AUGUST 13TH, 2017: NINEENTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
At the mountain of God, Horeb,
Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
Then the LORD said to him,
"Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by."
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing rocks before the LORD—
but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake—
but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire—
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.
Brothers and sisters:
I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie;
my conscience joins with the Holy Spirit in bearing me witness
that I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ
for the sake of my own people,
my kindred according to the flesh.
They are Israelites;
theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants,
the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;
theirs the patriarchs, and from them,
according to the flesh, is the Christ,
who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat
and precede him to the other side,
while he dismissed the crowds.
After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
When it was evening he was there alone.
Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore,
was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.
During the fourth watch of the night,
he came toward them walking on the sea.
When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.
"It is a ghost," they said, and they cried out in fear.
At once Jesus spoke to them, "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid."
Peter said to him in reply,
"Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water."
He said, "Come."
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.
But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened;
and, beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!"
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter,
and said to him, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?"
After they got into the boat, the wind died down.
Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying,
"Truly, you are the Son of God."
Today’s three readings are quite disturbing. They surface things many of us would rather keep under a theological lock and key. Perhaps some of the stuff we learned in catechism class “ain’t necessarily so.”
The “thing” in our first reading occurs immediately after today’s liturgical passage. It’s consoling to us believers to know that Yahweh speaks to Elijah not in wind, an earthquake, and fire, but in “a tiny whispering breeze.” Couldn’t be a more pleasant encounter. Yet what God asks the prophet in this specific situation is more than unsettling. He/she demands to know, “What are you doing here?”
Elijah is running away from Jezebel, the Israelite Queen who’s put a contract out on his life. Thankfully, Yahweh helped him escape to Mount Horeb (Sinai) by providing him with sufficient food and water to trek 40 days and 40 nights through the wilderness. But now God abruptly informs him he shouldn’t be there. He insists the prophet return to Israel and forcibly confronts this idolatrous queen. After giving him the means to get to Horeb, Yahweh insists he’s in the wrong place!
Did something parallel ever happen to you? Is it possible for God to change God’s mind?
We know from today’s Romans pericope that something parallel did happen to Paul of Tarsus. He’s spent a lifetime trying to be as good a Jew as he could possibly be, adhering to all the Mosaic 613 laws. Yet through his experience of the risen Jesus, he’s discovered God wants him to go beyond those regulations and become another Christ. Justification – doing what God wants you to do - has taken on a completely new meaning for this Apostle to the Gentiles.
Yet Paul claims he would be willing to give up all those saving insights and be “cut off from Christ” if only his fellow Jews would embrace this unexpected path to justification. With countless acts of anti-Semitism in our not too distant Christian past, it’s difficult for us to appreciate Paul’s frame of mind. That’s simply not how a lot of us were “brought up.” To say our faith springs from and revolves around Judaism is an understatement. But it’s something few of us have ever been encouraged to explore.
Neither have we Catholics been encouraged to explore Peter’s sinking in today’s gospel pericope. Accustomed to applying just one biblical verse to the leader of the Twelve – Matthew 16:18: “You’re the rock and on this rock I’m going to build my church!” – we conveniently forget the other things said to Peter in the Christian Scriptures. Things like, “Get behind me, Satan!” or today’s statement, “O you of little faith.”
Our evangelists had no idea this poor, probably illiterate fisherman would one day morph into the first Roman Catholic infallible pope. As I mentioned above, he functions as the gospel leader of the Twelve. But no one originally thought of that group as the church’s first bishops. They were simply a classic symbol of the historical Jesus’ plan to offer his reform to all of Israel’s twelve tribes. For this Galilean carpenter, the tribe of Naphtali was just as important as the tribe of Judah. And he demonstrated that conviction by traveling around with the Twelve: a group meant to bring back memories of the twelve sons of Jacob.
Matthew believes anyone – even Peter – can eventually stop focusing on Jesus and make other things a priority. When that happens, the person begins to sink, overwhelmed by those other things.
It’s interesting today that we once again have a pope – Francis - who personally focuses on Jesus, and challenges us to do the same. No wonder he faces opposition. We’re a little out of practice. Many of us simply haven’t done that for a while.