If you ever decide to write a book about the gospels, here’s an idea for you.
You might want to tackle the central role of the Sea of Galilee in the narrative of Jesus’ ministry. A great freshwater lake or inland sea about a third the size of Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border, it supported, in Jesus’ time, a sizeable population and a significant commercial fishing industry. The evangelists often use the Sea of Galilee – around whose shores many of Jesus’ stories take place – to advance their account of his work and mission.
By the way, don’t be confused. The Sea of Galilee goes by different names. Some texts refer to it as a lake, which of course it is. And others call it by the alternative names of Tiberias or Gennesaret. But it is all the same place. And of course, it is most definitely not to be confused with the Dead Sea. That is another place entirely. The Sea of Galilee was, in Jesus’ time, very much alive with great varieties and stores of fish.
Our Lord’s disciples were, for the most part, people who made their livelihood from the Sea of Galilee. And Jesus himself is often found near its shores, first calling his disciples there and later teaching the people along its surrounding heights and plains. You will remember that at one point he even began preaching from a boat anchored just offshore while the people gathered near him on the beach.
So, it is no surprise to find the Sea of Galilee figuring prominently again in today’s gospel narrative, as Jesus first sends his disciples off in a boat by themselves “to the other side” – literally forces them to leave, if you read the text carefully – while he goes off to spend some quality time by himself on a mountain in prayer. As morning dawns and the disciples’ boat is being “battered by the waves,” Jesus – seemingly out of nowhere – comes “walking toward them on the Sea.” Needless to say, the disciples are terrified and cry out “in fear.”
Of course they were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? Well, maybe not Peter. At least, not at first. He bravely bids Jesus to call him forth from the boat and then hesitantly starts making his own way across the waves. But fear finally overcomes him too, and in his fright he begins to sink. “Lord, save me!” he calls out. And needless to say, this Jesus promptly does.
What to make of it all?
What those disciples needed, we might be tempted to think, was just a bigger boat, perhaps one better constructed and more suited to withstand the storm and the wind. Technology – human ingenuity – that is the answer. But then we remember. Every storm is the perfect storm if you are paralyzed by fear and worry. This gospel story has fundamental – perhaps even archetypal – implications in it about the human condition, a state that finds all of us suspended precariously between unknown and fearsome depths and the desire to be ourselves the masters of the wind and waves and world around us.
But weathering the storm paradoxically demands that we first come to recognize and accept our own vulnerabilities. There are, after all, few perfect boats. In spite of our occasional bluster, when the storm hits and the winds blow, most of us still call out for the Lord. Only in giving up our own certainty and our very selves do we find our true depth – and our salvation.
At baptism in many Christian denominations today – and in baptism as it was practiced in the early Church – one is quite literally drenched, or nearly drowned, in a stream or lake only to be caught up and raised moments later by the outstretched hand of pastor or minister. Not unlike Peter in our gospel account today. Jesus, it seems, still today, recognizes and surmounts in baptism our fear of death, our fear of drowning in sin and insignificance.
Our baptism and the gift of faith it signifies does not by any means guarantee a lifetime of smooth sailing ahead. The Sea of Galilee is, to this day, subject to squalls and storms. And like Peter and the disciples, we still find ourselves afraid and terrified and calling out to the Lord. But only Christ overcomes our dread and terror of what the waters deep beneath – and within – us may contain. And he does all this, as he did with Peter, by reaching out his hand in rescue. “Take heart,” he says to us again today. “It is I; have no fear.”
And from our own rickety craft, we proclaim as did the disciples centuries ago, "Truly you are the Son of God."