August 13, 2017
St. Peter is one of the few biblical figures whose spiritual evolution we can follow in significant detail. A later point in his encounter with Jesus highlights, I think, the dynamics of today’s passage. You may recall how, at the end of John’s gospel, the resurrected Christ appears on the beach of the Galileean sea where the disciples are fishing, with breakfast prepared for them. After he gives them good fishing advice and they haul in a huge catch, Peter recognizes Jesus, jumps into the sea, and swims ashore, with the other disciples following. At breakfast, the Lord engages Peter in a dialogue about feeding and tending his flock out of love for him. Jesus then points to a future that might well have caused Peter to wonder what he had gotten himself into: “Very truly,” Jesus says, “when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” This, of course, foreshadowed Peter’s giving himself fully in ministry to the point of martyrdom.
Today’s gospel account, I would say, represents an earlier stage of Peter’s spiritual awareness. Here, it is beginning to dawn on him that his life ultimately belongs not to himself but to God, who in Jesus calls him, leads him, and sustains him. Peter, by nature, may have been the classic self-reliant man. As in today’s story, he is always taking the initiative, perhaps thinking he can handle even this situation of walking on water. Of course he learns a stark lesson when his fears rise along with the wind and he begins to sink: he must rely not on himself but on the one whom the winds and the sea obey. God, not Peter, will set the agenda, call on his followers to help him accomplish it, and make sure they are safe, even as they give up their effort to control their own lives.
Like Peter, we struggle to open ourselves up to God’s presence, God’s will, God’s direction, and God’s saving help in our lives. This path of discipleship goes against our tendencies as human beings who want our own way. It definitely runs counter to the ideal of self-reliance in today’s culture. Rooted in the Enlightenment, this ideal has a long, venerable history in American thought. The 19th-century New England philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson perhaps expressed it most famously in his essay entitled “Self-Reliance.” “Trust thyself,” he urged. “Every heart vibrates to that iron string.” “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” God, for Emerson, was not to be distinguished in practice from one’s conscience, or one’s inner spirit.
But, according to the Bible, I would say, self-reliance doesn’t work. For a time, it may seem to work; we may seem to be walking steadily across the water. But while we are made in God’s image, we are not God. We don’t always have the big picture in mind; we are not always aware of what is best; and we often find God leading us where we would never have thought of going on our own. Without what a favorite hymn calls “the power of God to hold and lead,” Abraham would never have set out for the promised land. Moses would never have led a liberation movement in God’s name. The prophet Elijah would never have ended up in the midst of a storm on Mount Horeb receiving orders as God’s prophet and agent. Jonah would certainly never have ended up in Nineveh, reluctantly promoting God’s will for those non-Israelites. The Virgin Mary would never have given birth. And Peter would never have ended up on a cross in Rome. As a fellow parishioner put it long ago, “if you like surprises, you’ll love God.”
We may plan something, but God may have something else in mind. This is the idea behind an essay by Emily Perl Kingsley, who reflected on her experience raising a child with what is called a “disability.” She wrote, “When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip – to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting. After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland." "Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy." But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay. The important thing is they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place full of pestilence, famine, and disease. It's just a different place. So you must go out and buy new guidebooks. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you never would have met. It's just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around...and you begin to notice Holland has windmills...and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts. But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy...and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say, "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."
And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away...because the loss of that dream is a very, very significant loss. But...if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to go to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things...about Holland.”
When we look at the circumstances and turning points of our lives from God’s perspective, we can see them in a very different, and much more positive, light. We do cooperate with God and take initiatives, as Peter did, but happiness lies not in all our plans being fulfilled but in faithful confidence that God is in our midst, working for a good that is perhaps beyond our sight or even our comprehension. This is a happiness even deeper than what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he spoke of the “pursuit of happiness,” and it brings what St. Paul calls the peace which passes all understanding.
In the latter half of the 20th century, Mother Mary Clare led the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford, an Anglican religious order whose primary work is prayer and whom our Trinity pilgrims visited this past June. She wrote that our personal relationship with God begins with prayer that involves very attentive, disciplined listening—perhaps such as Elijah was engaged in when he heard a still, small voice on the mountain. In such prayerful listening, she tells us, “we gradually learn to let go of ourselves and allow the Word of God to speak within us. The one who truly listens is also the one who truly obeys. If we accept the very serious task of stilling ourselves in order to listen to God we may be required to take action, and the result may be as devastating as the result of our Lady’s ‘Yes’—which was as a sword piercing her heart.”
As with Mary and Peter and so many others, God in Christ calls us to some form of walking on water, to a life of walking in faithful obedience to often unexpected and seemingly impossible callings. As another Reverend Mother sang in “The Sound of Music,” this will require all the love we can give, every day of our life for as long as we live.” Then when the shadows lengthen, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done, we will continue to rely on our faithful Creator who in Christ has held us and led us and whose perfect love will sustain us and cast out all our fear.