Spiritual Training

Published on 9 August 2020 at 13:00

9th Sunday after Pentecost; Matthew 14:22-34 [Mark 6:45-52; John 6:15-24] 


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


The volatile Sea of Galilee

Today’s Gospel reading describes the experience of the disciples-apostles on the volatile Sea of Galilee.

The Sea of Galilee is the lowest freshwater lake on earth —and indeed the second-lowest lake in the world. It lies a staggering 686 feet below sea level. It is about 13 miles long and 8.1 miles wide. Its maximum depth is approximately 141 feet. The lake is fed partly by underground springs but its main source is the River Jordan. 

All Old and New Testament writers use the term “sea” (in Hebrew—yam, and in Greek—thálasa), with the exception of the Evangelist Luke [cf. 5:1], who refers to it as “the Lake of Gennesaret” —from límni Genísaret, the Greek form of the Hebrew Chinnereth (Kínereth) as in Deuteronomy [cf. 3:17] and Joshua [cf. 19:35]. In Hebrew, there is no distinction between the words—”sea” and “lake”—since the word yam [הים] is used to describe any large body of water.  


Sea of Galilee - FreeBibleImages.org


The text says that Jesus compelled [in Greek—inángasen] the disciples to get into a fishing boat [cf. plíon in Matthew [4:21; 14:22]. Jesus did not give the disciples-apostles a choice. They therefore boarded the boat and left for Capernaum. Jesus then dismissed the crowds and retreated to a mountain—which in Matthew’s Gospel is a place for encountering God [cf. Matthew 5:1-7:29; 17:1-8]. In Moses-like fashion, Jesus demonstrates that He is both servant-leader to the crowds [cf. Matthew 20:25-28] and the intercessor and mediator between God and men [I Timothy 2:5]. He climbs alone to the mountain for His meeting with the Heavenly Father [cf. Matthew 14:23].  

The disciples-apostles had left in the early evening to go back to Capernaum [cf. John 6:17]. Their fishing boat was approximately 27 feet long, 7.5 feet wide, and no more than 4.3 feet high. The estimated travel distance was approximately five miles. It should have been an easy journey, especially since several of the disciples-apostles were experienced fishermen and well acquainted with traveling that ‘sea’ by boat at night. However, they soon encountered strong winds and tempestuous waves [cf. Matthew 14:24; James 1:6; Ephesians 4:14].  

The situation is reminiscent of the first ‘calming of the sea’ by Jesus in Matthew [cf. 8:23-27]. However, in the first account, Jesus Himself led the disciples into the boat and stayed with them—even though He was asleep. When the storm arose and the waves covered the boat, the disciples-apostles cried out: “Save, Lord; we are perishing” [cf. Matthew 8:25]. Jesus says: “Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” [cf. Matthew 8:26]. Then, He rebukes the wind, and the event ends with the disciples-apostles marveling: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” [cf. Matthew 8:27]. 

Notwithstanding, in today’s Gospel, the disciples-apostles do not have the luxury of awakening Jesus. Jesus is not there. They are still many stades from the land [a stade is an eighth of a Roman mile], and the boat is ‘being tossed by the waves, for the wind is contrary’ [cf. Matthew 14:24].  They have been struggling to keep the boat afloat. They have been rowing hard for hours [cf. Matthew 14:25]. It is already the fourth watch—that is, between three and six o’clock in the morning! Moreover, they have only traveled 30 stades or just under 4 Roman miles [or 3.6 US miles]! The waves continue to ‘batter’ the boat. They are alone in the threatening storm. They are tired from being up all night.

In the midst of this crisis, when their energy reserves are spent—and while it is still dark—the Lord Jesus Christ makes His appearance. The disciples-apostles do not initially recognize Jesus in the midst of the chaos. In their exhausted state—surrounded by roaring waves and standing on a spray-drenched deck—they are gripped by fear.  However, they are not afraid of death—they are panic- stricken because they have mistaken the Lord of creation for a ghost [or phantom]. 


Over their cries of fear, Jesus calls to them, saying: “Take heart, it is I; have no fear” [cf. Matthew 14:27]—or more literally—“Take heart, I AM; do not be afraid”.  Jesus reveals Himself, not simply as Jesus the teacher—but as “I AM”. This self-revelation is a disclosure of Jesus’ source of power and mode of being.

For the Evangelist Matthew’s Jewish-Christian audience, the words of Jesus echo the Divine Name. The words of Jesus call to remembrance the prophecy of Righteous Job the Long-suffering: “He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea” [cf. Job 9:8].  

The words of Jesus call to remembrance the proclamation of the Prophet King David: “You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them” [cf. Psalms 89:9]. It is clear—in the midst of the storm, Jesus does that which only God can do. This is a theophany—a manifestation of God. Jesus is displaying His power in a death-defying and spectacular act of walking on the tempestuous waves of the sea.


Faith in times of tempest

When confronted with the inexplicable reality of the God Who subdues chaos, the Apostle Peter in turn does the inexplicable and said: “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water” [cf. Matthew 14:28]. Jesus replied: “Come. And… Peter came down out of the boat, and walked on the water to go to Jesus” [cf. Matthew 14:29]. Peter expects that his fears will be alleviated by ‘walking to [and with] Jesus on the water’. His desire to join Jesus on the water expresses a desire for transcendence. He wants to share Jesus’ unbounded life—to put himself beyond the forces and expectations that determine our usual existence. It was only Jesus’ invitation [or call] that made it possible for Peter to ‘step out’. 

As in the Requiem Irmos of the Sixth Ode: “Beholding the sea of life, surging with the storm of temptations”—Peter steps out of the boat onto the water, and enters the tempest or storm. His motive is not to escape threat—for he goes into a situation where threats are now different—into a place where Jesus is defying and reordering the boundaries of the cosmos. However, as Peter began to walk— “he saw that the wind was boisterous, [and] he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying: Lord, save me! And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him: O you of little faith, why did you doubt? And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then the disciples-apostles came and worshiped Him, saying: Truly You are the Son of God” [cf. Matthew 14:30-33].


After the first ‘calming of the sea’ by Jesus in Matthew [cf. 8:23-27]—the disciples-apostles were left wondering: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” [cf. Matthew 8:27]. However, today’s text decisively answers that question. The calming of the sea in today’s Gospel culminates in a profession and confession of faith: “Truly you are the Son of God” [cf. Matthew 14:33].

The tempestuous circumstances were intended to reveal Jesus as the Son of God. The revelation was made possible by, and in the midst of, the tempest. If Jesus had not compelled the disciples-apostles to embark on the journey across the stormy Sea of Galilee, they would have missed this glorious opportunity to witness the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ as God in their midst. 


Mosaic of Jesus Christ helping Saint Peter out of the storm


Why did St. Peter sink in the midst of the tempest? Why do we sink?

How many times must the Lord Jesus Christ say: “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” [cf. Matthew 17:17].

Jesus clearly explains why we sink: “[it is because] of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain: Move from here to there, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” [cf. Matthew 17:20].

Not long after ‘walking on the water’, Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ—the Messiah: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” [cf. Matthew 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-30; and Luke 9:18-20]. Ultimately, the Apostle Peter came to despise death. He heroically embraced martyrdom—which was the culmination of his discipleship-apostleship in Christ. Together with the synaxis of the disciples-apostles, the Apostle Peter confessed by his life and death that which the Apostle Paul declared in Galatians [cf. 2:20]: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me”.  

The way to keep faith in times of tempest and turmoil is to practice daily askesis [translated as asceticism or podvig]. Askesis is a spiritual training regimen—liken unto athletic training programs in terms of steady and persistent discipline, self-motivation, dedication, consistency, effort, and hard work. Askesis is part of the triadic hesychastic method [cf. I Thessalonians 3:12; I Timothy 2:2; I Peter 3:4] of nepsis [watchfulness], askesis [asceticism], and hesychia [silence, stillness, and focus]. Askesis therefore includes self-denial, prayer, fasting, prostrations, and other spiritual and bodily exercises, or disciplines.

These exercises are actually lived wisdom—a way of living according to the intellect or nous [which is man’s organ of spiritual apperception]. The ascetic regimen also includes the constant remembrance of God, nepsis [that is vigilance or ‘watchfulness over the heart’], and prosoche [that is, attention to the soul]. In such a regimen, the continual examination of our conscience and self-knowledge become a means of spiritual growth. We become “doers of the word, and not hearers only”—since as ‘hearers only’, we can easily ‘deceive ourselves’ [cf. James 1:22]. 


The true believer is fortified against all onslaughts


The practice of askesis is necessary for Orthodox Christians—who must face the chaos of these evil and post-Christian times in which folly and vice are openly and perilously pursued. The anti-ascetic [and anti-hesychastic] carnal believer falters at everything. He is unprepared. He is angered and frightened even by a mere encounter with those whom we call prokoptontes [in Greek] or naprednici [in Slavic], which are ‘those who advance or make progress—however imperfectly—along the Orthodox Christian path to enosis’ [or union, oneness].

However, the true believer is fortified against all onslaughts. He is alert. He will not retreat before the attacks of poverty, or of sorrow, or of disgrace, or of pain, or of calamity. He will walk undaunted against them and among them.  Men are fettered and weakened by vice. We have wallowed in our vices for long periods of time—and it is difficult for us to be cleansed and delivered. We are not merely defiled by vice—our very souls are stained.


Nothing more than the ‘leavings’

Why does the folly of vice hold us with such an insistent grasp?  It is, primarily, because we do not combat it strongly enough—because we do not struggle towards salvation with all our might [II Peter 1:10; Philippians 2:12]. Secondly, we do not pay sufficient attention to the instructions of the Saints—who found and experienced Christ in the innermost parts of their being. We do not drink with open hearts as we are called to do in the Third Ode of the Paschal Canon: “Come, let us drink a new drink [cf. John 19:34]: not one miraculously brought forth from a barren rock [cf. Exodus 17:5-6], but the fountain of incorruption springing forth from the tomb of Christ, in Whom we are strengthened”. Ultimately, the folly of vice holds us with such an insistent grasp because we approach this great problem in too trifling a spirit. 


But how can a man learn to struggle against vice—if the very time that he allots to askesis consists of nothing more than the ‘leavings’ of his participation in vice? Polycrates [Grk. "much power"] says that few go beneath the surface. We skim the top only—that is, we take up or remove the ‘floating matter’ from the surface. We regard the meager time spent in the search for blessèdness -in order to live in accordance with God’s will- as sufficient, or even as more than necessary. We swim rather than dive into the sea of God’s love.

What hinders us most of all is that we are too readily satisfied with ourselves. If we meet with someone who calls us good, or sensible, or holy, we immediately see ourselves as fitting such a lofty description. Moreover—not being content with praise in moderation—we accept everything that shameless flattery heaps upon us [as if we really deserved such praise]. We agree with those who declare us to be the best and wisest—even though we know that our flatterers have proved themselves to be nothing but self-seeking and habitual liars. We are so filled with self-complacency that we desire praise for virtue—even when we are addicted to vice. We desire to be called ‘gentle’ while we are inflicting abuse, grief, sorrow, and heartbreak on others. We desire to be called ‘generous’ while we engage in looting, dishonesty, and all forms of rapacity. We desire to be called ‘temperate’ or ‘sober’ while we participate in parties, drunkenness, immoral living, quarreling, and jealousy [cf. Romans 13:13].

Therefore, it follows that we are unwilling to be reformed, or rather transformed—because we believe ourselves to be the best of men. The Holy Apostle John says: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” [cf. I John 1:8]. 

Each man—according to his lot in life—is impaired and stultified by flattery. We should say to him who flatters us: ‘You call me a sensible man—but I know that I crave for that which is useless. I desire that which only does me harm. I have not even the knowledge—which satiety [or engorgement] teaches to animals. I do not know what should be the measure of my food or my drink. I do not yet know how much I can hold in my stomach!’ 

St. Paul plainly states: “For I know that in me [that is, in my flesh] nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find” [cf. Romans 7:18]. "Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” [cf. Matthew 7:14].

How can you know if you are lacking? A true believer is joyful, calm, and unshaken; he lives on a higher plane, on higher ground. He can say with the Apostle Paul “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased [that is, ‘to live in need’], and I know how to abound [that is, ‘to live in abundance’]. Everywhere and in all things, I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” [cf. Philippians 4:11-13]. 


The effect of blessedness is a joy that is unbroken and continuous.


How can you then know if you are lacking? Ask yourself the following. Are you downcast? Is your mind harassed by anxiety through anticipation of what is to come? Do you seek pleasures of all kinds and in all directions? If so, know that you have not reached blessèdness, and you have fallen short of joy. You are wandering from the path if you expect to reach your goal while you seek joy in the midst of cares. The objects or objectives for which you strive so eagerly—as if they would give you happiness and pleasure—are merely causes of grief.  

Men press on in pursuit of joy, but they do not know where to seek and obtain the joy that is both great and enduring. Some seek joy in feasting and self-indulgence. Others seek joy in canvassing for honors and in being surrounded by a throng of followers. Others seek joys in mistresses. Still others seek joy in the idle display of culture and literature. All these have no power to heal or save. Men are led astray by deceptive and fleeting gratifications. Of such, for example, is drunkenness—which pays for a single hour of hilarious madness by sickness in terms of many hours, or even days. Similarly, applause, popularity, and the enthusiastic approval of others are purchased and gained at the cost of much mental disquietude. 

Reflect, therefore, on this. The effect of blessèdness is a joy that is unbroken and continuous. The mind of the man who has achieved blessèdness is eternally calm—resting in God. The Apostle Paul says: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” [cf. Philippians 4:6-7]. Man has a reason for aspiring to blessèdness. The man who has achieved blessèdness is never deprived of joy. This joy springs only from the knowledge that such a man abides in Christ and pursues virtue. None but the brave, the just, the self-restrained, and the wise, can rejoice. 

You might say: ‘What do you mean? Do not the foolish and the wicked also rejoice?’ Pleasure-lovers spend every night amid false, fleeting, and glittering excitements, and do so as if there were no tomorrow—this is the embodiment of the mystery of iniquity and self-deception. However, the joy that comes from God, and moreover, to those who imitate the Lord Jesus Christ, never ceases. But be assured, pleasure that proceeds, or that is borrowed, from external stimuli—ceases. If it is in the power of another to bestow it, it is also subject to another’s whims.  

In The Cost of Discipleship, German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says: “Faith is only real where there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience”.

Our Lord makes it clear: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so, you will be My disciples. As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full” [cf. John 15: 7-11].   


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.