Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Watered-Down Christ

The words spoken to the living Christ during His earthly ministry are the first recorded Christian prayers. I'm studying those, especially those words of St. Peter.

I'll be going through them one at a time, in order, starting with the Gospel of St. Matthew.

"Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water" (MT 14:18).

Here are Peter and the Apostles, on a boat in a stormy sea at night, witnessing what they fear is a ghost approaching them across the water. They've just come from seeing Jesus feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and a couple fish, and all of that at the end of a day that brought them news of the beheading of John the Baptist. They had to have been pretty exhausted, amazed, fearful, excited---in short, freaked out. Now a ghost.

They cry out, of course, and Jesus reassures them: "Take heart, it is I; have no fear" (MT:14:27).

That wasn't quite enough to make them feel better; after all, if a ghost can appear to walk on water, it certainly could mumble a few words. It's Peter who comes up with the one absolute test: "Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water."

Why is this the proof Peter sought? Simple---it's the one thing no ghost could fake. I mean, the figure's already (apparently) walking on water! What good would another trick be in proving who he was? But this---this required not that the apparition perform some outward sign, but that he transform Peter himself.

And Peter didn't say, "Make me walk on the water." That would be almost as bad as Satan's "Turn this stone into bread." No, he asked that Jesus command him to come to Him. Peter would know that call. He'd received it before, when he was called from fishing to follow Christ at the beginning. "And He said to them, 'Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.' Immediately they left their nets and followed Him" (MT 4:21).

This reminds me of some recent conversations I've had with atheists. They keep insisting there's no proof that God exists. By that, they mean no tangible external proof, of course. What I can never seem to explain to them is that Christians have all experienced, quite directly, the proof of God's reality, and the proof of Christ's divinity. It happens to us as it happened to St. Peter: He calls, and we follow. We haven't come to believe because we rationally examined the facts and concluded Christ is the Son of God. Rather, we experienced first hand the absolutely irresistible calling. That's tangible to us, and is, in my weak moments, positive proof that God is real. This is what Peter was looking for: the one unmistakable and interior change he knew he would feel if this was really Christ, and not some apparition or hallucination.

So Peter asks for this proof, and I love what happens next: "He said, 'Come.' So Peter got out of the boat..." (MT 14:29). Just that one word: "Come." I immediately thought of Isaiah 55:11: "So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it." What more proof could Peter possibly need?

Another point about this is the nature of what Peter asked for. He asked for a measure of the very power by which Christ was walking on the water. He asked for something of the power of God. And immediately, without hesitation or question, Jesus granted him his prayer.

I also experience the transformative power of Christ, but when I pray I don't ask boldly to be empowered. It's as if I think that might be beyond my Lord, as if He's now some watered-down Christ, a stingy and wholly rational Savior, who will only give me what the world thinks is possible. Can He make me be a bit kinder? Sure. How about more patient. Absolutely. Will He empower me with His own divinity? Well, now, I'm not so sure...

But of course He can. All I have to do is ask.

Lord, I beg of you to embolden me. Let me ask with confidence for a measure of your miraculous power. Let me know as surely as did St. Peter that when you speak, I change. And let me take those first frightening steps with the same quickness and certainty as did St. Peter. Amen.