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Trinity 10



Last summer I attended an 8-day silent retreat at the convent of the Sisters of St Andrews in Lewisham. The middle of London might not seem like an obvious choice to experience a silent retreat but one of the things that drew me was that the Sisters of St Andrew took as their founder Ignatius of Loyola and I was experiencing a individually guided retreat in that tradition. My visit also coincided with the feast day of St Ignatius on 31st July. My silence was broken for a period each day that I spent with my retreat accompanier. Part of the tradition is to read a passage from scripture and then to pray by putting yourself into a scene, imagining the sights and smells and sounds of that experience and to allow the Holy Spirit to guide you to a fresh experience of encounter by allowing yourself to be there and see what happens. Ignatius suggested following Jesus into the story.

It was just over half way through the retreat that I was given this particular passage, today’s gospel reading, to meditate and pray through.

My accompanier encouraged me to look at the context of the particular passage. Jesus had that morning heard of the murder of his cousin, John the baptizer. And so he had set out early by boat to a deserted place to be alone, to mourn his cousin, to consider the next step for his own ministry perhaps. But he did not have the chance. For the crowds followed him there, not just a few of his friends, but thousands of people, needy, curious people, wanting to be with him, to hear him, to make demands of him. In compassion for them, Jesus changed his plan so that he could spend the day with them, nourishing them with his presence, his teaching, his word, and then finally with food at an impromptu and generous picnic. He must have been exhausted.

Our reading begins when the crowds are finally dispersing, Jesus tries once more to have some time alone. Putting his disciples in a boat  - the one he had arrived by that morning, perhaps – and pushing the boat out into the water, before turning back to say goodbye to the last of the crowds. I find myself torn. I know he wants to be alone but I don’t want to be left behind. I find myself calling him, tentatively, but longing to go with him. He turns and holds out his hand in invitation so that I have to run to catch up with him. He grips my hand but all without breaking his stride or slowing down. He is taking strong, long strides, the muscles of arms and legs working hard to climb. He doesn’t look back. When we get to the top of the mountain, he throws himself on the ground and stretches out, breathing hard after the climb, sweat on his brow. After a moment he sits up, smiles at me and points to the vista below us as though to say, look how far we have come. But it’s growing dark and I’m glad that I’m not alone on this mountain top.

I sense that he wants to pray so I sit still, not wanting to disturb him, content to be with him.

But I’m watching the lake below in the darkness, watching the boat out on the water. The wind is getting up, the waves are beginning to roll. I see the disciples struggling with the great sail.

I wait, wondering what Jesus will do, and then I ask, “Are you going to help them?”

“You go,” he says. “I’ll be right behind you. “

I run down the steep grassy stoney slope of the mountainside, wondering what I will do when I get there. I’m usually afraid of deep water, especially in a storm. I’m certainly not a strong or confident swimmer. But when I get to the edge of the lake I find myself stepping into the cold water and I start to swim towards the disciples because I know that Jesus will be coming. The waves are huge, the current strong. I keep losing sight of the disciples and the boat. I hear the creaking of the wooden fishing boat, the slap of the sail against the mask, the rigging rattling in the wind. I can hear the disciples shouting in alarm.

I call out to them, “Jesus is coming.” but they can’t hear me over the wind.

Then suddenly the boat is tipped over completely by the force of the storm. We are all in the water, struggling to stay afloat amidst the waves. I realize that the disciples are looking beyond me, terrified, not just of the storm now, but of something they can see behind me. They are pointing, and calling out that it is a ghost. Something half-way between life and death, as it seems, are they.

“You don’t need to be afraid,” I call, “It’s him. It’s Jesus. I told you he was coming.

But in their fear they are also struggling with the boat. It’s capsized completely, there’s no way they can right it again. They cling to the side, trying to clamber onto the upturned bottom for safety, but it is slippery, and they are pulled back by the force of the waves.  Then one of the disciples manages to heave himself up. He leans over and hauls me onto the boat. Others are in the water trying to keep the boat afloat while others climb on, but it’s so slippery and is still being rocked by the huge waves. Peter is now trying to climb on but he’s going to lose his balance. He tries to stand on the upturned boat holding out his arms wide, teetering on the brink.  He is a big man, huge muscles, his clothes drenched and clinging to his body, hair and beard plastered to his skin.  He is almost blinded by the rain and the wind and terrified. But I point into the darkness. Look I say. Look.

There in the billowing waves and driving rain, tall and strong, is Jesus.

Then he speaks. “Don’t be afraid, he says Ego emi.

Those are the words in the gospel narrative that Matthew uses in Greek: Jesus says, Ego emi.

I Am.

Not just, its me, by the way.

But words that would have struck the disciples with new understanding.

Don’t be afraid. I Am.

The name God gave God’s self when Moses asked who he was.

I Am. The great I Am.

And Peter’s precarious position on the upturned boat, the presence of one saying I Am, in the midst of the storm, is what makes sense of Peter’s saying, “If you are who you say you are, call me to come to you.” Because he’s going to fall any moment, possibly be drowned, and his only hope is seeing Jesus standing steady amid the waves, not flailing at all.

“Come”, says Jesus.

And Peter slips off the upturned boat and begins to walk, keeping his eyes on Jesus. But he is already afraid, calling out, “save me, save me” as another huge wave knocks him from his feet and washes over him.

In an instant Jesus is there, holding Peter, holding me, holding us all, the everlasting arms.

“Why did you doubt?”

Why? – because the uncertainty and the fear in our lives can sometimes become crippling, even when we long to stand tall in the storm. When the world is so unpredictable and we feel powerless to change anything, and we feel that no one can hear our small voice in the force of the storm of political and institutional crisis, media storm and hateful propaganda. Then we cry out to the one we long for, the one who knows us and loves us.

And I wonder if Jesus was still on that mountain top, remembering and mourning a great courageous man of faith who had been beheaded at the whim of a foolish monarch and his greedy queen. And praying now that these others he loved would not be lost in the storm, not tonight, praying that he and they would have the strength to continue to the end, through all they must face. Yes, perhaps he was still on the mountain, interceding for his disciples who were afraid. And I wonder if the answer to his prayer was the very presence of the Father, the Creator, out on the water with them, taking the familiar form of Jesus: the Great I Am, present in some way to those disciples on the storm tossed lake, through the intercession of the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.

For as Paul, in his epistle, reminds the church in Rome – the Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.

So, the great I Am is close to us, in our hearts, on our lips, sometimes seen in the familiar and known, and sometimes in the unexpected insight of the heart amid the storm. 

Page last updated: Wednesday 2nd August 2023 5:15 PM
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