“It is I; do not be afraid”
By Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros
Jesus in our Boat
Homily for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
This episode of the Gospel is about the relationship between the disciples and Jesus in a difficult moment of their life with Jesus, and consequently between us, Christians, and Jesus in the hard situations of our Christian life. It is a story, a sort of drama, in 4 acts.
Act 1: Jesus prays and the disciples are in trouble
In the first part of this episode we have 2 scenes: from one side Jesus praying: “After he (Jesus) dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray”. From the other side the disciples in the boat. “But by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them”. Imagine Jesus going up the mountain to pray, and leaving his disciples to struggle the whole night in the lake against a gusty wind in a boat battered by the waves. This situation of Jesus’ disciples is often our situation: we live in a violent world, “far from the land” where Jesus is praying, and the boat of our life battered by all kinds of waves: spiritual difficulties, material sorrows, financial worries, social clashes and disagreements.
Act 2: Jesus appears to the disciples: Do not be afraid
“Early in the morning Jesus came toward them walking on the sea”. The sea, cause of the dread of the disciples, and place of death, is trampled by Jesus. This reminds us of Jesus trampling the death by his Resurrection, and appearing to the faithful women early in the morning of the first day of the week. After a whole night of fear and dread, the disciples saw Jesus coming toward them. “They were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost’. And they cried out in fear”. That’s a natural reaction: Imagine yourself in a small boat battered by the waves with a gusty wind, and on top of all that a ghost coming toward you. You certainly will be terrified and cry out of fear. “But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” “Immediately”: Jesus did not let his disciples too long in trouble. He immediately spoke to them the word of salvation which allays their fear: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”. 3 short sentences: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”. “it is I (in Greek: ego eimi). This sentence reminds us what God said to Moses, when Moses asked him about his name. He said “I am who I am”. Jesus is the incarnation of God. He is the “I am” of God, He is the presence of God till the end of the age.
“Do not be afraid.” We hear this sentence often in the Gospel, especially in moments of trouble, and in heavenly apparitions. To Mary at the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel said: “do not be afraid, Mary” (Luke 1: 30). When at the nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem , an angel of the Lord stood before the shepherds, “they were terrified. But the angel said to them” ‘Do not be afraid'”. An angel also appeared to the women at the tomb of Jesus and said to them: “do not be alarmed” (Mark 16:6), and proclaimed to them the Good News of Jesus’ Resurrection. And when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his Resurrection, St. Luke tells us that “they were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost” (Luke 24:37). No, Jesus is not a ghost, God is not an illusion. When it comes to the crunch Jesus does not let us down. He is always with us. These are his last words and promise to his disciples in the Gospel of St. Matthew: “Remember, I am with you always till the end of the age” (28:20). Here also we hear the same word: “I am” (in Greek: ego eimi).
Act 3: Jesus confirms Peter’s faith and saves him from drowning
The third part of this episode tells how Peter, the head of the disciples, passed from doubt to faith. He first asked a question full of doubt: “If it is you, command me to come to you on water”. Jesus said to him: “come”. “So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus”. Peter came toward Jesus, and as long as he was looking at Jesus he walked on the water without fear. The text continues: “But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and began to sink”. When he turned his eyes away from Jesus to look at the wind, he began to sink. Then “he cried out: ‘Lord, save me!'”. “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’.” Here also we find the same word: “immediately”: “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him”. Jesus’ hand is a saving hand. It is the incarnation of God’s hand, on which all our names are written, as we read in the book of Isaiah: “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (49:16). Faith is to believe that Jesus is always with us and that he is capable of saving us.
Act 4: Jesus in the boat and the profession of faith of the disciples
The conclusion of the story is very concise; it comprises 2 sentences. The first concerns the new situation with Jesus in the boat: “When they got into the boat (that means Jesus and Peter), the wind ceased”. No more storm, no more waves, no more wind, no more trouble, no more fear: Jesus is in the boat of Peter. And this boat of Peter is the Church. The presence of Jesus with us in our heart is a guarantee of security, stability and peace for our heart. The presence of Jesus with us in our marriage and our family is a guarantee of security, stability and peace for our marriage and our family. The presence of Jesus in our parish is a guarantee of security, stability and peace for our parish and for our Church.
The second sentence concerns the disciples “And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God”. Those in the boat are the disciples; they represent us, the Christians of today.
We often ask: why God does not save us from the storm? Storms are part from our human nature and from the changing conditions of this world. Jesus did not come to change the weakness of the human nature or the physical conditions of this world, but to change the hearts of men and women. He does not always stop the storms, but he is always present with us in the storms to give us the inner strength to weather the storms.
Sometimes we hear people saying: “I never thought this could ever happen to me: this terrible disease, this dreadful accident, this death of my beloved one.” All these misfortunes may afflict us, even when Jesus is present with us; but as faithful, we believe that his presence in the boat with us makes a difference in the way we face them. God could have protected Jesus from being arrested and crucified; he could have kept Paul out of jail and other tribulations; he could have protected all the martyrs from being killed. But God has never promised to keep us out of hard situations. What he has promised is to be with us through every hard situation. Listen what St. Paul says:
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)
The first Christians used to express their faith in Jesus through the Greek word IXTHYS, which means fish and is composed of 5 letters, each letter being the first letter of the following Greek sentence: “IHSOUS XRISTOS THEOU YIOS SOTHR”, which means: “Jesus Christ God’s Son Savior”. Do we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and the Savior, who is always with each and every one of us in the boat of our life, and is ready immediately to reach out his hand and save us, if we cry out to him like Peter: “Lord, save me!”. Do we have faith in him? Do we trust him, and trust his words and his teaching? Or each and every one of us wants to forge a religion to his liking, opened to any pleasure and free from any cross? Do we invite him to be the Lord of our heart, of our mind, of our relationships with others? We read in the Book of Revelation: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (3:20).
And with the Book of Revelation we conclude: “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” (22:20-21)