19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14: 22-33;
Reflection: “One believes with the heart”
There is a moment in Mark’s gospel (Mark 9) where a desperate father brings his son to Jesus for healing and, when Jesus says all things are possible if you believe, the father says “I believe, help my unbelief.” I suspect we can all sympathise and identify with that man’s dilemma: do we believe? How can we know? Be certain? Is the voice of doubt and unbelief perched on our shoulders whispering? Each time we say the creed, just that first phrase “I believe in God…” is there a tremor of uncertainty, a moment in which we engage with the question “what do I mean”, and “what if this is true”? In that brief moment our world begins to shift, the paradigms by which we see ‘reality’, tilt and something new emerges.
Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1996) has traced the way scientific method has advanced, especially when the results don’t fit the accepted paradigm and supposition and imagination press the boundaries to find a new way of seeing. A new paradigm emerges. George MacDonald wrote about the imagination as enabling the scaffolding of hypothesis without which “the house of science would never rise.”
So, if Mark reports the situation accurately, what changes for the father when his son is healed? Belief is not just a hypothesis but a paradigm shifting moment in which he sees Jesus differently. Can we imagine how we might respond to such a moment in our lives? I am confident that we too would experience a paradigm shift and believe!
So I encourage you to read our gospel this morning not merely with the critical faculties but also with the warmth and insight of your imagination. Remember the context: the disciples have witnessed the spectacular miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and have been separated from Jesus who went off to pray while they launched off into the Sea of Galilee. These are experienced fisherman, used to weather, boats and the ways of the sea; but nothing in their life has prepared them for the appearance of Jesus walking on the water toward them. Can we believe the gospel here? Is the gospel presenting a symbolic and metaphorical statement about the nature of God or is this a literal account of something that happened? If it is a true record, what are its implications for us? Is this a moment when the disciples’ understanding of reality and the world endures a radical paradigm shift and adjusts to a new understanding of faith and of Jesus?
Their initial reaction to the sight of Jesus walking on the sea is one of fear – they dismiss what they cannot comprehend, and explain the improbable and inexplicable event as a supernatural apparition – a ghost. Can we blame them? But Jesus identifies himself and in terms we associate with the resurrection appearances “It is I, do not be afraid.”
Peter’s response is a test: “Lord if it is you command me to come to you on the water.”
‘If it is you’ – This is the question. Peter is testing the unknown. He knows the sea, its dangers and the hazards he faces so far from land – he risks himself to know the truth. “Lord if it is you command me to come to you on the water.”
He knows this is madness, sheer folly. We do not walk on water. And yet against every human instinct he steps out of the boat and begins to walk toward Jesus. Maybe like a tightrope walker his eyes focussed ahead to his destination and all his thoughts keeping at bay the thought of the depths beneath him until, until the moment he is distracted and,overwhelmed by fear, he sinks into the dark waters.
“Lord save me!” That is the moment when we are told that Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him saying “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” As Peter finds himself held and safe, what might have gone through his mind; or is it rather what overwhelmed his heart? He was safe in the abyss, in the dark waters.
All of us may recognise something of ourselves in Peter and something of what it means to be people of little faith. We may say, Lord it is human to doubt. We want to believe but help us with our unbelief.