The Reverend David Stanton Canon Treasurer and Almoner
Sunday, 13th August 2017 at 11:15 AM
For the vast majority of his life the pianist and composer Franz Lizst was not particularly religious. But towards the end things began to change. He was particularly drawn to the story of St Francis of Paolo, a story which in turn was inspired by Jesus walking on the water.
St Francis had hoped to get a boat across the Straits of Messina from the coast of Italy to Sicily. But he had no money, and the boatman refused to help him out. Indeed he taunted him and told him to make his own way across the strait. Francis put his cloak on the water and stepping onto it, began to walk.
In 1863, Lizst composed a work for piano entitled, St Francis Walking on the Water, a piece of music that remains a great challenge to any emerging classical pianist. Its a profoundly spiritual work: beginning with a strong melodic hymn, the whole work is then gradually and rather frighteningly caught up in a ferocious storm, through rushing scales and tremolos.
Very gradually the hymn of faith fights back, with St Francis stoically walking on the waters of this terrible storm and finally emerging in a glorious fortissimo of victory. Faith, justice and love triumph over the infernal elements unleashed against them.
However we understand todays Gospel account of Jesus walking on the water (Matthew 14. 22-33) the story raises a number of questions: It focuses our minds upon who Jesus was, how he is remembered, and the nature of faith.
Over the centuries this passage has fed a vast array of allegorical reflections on what it means to walk faithfully in fearful circumstances and what it means to express faith in Christ. It was perhaps this miracle of Jesus walking on the water, more than any other, that convinced Jesus’ disciples that he was indeed the Son of God.
Remember how Jesus called Peter to step out of the boat and walk to him. It was a call to voluntarily give up the security of the boat for the insecurity of walking on rough water. So with single-minded obedience, Peter takes the first step and, when his foot doesn't sink into the water, his faith is affirmed.
Here we see how God uses our obedience to put us in a position where we can develop our faith. In this sense, we can’t really develop our faith if we ignore Christ’s promptings. We may have made an intellectual assent, but unless we take the first practical step we do not have fullness of faith.
This reveals a crucial dimension to the New Testament: that faith, in relation to prayer and good works, is inseparably linked to our understanding and trust in Christ. This implies is that faith is not a tool but rather a mind-set.
Jesus repeatedly taught his disciples to be persistent in prayer. ‘Ask, and it will be given to you.’ (Mat 7:7). In the chapter following on from todays Gospel we’re taught that the persistent asking of the Canaanite woman, gained the answer to her prayer.
In a similar way, its the persistence of the widow before the unjust judge in St Luke’s Gospel (18:1-8) that got her request granted. Indeed the friend at midnight got his bread because of his persistence in asking.
So we are taught to be persistent in prayer. Its also no accident that this miracle comes on the heels of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000. The Church has long viewed these two miracles as being closely intertwined. The miraculous feeding of the people with bread, coupled with Christ’s body - walking on the water, are a preface to the mystery of the Eucharist, the ongoing miracle involving bread and Christ’s body.
Just as the Apostles share in these two miracles, they distributed the miraculously multiplying loaves and Peter actually walks on the water, so through the Eucharist all Christians will come to share in the transforming power of divine grace.
Christ proves he has power over elemental objects and material forces; so why could he not have that same power to turn bread and wine into his own body through the hands of his Apostles?
In a similar way, Christ uses Peter’s impulsiveness to teach us the secret of navigating through the winds and waves of life. As long as Peter kept his eyes on Christ he was able to walk unhindered through the stormy sea; as soon as he let his eyes wander away from Christ to examine the intimidating waves, he begins to sink.
Liszt’s great piano piece of St Francis Walking on the Water, speaks to us about this sort of struggle in the journey of faith and about the ultimate triumph of love, faith and justice.
Here his music is a magnificent depiction of struggle and triumph, with a crescendo of dramatic unrelenting octaves, culminating in triumphal splendour. He reminds us why Peter asks to leave the fellowship of the disciples in the boat and to come to Jesus alone.
But its also important for us to remember that his experience of Jesus alone cannot prevent him from sinking in the waters. In the boat with the other disciples, the fellowship kept him afloat. That’s a great lesson for us all, but it also reminds us that we never have to choose between the Church and Christ. Christ is with the disciples in the boat even when walking on the waters.
So this great Gospel account of Jesus walking on the water reminds us that together we encounter Christ and together we support and help each another within the Church.
Only Christ could multiply the loaves, and only Christ could tread upon the waters of the sea: the disciples yielded to this evidence, and confessed their faith. They were deeply affected, and worshipped Christ.
It is the prayer of the church that we all do the same as we encounter Christ within the Eucharist, for as St. Augustine observed, unlike ordinary eating, when the food becomes assimilated into our bodies, when we eat and drink at the Eucharist we are changed into what we receive: the body of Christ.