Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP,
13 Aug 2017

St. Mary's Cathedral, Sydney

The phrase "walking on water" is often used, understandably, to indicate an impossible task; so, when we are told to do something we think too hard, we might respond that "you might as well tell me to walk on water". It can also be used derogatively, as when someone is so full of themselves that we might say "you should see her walk on water".

The idea of walking on water has fascinated people in many cultures. There are accounts of it in the religions of the East and the mythologies around Xerxes and Alexander the Great. The renaissance scientist, Leonardo da Vinci, tried to design skis for hydroplaning, perhaps in imitation of insects that can stand on the meniscus of water. The contemporary illusionist Criss Angel (aka "Mindfreak") specialises in seeming to walk on water. And, of course, for Christians any reference to walking on water immediately evokes the accounts in the Gospels (Mk 6:45-53; Jn 6:15-21) of Jesus doing so and, in Matthew's version just heard (Mt 14:22-34), He's prompting Peter to do the same. Recently, a group of scientists published a paper arguing that Christ probably tricked His disciples by standing on some invisible rocks or walking on a thin layer of localised ice.1 That's a preposterous explanation for anyone who has been to Lake Galilee, but the scepticism is understandable: if you heard a rumour that Mr Turnbull was cheating on the City-to-Surf Race by walking on Sydney Harbour today, your first reaction would rightly be disbelief rather than rushing down to Circular Quay to have a look!

So often we human beings can be distracted and nonplussed by the spectacular, rather than arrested and edified by it. As our First Reading points out, we go looking for God in the cyclone, the earthquake or the bushfire, and fail to notice Him in the gentle breeze (1 Kgs 19:9.11-13). We may want great signs and wonders, as people did in Jesus' day, but He usually chooses more subtle or mundane ways of communicating His grace and inspiration to us. Given our propensity for an unhealthy magical or sci-fi approach to signs and wonders, we might wonder why Jesus ever indulged us with such things…

Well, one obvious reason is that Jesus was no ordinary man. As last Sunday's Feast of the Transfiguration suggested, sometimes His divine nature peeped out from behind His human nature, almost as if it could no longer be contained. And it is unsurprising that the apostles in their preaching and evangelists in their writing chose to report what most impressed them out of the innumerable memories they had of Jesus from the spectacular to the more mundane (cf. Jn 21:25). But even more important, I suspect, was their desire to record - out of the incidents they had witnessed, ones that would most benefit us, the Christians of the future to hear. After all, Jesus did those things to bring his first disciples to faith: it might have the same effect on us.

Which brings me to St. Augustine's reading of this passage. He suggests we understand the sea as a symbol of the world with all its challenges, and Peter as a symbol for the Church.2 If the Church has always had its storms, it certainly does today: hurricanes of persecution in some parts of the world and prosecution in others, of terrorist hostility in some places and media hostility in others; tsunamis of cultural change, including wave after wave of secularisation; gales presaging legal changes, such as those who would evacuate marriage of its true meaning or eliminate protections the sick properly have from being killed out of false mercy; ideological tempests that would bully believers into silence or collaboration… On this reading, today's Gospel reminds the Church to use its oars to remain afloat and its sails to stay on course - to use all its energies for the good - but, in the end, it must rely on Christ power, on Holy Spirit wind. We can be so used to taking charge, planning thoroughly and putting our energies into the execution, that even churches become mere bureaucracies or businesses like any other, forgetting whose grace must drive us forward when we are afloat or hold us up when we are sinking. Our Gospel story is a salutary reminder, especially for Church leaders!

St. John Chrysostom, another Church Father, took a different tack to Augustine: for him today's story is not so much about the Church as a whole, as it is about the individual Christian.3 Each of us is buffeted, at one time or another, not just by external challenges but by internal anxieties, drowning not just in the world's pressures but in our own ambitions, vices, disappointments. We try to appear strong, but find we cannot pull ourselves up by our own shoelaces. We attempt to maintain control, but find the situation is beyond us. We look to fix things by ourselves, but deep down know we must rely on a power greater than ourselves. Our strength, control, fixes are illusory. How often do the Scriptures, in one way or another, advise us to "Let go and let God"?

Some of you will know Bill Withers' song Lean on Me, famously covered by Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band in 1972 and Club Nouveau in 1986. Written after Withers had moved from a small mining town to the big smoke, the song is a cry for community, connection, compassion. "Sometimes in our lives", the song begins, "we all have pain, we all have sorrow. But if we are wise, we know that there's always tomorrow." Yes, there is pain, there is sorrow; the storms of life drag us down. But as Christians we look to a brighter future; we look to the face of Christ, our eternal tomorrow. "Lean on me", the song continues, "when you're not strong, I'll be your friend, I'll help you to carry on." So Christ says to Peter, says to us, in our Gospel; "Lean on me, ye of little faith: doubt no longer, but believe."

In the months ahead, the battle for the soul of our culture will play out in votes on marriage and euthanasia; the search for peace in our world, on a Korean peninsula more and more tense each day; the pursuit of happiness, in the 101 challenges, anxieties and decisions of our daily lives. So "if you feel your foot slipping beneath you," St Augustine wrote, "if you become prey to doubt or realise that you are losing control, if in a word you begin to sink, say [with Peter] 'Lord, I am drowning, save me!' Only He who for your sake died in your nature can save you from the death inherent in that fallen nature." Pray 'Lord save me', and when He does, join those in the barque of Peter, the Church, who "bow down before Him and say, 'Truly you are the Son of God!'." (Mt 14:33)


St. Mary's Cathedral, Sydney

Welcome to St Mary's Cathedral for the Solemn Mass for the Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, also known at St City-to-Surf Sunday. To everyone present, including visitors and more regulars, a very warm welcome!


1 Doron Nof, Ian McKeague, & Nathan Paldor, "Is There a Paleolimnological Explanation for 'Walking on Water' in the Sea of Galilee?", Journal of Paleolimnology, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Apr., 2006), pp. 417-439

2 St. Augustine, Sermon 76.1, 4, 5, 8, 9

3 St. John Chrysostom, Hom. on St. Matthew, 50