Walking on Water
Sermon prepared by Father Antony Hughes for Sunday, September 4, 2005
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
When we read Holy Scripture the Holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church teach us that there are at least two levels of understanding . There is the literal understanding that sees the events as historical and, well, literal. So when we read today's Gospel about Jesus walking on the water on the literal level we see a miracle, the power of God manifesting itself as Jesus shows mastery over nature and the elements. We see the impetuous Peter unable to follow through on his own bravado and sinking in the waves. We learn through this that Jesus is God and that faith in him, without doubting, enables us to do the same miraculous things he does because he share with us his divine life. That is good.
There is another level, a deeper one, that recognizes the troubled Galilee and Peter's sinking as a metaphor for the spiritual life. The theme of water, even bodies of water, appear often in Christian Scripture and in that of other religions as well because, among other things, water is the prime element of life.
Let's look at the story this way for just a few moments.
The turmoil on the Sea of Galilee can be seen as a metaphor for the state of the soul and the interior life. Now, we don't often think about the interior life. We focus on externals, on survival, success, notoriety, reputation, fashion, but the life of the soul is mostly ignored. Most of the time we are not even aware that there is much going on under the surface of our skin. Usually, it takes something powerful to get us to wake up and take notice: something like death, disease, misfortune, depression will jar us awake and make us face the intangible things in life, the things that are under the surface. That is, to put it simply, we are asleep at the wheel, the lights are on but nobody's home, the auto pilot is running things and the plane is off course, we wander about in a daze, in a fog, fantasizing our lives away. The big word in our vocabulary is "if". If I had only married better, if only I were rich, if only I could lose some weight, if only I had a better job, if only people would see things my way. If, if, if.
We drift from thought to thought, out of control, ruled by desire. We cannot even deny ourselves the things that hurt us. We are like abused spouses, feeling all the pain, but unwilling to do what is necessary to stop it, dissatisfied with our lives, but unable to break free of the tedium and sorrow. Our faces smile, but our hearts are broken. The outside of the cup looks clean, but the inside is not. Depression is epidemic in our society, immorality is rampant, drug abuse is sky-rocketing, suicide is claiming more and more young lives. Laws are powerless to halt it, legislation has never and will never stop it, prohibition increases it.
Ruled as we are by our thoughts and desires we believe that nothing can be done, that we cannot change, that life cannot offer anything better and that we had just better make the best of it. Yeah, we believe in God (or say we do), but since that belief doesn't reach down deep enough to make a difference inside where it really counts, our faith struggles to survive.
We need to delve deeper into the essence of Orthodox spirituality which deals primarily with the interior life. Listen to St. John Chrysostom: "What is it to be a fool for Christ? It is to control one's thoughts when they stray out of line. It is to make the mind empty and free." Hear the Desert Fathers: ".the soul, if not emptied of foreign thoughts cannot reflect God." Study the teachings and practices of the Hesychasts and their successors who occupy the Holy Mountain and monasteries around the world to this very day. Hear the contemporary theologian Clement: to clear and free the mind of unnecessary and destructive thoughts is necessary so that we can be in a state of readiness to meet the Lord, "One must learn to keep awake in the silence of the heart." And, one more from Clement, "It is therefore essential to let the heart-spirit settle like calm water (there is the water image). Then it becomes a tranquil lake in which the sky is reflected, in which the face of Christ can be seen."
A great Sufi mystic once wrote, "Free my soul from the entanglement of search and disappointment." And:
Deafened by the voice of desire
you are unaware the Beloved lives
In the core of your heart
Stop the noise and
you will hear His voice
in the silence
Don't go back to sleep!
It is time for prayer, it is time to ask for what you
The door of the One who created the world is always open
Don't go back to sleep.
In order to change ourselves, to change directions, to begin to move away from the morass of daily life, we must start paying attention to what is going on beneath our skins. We need to pay attention to our thoughts, to learn to discern and sort them out between what is helpful and good and what is destructive, to detach ourselves from our insatiable desires, to nurture peace in our hearts and minds, to build within our souls a rich interior life. We must wake up to the only thing we have and that is the exact moment in which we are living and breathing. That spiritual teachers of Orthodoxy are one in their recommendation, do not worry about the past which is over and done, nor about the future which never comes, keep your mind in the present, be fully present in the present, wake up to the moment for it is all you have. "Today," writes St. Paul, "is the day of salvation." Look around you. See what is before you. Rejoice in what is good: that you are alive, that you are breathing, that your heart is beating, that the cup of coffee you are drinking is warm, fragrant and delicious, that the person sitting beside you is in truth the very image of the invisible God who loves you and gave himself for you. Do not cling to any thought that is destructive, do not cling to desire, do not cling to possessions, cling to God and freely embrace the wonder of every moment. Wake up and do not go back to sleep.
We must struggle and pray for a mind and heart pure and lucid like a bright mirror, free from encumbrances, filled with joy and light, that is able to respond with equanimity and love in every situation, overflowing with compassion.
We can change, we can be at peace, we can be free. God has given us all we need to pursue the path of peace. The effort must be taken, the commitment made, the discipline learned and embraced. God's grace coupled with our small efforts ignites the soul and brings salvation not only to us, but to all the world. St. Seraphim of Sarov once said, "Make peace in your heart and thousands around you will be saved." But it is not a peace that comes without effort. As Seraphim said, it is we who must "make" this peace. Meditate, fast, pray, practice love and charity, love silence, nurture peace and compassion, reject all that is destructive, rest your weary mind and let everything be as it is, cling only to God avoiding all that is cold and dark and moving towards all that is warmth and light. But this is only preparatory for the great day.when we at last Jesus comes to us walking on the sea and not even the wind and waves will be able to hinder us.