10 August 2014

Doubting Peter's doubt

19th Sunday OT 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP 
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA 

Audio File

Peter is having a hard week. Our Lord has called him “Satan” and described him as an obstacle. Then there's the whole failed exorcism episode where the disciples' faith is too weak to drive out a demon. Today, Peter nearly falls into the sea b/c his faith is too small. Pulling him back from the drink, Jesus asks Peter, “Why did you doubt?” Peter doesn't answer, so we're left with the accusing question. Is this fair to Peter? Is it fair to accuse him of being a doubter? Keep in mind: it's Peter who, seeing Jesus walking on the sea, yells out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Yes, there's some doubt in there – “if it is you” – but it still takes some pretty solid faith and courage to test Jesus' power with one's own life. Peter had no way of knowing whether or not the “ghost” he was seeing was really the Lord. Of course, the accusation of doubt against Peter comes only after he's on the water and the sea becomes rough. Fearing for his life, Peter yells out, “Lord, save me!” Where's the doubt? Even knowing that he is looking at the Lord, Peter thinks that he has to ask Jesus to save him. As if Jesus had not already done so. 

Let's dig a bit deeper into Peter's doubt and ask the unasked question: what is Peter doubting? If we take doubt to mean something like “a failure to trust” or “a hesitancy to believe,” then there has to be someone we are failing to trust, or something we are hesitating to believe. Our gospel scene strongly suggests that Peter's near demise in the rough sea is caused by his lack of trust in Jesus; he hesitates for just a second to believe in Jesus' love for him. Is this the failure that nearly kills him? If so, then why does he immediately cry out, “Lord, save me!” Why cry out for help to the very person whose power you are doubting? In other words, if Peter is doubting Jesus, why turn to him for rescue? Yelling out for Christ's help when in peril seems to be an exemplary expression of faith in Christ. So, again, who is Peter doubting? Consider this: Jesus has called Peter “Satan;” described him as an obstacle; and rebuked him for his small faith. Despite all of these indications that the Lord is somehow displeased with Peter, Jesus establishes his Church on Peter and gives him the keys to the kingdom. Is it possible that Peter is experiencing just a little confusion about who he is? Maybe Peter – in a moment of panic – fails to trust in the faith he has been given. Peter doubts his own strength in Christ. 

Think about your own relationship with God. There have been times when you doubted. Doubt creeps in a like a noxious bayou fog no matter how tight we think we are with God. Think about that doubt and ask: was I really doubting God's love for me? I mean, did I really think that Love Himself stopped loving me personally? Or was I really worried about the strength of my own love for Him? See, God is Love, so His love for us is a universal given. He loves us b/c Love is Who He is. And though we are made to love Him, we are also made with a built-in free will that is subject to sin. When doubt wiggles its way into our relationship with God, more often than not – if we're honest and thorough – we can trace that doubt back to a lack of confidence in our own “small faith,” back to our own anxiety about whether or not we are truly in love with God. When the sea gets rough and Peter panics, he does what any one of us here tonight would do: he calls on Jesus for help! That call, that cry for rescue isn't a sign that Peter doubts Christ's power to rescue him; it's a sign that he needs a stronger sense of himself as a man already rescued. How strong is your sense of yourself as a man or woman already rescued by the power of Christ? 

God knows we are limited creatures. Prone to making mistakes and even intentionally doing evil things. Part of being limited is needing to be reminded over and over again that we are loved by Love Himself. We forget that w/o His love we do not exist. Literally, God's love is what hold us in being. At those moments when we forget that His love holds us in being, we also tend to forget that we experience His love for us as caring attention. The $15 theological term is divine providence – God provides; He makes provision for us. He supplies all that we need. That we think we need all sort of things that we don't really need and never receive is not His problem. Strip away greedy wanting and lusting longing and all need is exactly what God provides – His love. So, when we forget that He loves us, when we forget – even for a split second – that we live, move, and have our being in His love, our confidence fails and doubt runs wild and free on the playground of our souls. Left unchecked, doubt will play and play and play until a moment's lapse in faith becomes a lifetime of anxiety and despair. What doubts needs to flourish is a soul that forgets that it is loved, rescued, and freed from sin and death. 

When the disciples first see the ghostly figure walking toward them on the water, “they were terrified. . .and they cried out in fear.” Why are they afraid? They are the hand-picked students of the Messiah. They are the foundation stones of the apostolic faith. Of all living souls at the time, these men should have been the strongest in faith, the least likely to flinch at the unknown. But upon seeing something they do not understand, they squeal and tremble. Jesus has to yell out to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” The disciples' reaction on the sea could be seen as an embarrassing admission that they are cowards at heart. But like man, woman, or child who draws a breath, they are limited creatures, prone to forgetting who they are in Christ. So, Christ reminds them they are his: “Strengthen your heart, it is I; do not fear.” When a weakened heart is strengthened, the whole body is strengthened. When a weakened faith is renewed, the whole person is renewed. The disciples' fear, their small confidence in who they are as men of Christ sent them spiraling into doubt. It's almost as if they didn't know that they had already been rescued from the storm of sin and death. 

How about you: do you know that you have already been rescued from the storm of sin and death? Do you know that whatever disaster strikes, whatever fear grips you in a moment, that God loves you and will provide for you? He might not provide what you think you need or want, but He will provide all that you need to return His love. If your confidence fails – even for a split second – do what Peter did and cry out: “Lord, save me!” That's enough to remind you that you are already saved in Christ. It's just enough to strengthen your heart, to slay the doubt, and return you to knowing again the love that God always gives. Remember what Elijah discovers about the Lord – He's not in the tornado, the earthquake, or the fire. He's in the small, still voice, a voice that forever whispers, “Take courage, it is I; I am with you always.” 
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  1. Did you by chance record this one? Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this homily, but there were a few parts which were a bit bumpy in the reading, but could have been smoothed out in the preaching. The last two sentences of the first paragraph, each time I read them, I had to stop and say "wait...what?" as I was trying to figure out what you were saying. But I liked the way you began, for this is one of those Gospel stories which have always raised a question, the very question that you address.

    The second,third, and fourth paragraphs were, I thought, an excellent exploration of the question of doubt as raised in today's Gospel. Though it did read like you were just figuring it out as you went along, talking your way through the questions . . . and you even got some tears from me! The fifth paragraph didn't fit very neatly - almost seemed that you stuck it in there because you like it (I liked it, by itself), and it did fit the topic, just perhaps the transition could have been stronger?

    Final paragraph, wow...yeah...tears! Strong ending. Brought the whole homily together, provided practical and encouraging advice for the listener. Very wonderful - thank you!

    1. This one is a good example of what I've been struggling to do better. You note that some parts sound like I'm figuring it out as I go along. Close! I'm figuring out -- as I go along -- how to say what I want to say in a way that doesn't sound like a lit crit journal article. When I was at UD and Blackfriars, I could set that concern aside b/c folks there were used to hearing that sort of thing. Folks at OLR are not. I love asking questions of the text that arrive at answers contrary to the way we normally read the text. Every commentary insists that Jesus is gently admonishing Peter for his lack of faith in him, Jesus. But that doesn't make sense of the text. So, how to convey this w/o sounding like Derrida?

      Anyway, I'm glad that I made you cry. Again. :-)

    2. So, you're trying to present a polished homily that doesn't sound too polished? Deconstruction, but at a "non-philosopher's" speed? Now that's a challenge, but those are my favorite type of homilies, and you've set out a few of those over the past couple of years. I really liked this one because, as you wrote above, the general consensus on this story has never set well with me. I mean, come on! The man stepped out of a boat because Jesus said "come"... which points to a depth of faith in Jesus, but when Peter stopped looking right at Jesus (my thoughts) and saw only the waves, he "forgot" and began to sink. So often, my tears come when you explain something that I've been trying to figure out, in a way that not only answers my exact questions but then goes beyond to ask ME some questions that I need to ask of myself.

      Thanks, again.

    3. I had the same problem in Rome. Eight years of writing lit crit style papers did not prepare me for writing philosophy papers. I had to write a paragraph and translate it into philosophy-ese. Tedious.