The symbolism in this Gospel passage leaps out at us. The boat is the church; the persons in it are the members of the church, including you and me; the darkness and the rough waters are the troubles that make life sometimes so hard for us. Jesus is both with the occupants and not with them: he is far away and yet prays for them and then takes action to save them in the crisis that ensues. Their faith in Jesus is still mixed with fear and doubt, not fully confirmed yet.
It’s so clear that the whole story is a description of who and what we are today: a people called into a community of faith, responding to the one who is forming us — and at the same time experiencing fears and doubts and always having to struggle against the inadequacy of our faith.
As Matthew’s Gospel unfolds, it makes several statements of faith in Jesus recognized as the long-awaited Messiah. In this connection, I think first of the words attributed to Peter at the foot of Jesus’ cross: “Truly this was the Son of God!” Matthew is thereby letting us know that, even to persons for whom belief in Jesus would seem to be impossible, the gift of recognition and belief is given, so convincing is the evidence of Jesus’ life, what he taught, and what he did.
We are among those fortunate recipients. Our lives include occasional storms and scary darkness. For example, who can know for sure whether a cancer will disappear or linger and deliver a deadly blow? No one. At such a time, we wait in darkness and fear. The helplessness and hopelessness of the poor, the terror of war-torn countries, the anxieties of the abused and the unloved — how natural, how perfectly understandable that when we human beings are afflicted we respond first in fear and doubt. God then seems as far away as Jesus was from that threatened boat.
I was 7 years old when my 2-year-old sister was apparently dying from whooping cough. My father was called home from his place of business — I can still see his white shirt and Navy blue tie as he clutched me and my 4-year-old brother and said, “Dear God, please make my little daughter well. We love her so much.” He led us in saying the Lord’s Prayer. Never before, and never since, until he himself died, did we ever pray that way at any other time. But I learned from it what it meant to feel helpless and hopeless and to trust in the saving presence of God and the compassionate Jesus.
The response to our prayer cannot always be what we want it to be — or what God wants it to be! But when we are disappointed in that way, God and Jesus provide us with strength and wisdom and new hope to move on to calmer seas and brighter skies.