I’ll probably spend the next week pondering yesterday’s Sunday scripture readings, both the first reading in which Elijah hears the voice of God (not in the earthquake wind or fire, but in the gentle breeze – or in another translation the sheer silence) and the well-known Gospel account of Peter walking on before sinking the lake.
Both readings are personal favourites and every time I hear them and ponder them these texts speak to me in new and powerful ways.
I like the way that the profound John Whittier poem, set beautifully to music by Hubert Parry implies that the voice of God comes to us not when we escape the storms of life but through and in the storms.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.
In these storms the gentle voice is difficult to hear precisely because the earthquake wind and fire are big and noisy and occupying us fully, However the still small voice of calm is offered to us in the midst of the storm.
And notice too that the yesterday’s Gospel reading is not the one where Jesus calms the storm. That’s back in chapter 8 of Matthew. But here we have the account of Jesus coming to his disciples in the midst of the storm. Peter steps out of the boat into the storm, not after the storm which continues through this entire encounter:
When evening came, he was there alone, while the boat, by now far out on the lake, was battling with a heavy sea, for there was a head-wind. In the fourth watch of the night he went towards them, walking on the lake, and when the disciples saw him walking on the lake they were terrified. ‘It is a ghost’ they said, and cried out in fear. But at once Jesus called out to them, saying, ‘Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid.’ It was Peter who answered. ‘Lord,’ he said ‘if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.’ ‘Come’ said Jesus. Then Peter got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus across the water, but as soon as he felt the force of the wind, he took fright and began to sink. ‘Lord! Save me!’ he cried. Jesus put out his hand at once and held him. Matthew 14
It was only after this that the storm abated – and as they got into the boat the wind dropped.
There’s enough there for a week’s pondering and a prayer, but there is one more detail which is often missed and which reminds me of an old warning about the danger of rushing ahead of grace rather than following Christ and staying with Christ.
It is not Jesus who takes the initiative to ask Peter to step out of the boat but Peter who, as a bit of a test, asks: Lord,… if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.
Perhaps Peter in his enthusiasm was running ahead of grace? Getting out of the boat was his little project. It was not what Jesus required of him in that moment. But once Peter asked Jesus, perhaps with a smile on his face as the disciples in the boat ridiculed agreed and invited him. ‘Come’ said Jesus.
There’s a lesson there.
Every now and then I feel a desire to be more disciplined in faith, to pray harder and more fervently, to be more active for God, architect, engineer and builder of the life of God according to my own blueprint.
I have no doubt that Jesus is ok with my desire and efforts, but perhaps he is really hoping that I will let go of my own projects and plans and simply follow where he leads and work for him according to his call.
The Image above is from the portico of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and was one of the few works transferred from the old St. Peter’s to the new. Originally made by Giotto for the Jubilee Year of 1300.
Listen to the John Whittier / Hubert Parry hymn at this link.