Summer in Western New York finds marine forecasts on local weather reports. As local boaters know, serious storms can come up suddenly on Lake Erie. When I hear storm predictions, I am reminded of my own experiences with lake storms and of fear in the face of uncontrollable nature.
Matthew's gospel has two seastorm accounts, 8:18, 23-27 and 14:22-23. Today, the Church encourages us to hear the gospels as the first early believers heard them. With that in mind, there is a geographical detail in the stories in Matthew often overlooked: Jesus sends the disciples "to the other side" of the Sea of Galilee. The western side was Jewish territory; the "other side,' the eastern shore, was Gentile territory with a Roman legion garrisoned there. What could going to "the other side" mean to the Christians in Matthews' community?
In Matthew's second story, Jesus sends the disciples "to the other side" while he goes up on a mountain to pray. When a storm arises, Jesus comes to the disciples walking on the water. They are terrified, and Jesus calms only their fright. Matthew then writes of Peter starting to walk on the stormy waters toward Jesus, being overcome with fear, beginning to sink, and asking Jesus to save him. Jesus catches Peter, addressing him as a "man of little faith." Then, Jesus quiets the storm. Those in the boat worship him, and they return to Jewish territory.
Of what could Peter's walking on the water have reminded the Matthean Christians? Certainly, they would hear the need for faith in the continuing presence of the Lord in times of trouble. But we also know of the struggle among the first Christians, who were all Jews, to allow Gentile Christians into the community without their first becoming Jews and observing all the laws in the Torah, including circumcision. In Galatians, Paul clearly records this problem, and he mentions that in Antioch Peter first began to eat with Gentile Christians, recognizing their faith, but after certain Jewish Christians came to him, Peter refrained from his practice because he was "afraid of the circumcised" (2:11-14). Not eating with Gentile Christians was not merely a problem of observing food laws; the early Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, took place at an actual meal. Hence, Peter would not have celebrated the Eucharist with Gentile Christians. Paul confronted Peter on this behavior and clearly Paul carried the day. Matthew's community probably would have known of this episode in Antioch. This story would have reminded them of Peter's and their need to accept fully Gentile Christians into their community. Thus, this seastorm story carried a faith challenge, not just for individual Christians, but for the community itself.
Today, fear of "the other side" takes several forms. One is fear of all those from other cultures or religions. This storm is raging "from sea to shining sea." Do we recognize God in the lives of "others?" Another form is somewhat akin to the trouble in the early Church over eating with Gentile Christians. There is a struggle in our church with admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to the table of the Lord. In this case, Pope Francis, our "Peter," is asking that our discipleship impels us to extend mercy to these persons, seen by many as "others." Pope Francis also has a Twitter account. On July 1, he tweeted, "A Christian's mission in the world is splendid, it is a mission intended for everyone, it is a mission of service, excluding no one!"
Can we recognize the Lord walking over these troubled waters? Does our faith impel our mission to "the other side," despite stormy waters?