Sunday, August 7, 2011

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Somehow, somewhere people came up with the idea
that the chief motivation behind the belief of Christians
was a sense of comfort in this life
and the promise of even more comfort in the next.
In this view, Christianity is for those who cannot face
the harsh realities of this world
and so hope for a better life in another world.
Christians are smug and complacent in their faith,
sure that they know all the answers
and have a firm footing in life.

I can speak only for myself,
but this is not my experience of being a Christian.
For me, the Christian faith seems at times
to make my life
much more complicated,
much more of an effort,
and, in a way, much more uncertain.
Faith places an infinite demand upon me
because it is assent to the truth of the infinite God,
a God whom we can never comprehend or control.
As the twentieth-century theologian Karl Rahner once said,
Christians are those
before whom the abyss of existence opens up –
those who know that they have not thought enough,
have not loved enough,
have not suffered enough.
So do not let anyone tell you otherwise:
to step out in faith
is to step into that abyss of existence.

Think of Peter in today’s Gospel:
Jesus had made the whole walking-on-the-water thing
look pretty easy
and this seemed like a good opportunity
to demonstrate that he,
alone among the apostles,
really had faith;
so Peter succumbed to his impetuous nature
and stepped out of the boat.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
And for a while, it continued to seem like a good idea;
as Peter began to walk across the water toward Jesus.
But then he began to focus more on the wind and the waves
and the watery abyss beneath his feet
and he began to doubt
and he began to sink.
And suddenly the idea of stepping out of the boat
and into the abyss
began to seem like not so much of a good idea.

When I read this passage earlier this week
I thought, “yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.”

When I think about my life as a Christian,
I sometimes feel as if I have foolishly, impulsively,
climbed out of the boat,
inspired by God-knows-what impulse,
and I realize
that the waves are much higher than I thought
and the wind is much stronger than I thought
and the water is much deeper than I thought.
And I realize that I cannot think deeply enough
to grasp the mystery of God.
I realize that I cannot love passionately enough
to be worthy of the love that has been shown to me.
I realize that I cannot suffer willingly enough
to take upon myself the pain of others,
the pain of our world.
I stand suspended
over the infinite depth of divine mystery
and, as my fear takes control,
I begin to sink
and the only prayer I can utter
is to cry out, like Peter, “Lord, save me.”

And then there is Jesus
who grasps our hand and says,
“Take courage, it is I;
do not be afraid.”
As with Elijah in our first reading,
God comes to us not in a strong and heavy wind
or an earthquake
or a fire
but in a tiny whispering sound
that says “do not be afraid.”
God comes to us in the person of Jesus.
In Jesus Christ,
God has reached out to us with a human hand,
amidst the wind and the waves,
to catch us and hold us up over the abyss.
It is not our thinking
or our loving
or our suffering that can save us,
but only Jesus,
“who is over all, God blessed forever.”
If we trust in him,
if we cry out to him, “Lord, save me,”
we can trust that the storm will not overcome us,
the abyss will not swallow us up.

The Christian faith is hard,
not because it is complicated
but precisely because it is so simple.
All that it asks of us is that we see the world as it truly is,
to embrace the abyss that is the mystery of God,
and to trust the tiny whispering sound that says,
“Take courage, it is I;
do not be afraid.”