The text for this week is not an ordinary miracle story. After Jesus feeds the 5,000, he retreats to the mountains to pray in solitude, sending his disciples to their next destination by boat. In the midst of an evening storm, when the disciples were far from land, Jesus walked on water toward them—they were terrified and cried out in fear.
This scene reminds me of the way many of us in the global south, and specifically in the Philippines, have been experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic. The health crisis is a storm whose waves batter the entire world. But the gloomy socio-political climate in many under-resourced countries means we are forced to experience the storm in the equivalent of a small wooden boat—every wave threatens to topple our vessel.
Much like the disciples, people today are afraid of this uncertainty. And authoritarians of all sorts are using the fear to their advantage. As I write this reflection, the Philippine congress has passed draconian legislation intended to curtail free speech by criminalizing legitimate dissent. They are offering salvation from the uncertain waves of the pandemic by consolidating their power and scapegoating those who would dare raise their voice in defiance. They can’t control the pandemic, so they are offering up a more tangible sacrifice for the people to fear—one that can be physically contained and locked up.
Fear is tricky. In healthy doses, it’s a biological gift from God that makes us more aware in our surroundings. In a strange way, healthy fear actually opens us up to the world.
But unhealthy fear breeds a mentality of scarcity. It shrouds our view and makes our world smaller. It drives us to try and save ourselves through power, greed, and other forms of violence, often at the expense of the most vulnerable.
In the Philippines, over the last few years, the government has used the inflated fear of external threats, whether illegal drugs or pandemics, to take power from the people. Now the government is instilling fear in those same people in order to internalize subjugation and hold on to what they have taken. Unhealthy fear simply breeds more fear. Scapegoating and violence are the natural result of the fear spiral.
Unfortunately, this isn’t new. Creating an atmosphere of fear has been with us since the dawn of civilization. For instance, the elementary forms of religion all shared a uniformed experience when coming into contact with “the sacred”—an unhealthy dose of fear. Rudolf Otto, a 19th century theologian, called these early divine sightings mysterium tremendium et fascinans—that is, evoking awe and trepidation. The gods of archaic religions were shunned, not pursued, because they trafficked in unhealthy fear.
This brings me to the biggest miracle in our story today. And I’m not talking about Peter and Jesus walking on water, although that’s pretty awesome. In fact, the miracle I’m referring to comes before that famous event.
In verse 26, we find the disciples, already battered by the storm, crying out in “terror” and “fear” when they see Jesus. But the messiah doesn’t capitalize on that fear like the violent saviors of religion and government are so often prone to do. Instead, the Biblical God tells them not to fear because “I am with you.” God’s saving work doesn’t involve fear or violence, but instead comes through assurance and presence.
This, in fact, is a common thread in our complex Scriptures. God dwells with his people, in the midst of the good and the bad. Salvation isn’t found through fear, power, greed or violence. Instead, it’s found in the loving and forgiving presence that offers all of himself for us.
Jesus and Peter walked on water one time, and it was special. But God’s ongoing presence for us, especially in the hardest, most uncertain, and darkest places of our lives, is the true test of the greater miracle in these verses.