearing up and sending people away Jesus sends the disciples ahead of him, by boat and takes the opportunity to go somewhere quiet and peaceful to pray and be with God.
We are in one of those liminal spaces, between noise and silence, night and day, darkness and light, wind and stillness, sea and shore; an in-between place where the holy and the human encounter one another, stretching to include and absorb what is happening.
There are echoes of God’s freeing the Israelites from Egypt where God parted the waters and drove them back with a strong east wind (Exod. 14:21-29). The Israelites crossed safely, but Pharaoh’s army perished in the waters.
Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to cross over?Isaiah 51:10
And in Psalm 77:16,19:
When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled.
Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.
Walking on water after feeding five thousand in the wilderness, Jesus reenacts what God alone can do, the mighty acts at creation and at the exodus revealing Jesus’ divinity.
When the disciples saw Jesus, they cried out thinking he was a spirit from the deep, but he reassured them, saying:
Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’Matthew 14:27
The words ‘It is I’ are the divine name revealed to Moses at the burning bush: ‘I AM’ (Exod.3:14). Jesus’ words are also the words God speaks to the people of faith in every crisis:
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you, when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour’.Isaiah 43:1-3
Today I want to highlight a couple of reflections about discipleship given our current context at the moment.
The first is a recognition God is our Creator, Redeemer, and sovereign of the universe. God is always present with the community of faith in times of crisis. The one who stretched out the heavens and parted the waters and walked on water will be with us in our distress.
It is a core characteristic of our human nature we fear and destroy what we do not understand and in so doing we are blinded to the arrival of the holy. In the same way, God stands ready to offer comfort, love, and calm to soothe us if we are listening.
Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.Matthew 14:27
Peter asks, if it is truly Jesus, could he command Peter to come to him on the water.
In the middle of storm, Peter steps out of the boat and begins to make his way to Jesus, walking on the water. When he becomes concerned about the wind, he begins to sink. Sinking into the deep he cries out to Jesus, ‘Save me!’ This prayer echoes the words of the Psalmist:
Save me O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.Psalm 69:1-3)
It is also the cry of the other disciples in the earlier sea crossing (Matthew 8:25). We know Jesus came to save his people. The problem though, is not the wind and the waves, it is as Jesus calls it:
You of little faith, why did you doubt?
A frequent comment by Jesus to his disciples and followers about their faith.
So here is the second reflection about discipleship: God is always present in our times of distress. God asks us to come to God, but we must walk by faith with our eyes fixed steadfastly on God. When we fail which inevitably we do, if we call out to God, God will surely raise us up and draw us to God’s self.
When Peter doubted, it is a hesitation to obey Jesus. Peter’s fear gets in the way of faith as it often does for us all in tough times and in periods of uncertainty. We too, ask questions:
These fears are real, as real as the storm into which Peter steps with the other disciples. Simply focusing on Jesus may not necessarily do anything to calm the storm.
No amount of faith may end the difficult times for the world with the pandemic, the corruption and destruction in Beirut and the enormous death toll from nuclear war. No amount of trust may calm the fears of a world, a nation and a State still scared to death about how vulnerable life is and the world with climate change pressing hard upon us. No amount of prayer is guaranteed to calm the storms that sometimes rage within every life and every home.
Nevertheless, sisters and brothers, the words Jesus offers, even before Peter steps out of the boat, could not be more clear:
Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.Matthew 14:27
Whatever the storm, whatever the uncertainties, whatever our fears, as a church and as disciples willing to risk a closer step toward Jesus, we have nothing to fear. With Jesus we have courage to engage with every change, every uncertainty and every fear. Without him we have nothing to offer the world. With him, there is little else we need.
The Lord be with you.