Fear Not? We Can't Help It!

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 19
August13, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: What's in a word? Though some translations suggest the apostles were afraid that they were seeing a ghost, what really caused them to fear was they knew they were encountering the divine! How can we know that? This is the first spot in the Gospel of Matthew where a human being proclaims Jesus as the Son of God! We can call on Jesus and expect help, because truly, he is the Son of God!

Sometimes a show becomes so popular that certain catch phrases become part of the language. Even people who don't watch the show know the phrase.

I don't know if the apostle Paul spent much time in the theater, but even if he hadn't, he could hardly escape the comedies of Menander. He even quotes one of the comedies, in 1 Corinthians 15:33, when he states, "Bad company ruins good morals." That's not the Hebrew scriptures he's quoting in this chapter about the Resurrection. It's from Menander's play Thais.

Menander (342-291 BC) was the most popular writer of comedies in the ancient world. Despite that, most of his comedies survive only in fragments. One of his comedies might just give us some insight into what exactly the storm-tossed apostles thought they were seeing when Jesus appeared to them, walking across the water.

The play is Phasma. A young man discovers his step-mother often secludes herself, to pray before the family altar. Once, when the young man spies on her, he discovers she is talking to a young woman, who he believes is a phantasma, from which we get the word phantom. He is horribly frightened because he believes he is seeing a goddess. But he has also fallen in love with her.

Spoiler Alert. His stepmother had given birth to a daughter before she married the young man's father. That is not a goddess he sees, but a real flesh and blood woman with whom he shares no DNA. After many mishaps and misadventures the young man and woman will be wed. But the key takeaway here is that the young man assumes the woman is a phantasma, he does not think he is seeing a ghost. He knows he sees someone divine.1

Remember that.

Let me drink my coffee first

Today's scripture passage is from Matthew 14. That chapter includes the story of the death of John the Baptist, the feeding of the 5,000, the disciples crossing the waters, the storm, Jesus walking on water, Peter taking his first steps on the watery path and the stilling of the storm.

Matthew begins this chapter with King Herod wondering if this Jesus he keeps hearing about is John the Baptist raised from the dead; like many rulers, he can't escape the suspicion that it's all about him.

When word reached Jesus that his cousin John had been executed by Herod, he needed some time to grieve, to remember and to pray. Even though he withdrew to a deserted place, the crowds followed him. Soon Jesus, overwhelmed by their suffering, healed their sick, and not long after, fed the enormous crowd.

Finally, Jesus dismissed the crowd, first sending his disciples by boat across the Sea of Galilee, after which he climbed a mountain and found that private time he longed for.

What does he think about during that time of solitude? The only other time Jesus prays by himself in Matthew's gospel it is in the Garden of Gethsemane, where his focus is on his impending suffering and death.2 Perhaps with his cousin's execution, his focus turned toward the inevitability of his own crucifixion.

In our hectic world, finding time to pray alone -- to reflect on our mortality and to not only speak to God, but also escape the cacophony of the texts, websites, recorded music, calendar notifications and all the other distractions that scream and holler at us even if the volume is set low can take real effort.

Jesus sets a great example of how important it is to create time for prayer, but he also demonstrates how hard it can be. As persistent as Jesus had to be to get some time away, he must not have erased the alarms on his inner smartphone, because out on the lake, the boat carrying the disciples, "battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them."

Jesus responded by walking across the water to save them.

When Jesus walked on the water, he was making a clear statement about who he is. Genesis begins with God exercising control over the waters, the Spirit moving over the face of the deep, with God separating the waters of the sky and sea.3 We are told in Psalm 77 that:

When the waters saw you, O God,

when the waters saw you, they were afraid;

the very deep trembled.

Your way was through the sea,

your path through the mighty waters;

yet your footprints were unseen.4

Job, in the midst of his own anguish and suffering, proclaims that:

[God] alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the Sea;5

The case can be made that when Jesus chose to walk on water to rescue his disciples, he was divinely quoting scripture regarding his nature, without saying a word. His power over water demonstrated his divinity.

The question is: did the disciples get it?

Back to the Beginning

Which brings us back to the play Phasma by Menander. According to Matthew, when the disciples spotted Jesus walking towards them, they were terrified. And they cried out -- what?

In almost every translation they cried aloud, "It's a ghost!"6 But the Greek word used by Matthew is phantasma. Remember in that play when the young man spotted the woman speaking to his mother from the altar, he thought he saw a goddess. The Greek word used for a ghost, what we would think of as the ghostly remnant of a dead person, is eidolon, from which we get the word idol. Phasma and phantasma are used for the appearance of the divine.7 The apostles aren't alarmed at seeing a ghost. They're frightened because they see God.

Our Lord's response seems to confirm that. Jesus says, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." The Greek is ego eimi, which is an emphatic "I AM." I AM comes from the same root as the divine name God reveals to Moses and which is used throughout the Hebrew scriptures: YHWH.8

And the command "Fear not," is used at various points in scripture when humans come into the presence of God.

And at the end of this reading the words of the disciples clinch this: "And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, 'Truly you are the Son of God.'" This is the first time this divine title is proclaimed by members of the human race. Prior to this only Satan -- in the story of the temptation of Jesus -- and frightened demons, speak of Jesus in this manner. And they of course are not praising Jesus. They recognize -- and fear -- his divine nature.9

This is a key turning point, not only for the disciples, but for us; are we willing to recognize that Jesus truly is divine, the Son of God, and not only accept that, but act on it?

Watch your step

We can give Peter all the credit in the world for what happens next. No one else gets out of the boat. But he steps out into the water. That's where Life and Light is.

When Peter asks Jesus to call him to himself, he is not uncertain about Jesus being a ghost. He just wants to hear the confirmation from the source. We are rightly amazed and astounded that Peter got out of the boat anyway, and started to walk towards Jesus.

So what went wrong? It looks like the strong winds distracted his focus. It's like that moment when a parent lets go of the bike while a kid is pedaling furiously, not noticing that no one's holding on anymore. Once your daughter or son realizes they're on their own the bike begins to wobble, or fall. But almost all of us get back on the bike and try again.

As Peter begins to sink he does not act as if he has been abandoned by God, or start calling on other gods. He calls on Jesus to save him, which he does. And we too, when our prayers are not immediately answered, when we waver in the faith, should not put our trust in idols -- eidolon, the word used for false gods and ghosts in ancient Greek -- but continue to trust in God's eventual response and rescue.

When the storms of life buffet and batter us, call out on the name of the Lord, as the prophet Joel and the apostles, after they were filled with the Holy Spirit, asserted.10 Call on Jesus and no other name, because truly, he is the Son of God!