12th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP
I always tell the seminarians in my philosophy classes – Never start an argument w/o first defining your terms. We can't have a fruitful conversation if we're talking past one another, using the same words to mean different things. Sometimes a word has an ordinary meaning and a technical meaning. One for daily use and another for more specialized occasions. Catholic theology is loaded with words like this – matter, substance, symbol, accident. We know that many of the terms we use to talk about ourselves as Christians can have both ancient and modern meanings. Words like love, hope, and freedom. If we use “freedom” (e.g.) in its modern sense to describe what we are about as Christians, we end up far from what Christ calls us to be. So, when people say to me, “Father, I'm losing my faith” or “My faith isn't strong enough,” I have to ask: what do you mean by faith? How are you using that word? (And, yes, this is the sort of thing you get when you come to a Dominican for spiritual advice! So, be warned!) Jesus, noting his disciples' panic, quiets the storm and asks, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”
Every time I read this passage I want one of the disciples to ask Jesus, “Lord, what is it to 'have faith'?” Is faith the sort of thing that one has? I have a car. I have a beard. I have creaky knees. Those are the sorts of things that one has. Faith seems like it might be more like something that I do rather than have – an act rather than an object or condition, a verb rather than a noun. But we wouldn't say, “I faith your testimony” or “We faith that you will pay us back.” We would use “believe” or “trust” here. Those are verbs that put faith into action. Listen again to what Jesus says in rebuke: “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” From this, we can see that terror and faith are opposed to one another. That faith is a remedy for fear. That both fear and faith are chosen – why would Jesus ask why unless he expected the disciples to know the answer? And that faith is that sort of thing that can be had and the disciples do not yet have it. Go back to the question I want one of the disciples to ask Jesus: “Lord, what is it to 'have faith'?” Whatever “having faith” means, it means – at least – that if you “have faith” you will not be terrified when the inevitable storms batter your life. It means you possess this something – faith – that prevents or heals the terrors of living in the world while you remain in Christ.
We're getting closer, I promise. If I were to ask you, “Do you have a watch?” you could show me. “Do you have a cell phone?” Same thing. What do you show me when I ask, “Do you have faith?” Scripture tells us that those who have faith can safely drink poison and handle snakes; heal the sick and prophesy. So, if I ask you to show me your faith, you could whip out a rattlesnake and give me a show. Of course, if you do, you'll also need to find a ladder to rescue me from the ceiling! The safer and less frightening option would be to show me your good works – the time, talent, and treasure you've devoted to building up the Body of Christ. You could show me how having faith quells your worrying about tomorrow. You could show me how having faith makes surrendering to the Father's will a joy. You could show me how having faith compels you to spend every minute or every day giving God thanks for His blessings. You could show me how having faith drives you to forgive, to love, and to show mercy. The best way to show me or anyone else that you have faith is to act, think, and speak as much like Christ as you possibly can; to be Christ in the world, imperfect but on your way to perfection. That's “having faith.”
NB. During the violent storm, Jesus is sound asleep. The boat is filling up with water, probably sinking. The disciples freak out, convinced they are all going to die. They scream at Jesus, “Don't you care that we're going to drown!?” Jesus rebukes the wind and sea, calming them both, and then he rebukes the disciples, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” They are terrified b/c they do not have faith. They are not yet in a trusting, believing relationship with Christ. They are not yet on their way to becoming Christs. They know a lot about Jesus. They know the content of his teachings. They can repeat the commandments he's given them. They can tell stories about his miracles and run-in's with the Jewish authorities. They can recognize him on the street. And they know to call on him when they're in trouble. But they do not yet trust themselves as his imperfect reflections in the world. They do not yet see themselves as his hands and feet in the world, abiding in his Spirit and carrying-out his mission and ministry. So, if you are ever asked, “Do you have faith?” be prepared to show that you are Christ – imperfect for now but fully on your way to perfection.