In the Bible the greatest forces known to people were the power of the sea and earthquakes on land. These were regarded as the forces of darkness and evil and, thus, the enemy of God. When the sea became agitated and brewed up a storm, it appeared to people as if it had its very own god or master who was trying to flex its muscles against God.
Sudden, unpredictable storms broke out frequently on the Sea of Galilee, the location for today’s Gospel event. In 1986, when the level of the Sea of Galilee was extraordinarily low, marine archaeologists discovered an ancient fishing boat buried in mud there. Based on the type of construction, the pottery found nearby and the results of a carbon 14 test, experts concluded that the boat was built between 40 BC and 70 AD. So it’s very likely this was the kind of boat used by Peter, Andrew, James, and John. It would have been about 26 feet long and in addition to a crew of five could take up to 10 passengers or a catch of fish up to a ton weight. (source: John J Pilch)
So it must have been quite a powerful storm for these experienced fishermen in such a sturdy boat to become so frightened, and, furthermore, to see a figure coming towards them on the water. Their first reaction would have been that it was a ghost or spirit of the deep sea.
In the Bible God is celebrated as being more powerful than all the forces of darkness and evil. So it’s in this context we must hear the account of Jesus calming the sea. It’s a symbolic act, demonstrating that the One who is more powerful than the darkest forces of nature is now at work in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Forty years after this event, the story had taken on a new meaning. Matthew recorded it when the small Christian community in Jerusalem was undergoing waves of persecution. Powerful, evil forces, it was felt, were raging against them, so much so that many members felt abandoned by Jesus and had lost hope. In fear for their lives, many jumped ship and left the Church.
Thus the storm-tossed boat in the story now came to represent their persecuted community, the infant Church. Through this event Jesus was telling them that while they could not be fully protected from storms of persecution, He was in the boat with them, as he was with Peter and the others. He had not abandoned them and his clear message was ‘Courage. Do not fear.’
It is sobering to remember that while we here in Europe are not being persecuted for our faith, Christians in Asia, Africa and the Middle East are not free to worship as we are. Many are being actively persecuted – in fact, Christians now are the most persecuted religious group in the world. If they can huddle together for Mass this Sunday, they will hear Jesus, as we do, encouraging them with ‘Courage. Do not fear.’
Knowing the relevance of this story in St Matthew’s time, how do we apply it to ourselves? What is the Lord saying to us?
Thinking of boats in choppy or stormy waters, I cannot forget the plight of the refugees – 500 in the past few days – crossing the English Channel from France in search of a better life here. How desperate do I or you have to be to risk not only our own but the lives of our children to make such a crossing?
And if you compare our church and country today to the disciples’ boat in the Gospel, we certainly are in story waters.
At our own individual levels, at one time or another we all experience personal storms and crises that batter us. Some of us presently may be going through such a storm or family crisis, and even be sick with fear and worry. We might feel that, like St Peter in the story, we are going under; and that Jesus, even if he is in our little boat, is fast asleep and does not care what’s happening.
It’s not incidental that we’re told in the story that as long as Peter kept his eyes on Jesus he was able to withstand the waves. It was only when he began to lose trust – taking his eyes off Jesus to dwell on the raging waters – that he began to panic and sink. Might there be a lesson here for us?
In our personal storms of daily life, this Gospel challenges us when in fear and panic to keep focused on Jesus, to go on trusting, as Peter failed to do. Jesus will not prevent storms coming our way – after all, he was not spared his – and we know that one day in the future there’ll be a ‘storm’ (death) we won’t survive – that’s the reality of human life. But in the meantime we can turn to Our Saviour so that however much we are battered, we will get the courage and strength to cope as he did, to endure and not go under. His name, after all – Immanuel – means ‘God is with us’.
Holy Name, Jesmond
9 August 2020