For weeks in the early months of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic our busyness slowed down enough for us to begin to process what was going on about us. In this slowing down and looking about us, what became more conspicuous were the rifts and fissures in the social fabric of our country. It seems ironic that the threatening presence of an antigen should make us so much more aware of the pervasive presence of ill-will – that is – animus among us.
The pervasiveness of animus is nothing new. It has always been with us, and always will be with us on this side of the kingdom of heaven. But as our awareness of this animus and its attendant manifestations increase we are prone to slip deeper into fearfulness and isolation. Thus, it is understandable that in our fatigue that we want to get away from it – to stick our heads into the sand, if you will.
“As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.”
The story of Jesus walking on the water is set in a similar circumstance of animus and its attendant fearfulness. Yet with Jesus there is no overt expression of hate, only demonstrations of compassion for those who are foundering.
Before Jesus’ walk on the lake, he hears the horrific news that Herod has beheaded his cousin John in a foolish and fearful act of violence. Foolish because Herod finds himself in an embarrassing situation – simultaneously trying impress his cunning stepdaughter and his dinner guests. I think his embarrassment places him in a bind which angers him, and that his anger trumps any sense of compassion he may have for John – a man who both fascinates him and threatens his political power. Rather than living with the tension of compassion for John, Herod gives in to animus.
Jesus is upset by this news and attempts to withdraw – to go into isolation to pray, but he is thwarted by the fearful crowd who is hungry for the peace and healing he has to offer. Jesus knows he needs time away with his father, but his compassion for the crowd outweighs his personal need – at least for now.
Jesus meets the crowd’s need for healing, but more than that, he demonstrates for his disciples and the crowd the ability of compassion to provide abundance and to trump fear. When the disciples are exhausted, hungry and in need of rest themselves, they ask Jesus to send the crowd away as if they are unwanted intruders. But Jesus responds, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” In essence Jesus is telling the disciples, I know you are exhausted, but I also know that you have not yet explored the depths and power of compassion to satisfy an abundance of need – both yours and others.
It is only after this astounding lesson of compassion that Jesus finally sends the disciples to the other side of the lake, then he dismisses the crowd, and gets his time away with his Father.
The disciples’ journey across the lake would not normally be challenging, after all a number of them are water-men – accomplished fishermen – for whom this lake is their own back yard. Being battered by the waves is not normally of consequence, but today has been a long and exhausting day, their reserves are spent and their fatigue is playing tricks with their imagination in the dark – besides, how often do you see someone walking across the water? So, it is understandable that their bewildered minds get the better of them and they see a bogeyman rather than a friend and loved-one.
It is our impulsive and unguarded friend Peter who is not satisfied with Jesus’ assurance. Nonetheless, Jesus is only too happy to offer Peter another demonstration of compassion in the face of fear, but it is Peter who can’t handle it. In stepping out of the boat, Peter figuratively steps out of his comfort zone and into the real world where he, like us, quickly loses sight of the compassion offered him and founders amid the waves of animus. Yet even in the face of animus, Jesus is there with outstretched hand to catch us in the midst of turbulent times to steady us and remind us that as his disciples he is always present to us so – that in turn – we can be fully present as bearers of compassion to others in the midst of the turbulence created by animus. As followers of Christ Jesus, you and I are called to worship – that is – to enter this figurative boat together upon troubled waters so set out amid the flood tide of animus as faithful witnesses of Christ’s compassion for those who are suffering and to satisfy an abundance of need.
As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to leave this safe place and to sail upon turbulent and fearful waters that roil with hate, extending the life-saving hand of compassion and presence of Christ to those foundering amid waves of hate. We are called to see not the bogeymen, but to seek the face of Jesus Christ in the other. Where Christ is not, there we are called to walk upon the waters of the void.