The Gospel today is about faith and about focus. It teaches that although storms and struggles inevitably arise, we have a choice as to whether we focus on them or on Jesus. The message is clear: “Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on!”
Let’s look at this Gospel in three stages: Perceived Distance, Produced Distress, and Point of Decision. I have also included a fourth section for more in-depth study: Process of Development.
I. Perceived Distance – The text tells us that Jesus drew back from the disciples and sent them to make the crossing of the lake on their own, intending to rejoin them later. During their crossing they encountered a storm: After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone.
In this brief text we encounter the mystery of God apparently hiding His face. Jesus, in drawing back from His disciples, exhibits the mysterious truth that God sometimes seems to hide His face. Here are a few other references from Scripture:
- How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Ps 13:1)
- By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; then you hid your face, and I was dismayed (Ps 30:7).
- Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our body cleaves to the ground. Rise up, come to our help! Deliver us for the sake of your steadfast love! (Ps 44:24)
- My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Ps 22:2)
But does God actually hide His face? To us it seems that He does, but has He actually done so in such a way that He is forgetful of us?
Note that in today’s Gospel Jesus is not away on some sort of vacation. Rather, He is praying. In so doing He is in communion with His Father, but surely also with His disciples. While the storm grows, Jesus makes his way toward them in stages.
At first they cannot see Him, but surely He sees and knows them. Later, even when they do see Him, they do not realize that it is He. They even mistake him for a ghost, for someone or something that means them harm.
So it is with us, too. We often conclude that God has hidden His face from us, that He is not mindful of the troubles we face. He seems distant, perhaps even unconcerned, and surely not visible to us.
But it is not always that God has simply hidden His face from us. It is often that we simply cannot see Him, for any number of reasons: Sometimes it is simply that our minds are weak and easily distracted. Sometimes it is our flesh, which demands to see everything physically, refusing to accept the reality of spiritual seeing. Sometimes it is that we insist on seeing and understanding only in ways that are acceptable and pleasing to us, acting as if God could not possibly speak through our enemy, or through a child, or through a painful circumstance. God is there. He is not likely hiding, but we struggle to see Him for these and other reasons.
So if God is hiding, it is usually in plain sight. In the end, where can we run from God? Where could we possibly go that He is not already there?
- O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar…. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths of hell, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, and settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you (Ps 139).
- Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?” declares the LORD. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” declares the LORD (Jeremiah 23:24).
God permits us to experience His apparent distance; this is clearly attested to in Scripture. This hiddenness is mysterious because although God seems hidden, He is in fact more present to us than we are to our very selves.
What God offers us in this gospel is a faith that grows to understand this and to see God always, a faith that permits us to be in living, conscious contact with God at every moment of our day. This is the normal Christian life that Christ died to give us. If we will be open to receive it, our faith will grow. As our faith grows, so does our ability to experience this presence, beyond what our senses may or may not perceive. Yes, as our faith grows, even in the midst of storms we can know that He is near and draw strength and courage from that.
II. Produced Distress – Added to the disciples’ experience of distance from the Lord is the distress of the storm itself. The text says, Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.
To the degree that we do not see the Lord, we will be anxious about many things. In the perceived absence of God, fears increase and shadows grow longer. In this sense, many of our distresses are produced by our lack of faith and our lack of awareness of God’s abiding presence.
Bishop Fulton Sheen used the image of the red sanctuary lamp near the tabernacle, which signals the presence of the Lord. Near the light, we bask in its glow and enjoy its comforting warmth, but as we walk away from it, the shadows grow longer and the darkness envelops us.
So it is for us who lose a sense of God’s presence or willfully refuse to acknowledge it: the shadows lengthen, the darkness envelops us, and the “storms” become more terrifying.
This is why it is so important for us to accept the “normal Christian life” of being in living, conscious contact with God. Knowing God does not mean that there will be no storms, but it does mean that we can face them with courage and trust.
There is an old saying, “Stop telling God how big your storm is. Tell the storm how big your God is.” This can only come as we grow in faith and in the experience of God’s presence.
An old gospel hymn says,
When the storms of life are raging
Stand by me
When the world is tossing me
Like a ship upon the sea
Thou Who rulest wind and water
Stand by me
In the midst of tribulation
Stand by me
When the hosts of hell assail
And my strength begins to fail
Thou Who never lost a battle
Stand by me
III. Pointe of Decision – The text begins with the crucial point of the drama: During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
The Lord presents them with a choice: Either focus on the storm or focus on Him. He is not just telling them not to be afraid; He is saying, It is I, be not afraid. If they will focus on Him they will not be afraid; if they will come to experience His abiding presence, their fears will dissipate.
It is the same for us. If we will accept the normal Christian life and come to more deeply and constantly experience the Lord’s presence, our fear will dissipate. It is not that there will be no storms. Rather, it is that those storms will not overwhelm us with fear.
So we also have this choice to make: Focus on the storms or focus on the Lord. The result will be that we will either live in increasing fear or we will grow in confidence and trust.
There is an old saying, “What you feed, grows.” If we feed our fears and negativity, they will grow. If we feed our faith and trust, they will grow.
So, what’s it going to be? What will we focus on? What will we feed?
Pray for the gift to focus increasingly on the Lord. Pray for the gift to feed your faith, starving your negativity and storm-focused fears.
For Further Study:
IV. Process of Development – The decision before the disciples is now clear. One of them, Peter, accepts the Lord’s offer to focus on Him and not the storm. As we see in the text, though, Peter’s decision to do this comes about gradually, as do most major decisions in life. We must grow into them by making many small decisions and proceed through a process of growth in the grace that the Lord offers. Let’s look at Peter’s process:
Acceptance – Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Things begin with Peter accepting the Lord’s call to shift his focus, thereby accepting courage and as a result seeing his fears diminish.
Action – Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. It is a truly remarkable courage that Peter receives by shifting His focus to the Lord. He walks on the water and almost heedless of the storm or the seeming impossibility of what he is doing. That he is walking “toward Jesus” is an indication that his focus is correct.
Anxiety – But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink. Here is where Peter gets in trouble: he shifts his focus back to the storm. When he does so, his fear returns and he begins to sink. This is representative of the human condition. We seldom go from 0 to 100 all at once. Rather, we undertake a process of growth. Peter had done what was right. He had turned his focus to the Lord and his fear dissipated. But, as is often the case with the inexperienced, Peter faltered in his execution of the plan. It is similar to a young boy riding a bike for the first time: He rides twenty yards, thrilling in his newfound ability. Soon, though, his thoughts turn back to the danger and he wobbles and falls. He will be all right if he gets back up and tries again and again. Although he has failed for the moment, something in him has changed. Having felt his potential to ride, he will build on this. Gradually, riding will become second nature. So it is for Peter and for all of us. At first, faith and trust are hard. We step out in trepidation, but only for a moment; and then we fall. But something in us has changed. That change will grow in us if we get back up again, if we engage in the process.
Acclamation – he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Even in his fall, Peter still does the right thing: he calls on the Lord. Thus, his failure is not total. His faith is weak, but his instincts are right; he fell on Jesus. If you’re going to fall, fall on Jesus!
Assistance – Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter. If we take one step, God takes two. Jesus says, No one who calls on me will I ever reject (Jn 6:37). Peter may have fallen short of the goal, but he has made progress. Later in his life, this moment of rescue will be an important ingredient in his bold faith. But more growth and the Holy Spirit will be needed to quicken his faith. It will happen, though; Peter will grow and the process of his development in faith will continue by God’s guiding hand.
Admonition – and [Jesus] said to him, “O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?” Notice that the Lord does not say Peter has no faith, but that he has “little’ faith. Peter has stepped out in faith, but he must continue to grow. His doubts must diminish. He must come to stronger faith. As God said through Isaiah, If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all (Is 7:9). Peter’s task is clear: he must continue to grow in his faith, as must we. If we do, we will see our fears dissipate and our courage grow strong. Peter has “little” faith; that is true for most of us, too. But at least he has some faith; and so do we. So our cry is that of the Apostles: Increase our faith! (Lk 17:5)
Amazement – After they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” Difficult though this trial has been, it has increased their faith. They still have a long way to go, but they’re on the way.
Yes, we have a decision to make: Will we focus on the storm or on Jesus? We have to keep our eyes on the prize. The Book of Hebrews says, Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb 12:2).
That’s right, keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on!