19TH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME (A)
10th August 2014
I saw Steven Frayne (Dynamo the Magician) do it on telly last year: He walked on the surface of the water of the River Thames in London. And even if it was probably an illusion, and although I haven’t got a clue how he did it, it was very impressive. So is that why Matthew wrote about Jesus walking on water in his Gospel? Was it because he wanted us to say: “Oh nice one, Jesus! Very impressive. Now what’s your next trick?” Or was there another reason? Is there a deeper meaning?
To answer that, look at today’s First Reading. Prophet Elijah is hiding out in a cave because he’s a hunted man: King Ahab who rules Israel, and in turn is ruled by his wife Jezebel, wants him dead, because Jezebel is trying to bring a pagan religion into Israel and Elijah has stood up to her. And for that his life is threatened. In fact just three days earlier he asked God to take away his life: he’s just had enough. He can’t live anymore with the storm of rejection and persecution he’s facing and the real fear of being killed, so he’s holed himself up in a cave, feeling depressed and hopeless. And yet it’s right there, when the situation may seem hopeless, right in the middle of the fear and threats that he’s experiencing, that Elijah experiences the gentle, calming, supporting presence of God.
The early Christians used symbols and images a lot. And one of the images they used was that of a boat (they may have got the idea from Noah’s Ark). The boat symbolised them, the Christian Community, the Church, where together and with one another for assurance and support, they tried to weather out the storms that they faced simply for being Christians: Storms of hatred from the Jewish authorities and waves of persecution from the Roman authorities.
Matthew is writing to a persecuted Church, to give them hope: Although Jesus “has gone up into the hills by himself to pray” (although Jesus has ascended to the Father and now intercedes for us in His presence) he hasn’t abandoned his Church: He’s here, still with us in the midst of the storms that his disciples face, putting his hand out to hold our Captain Peter and everyone in the boat’s crew of disciples who may have that sinking feeling: In our supporting one another, Jesus is with us, himself supporting our togetherness in the boat which is the community, gentle calming us: “Ye of little faith, who do you doubt? Courage! Do not be afraid!”
With the recent commemoration of the outbreak of a First World War one hundred years ago, and the reports of an ongoing lack of any regard shown for innocent human life (especially that of children) in a war between Jew and Arab in a now-far-from Holy Land, we’ve perhaps lost sight of the escalating persecution of our fellow Christians by that fanatically powerful, militant Islamic group called ISIS. They want an Iraq and a Middle East and ultimately a world where only extreme Islamic law rules. And to achieve that, Christians and members of any other faith must convert, or leave all behind and flee if they can, or remain and be brutally put to death. And until recently, no doubt bowing to public pressure, many of the world’s governments (including our own) have been all too deafening in their silence. But today our Bishops ask us to keep a Day of Prayer and Remembrance for them and solidarity with them; that in the middle of their persecution and even in the face of their martyrdom, they may know the prayerful and concerned support of the rest of us in the boat of the Church; and that, confronted by the terrifying waves that threaten to drown them, they may experience the hand of Jesus stretched out to hold them: “Courage! Do not be afraid!”
Apostle Paul prayed that his own flesh and blood would come to know and appreciate their common identity with Christians of being children together of the one Father God. May that be our prayer today for those who wreak a hate-filled, fanatical persecution and even murder of those who are our brothers and sisters in the Christian faith, and of all who suffer persecution in the Middle East from those who share the same flesh and blood.
And may we who pray for peace and justice for them, ourselves be instruments of peace and reconciliation in our own lives and in our relationships with one another. And in the storms of life that we each must face, when the waves are high and threaten to drown us, with the support of each other in the Christian community, may our own faith be strong enough to hold us, and to receive the calming assurance of the Lord Jesus: “Courage! I am here with you. Do not be afraid.”