Rev. Fr. Kyle L. Doustou 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
August 9-10, 2014
The Virtue of Faith
Faith. We hear this word all the time. We hear it in church and in hospital rooms, at graduation ceremonies and sporting events; we hear it used seriously and we hear it used casually. It’s used in a whisper said to a loved one struggling with illness – “I have faith that you’ll get through this”- and it’s used in Billy Joel’s 1983 hit “Keeping the Faith.” It’s a word that seems to be used to respond to any situation in life where something is going wrong, or where someone just needs a bit of encouragement. Like most words that begin to be used commonly and casually, it can come to mean just about whatever we want it to mean, so long as it conveys the same general sentiment. I suppose there’s nothing too wrong with one word taking on so many different meanings, but it does pose a danger when it’s a word that is at the heart of Christianity. And if ever there was such a word, it’s faith.
What does faith mean, then, in a Christian context? What is Jesus getting at when he admonishes Peter for being of little faith? Does faith simply mean believing in or assenting to a set of teachings and doctrines? Does faith simply mean believing in God and in Jesus Christ? Unfortunately for many of us Catholics, we can tend to think of faith, our faith, at a very base level. So long as I have some belief in God, so long as I go to Mass when I can (or really, when I want to), so long as I say a rosary every now and then and try to be a good person, then I have faith. While there’s some truth to this, we don’t want to short-change ourselves. There’s more to faith than belief. One can believe every doctrine, every passage of Scripture, and every single bit of God’s revelation, but still have no faith.
Our Gospel this morning helps to set the general framework for understanding what faith is. In the midst of a terrible storm on the Sea of Galilee, from the midst of his own terrible fear, Peter catches a glimpse of our Lord walking on the water. Surely his eyes deceive him! How can someone walk on water? This defies everything he knows and understands. And yet, here is Jesus…doing exactly that. So Peter cries out, partly from his fear and partly from his amazement, “Lord, if that’s you out there…if that’s truly you out there walking on water…then let me come out there and do the same!” And so the Lord allows it and to his astonishment Peter does it. But soon he realizes just how incredible and nonsensical this is, and begins to sink. This time, again from fear and distress, he cries out for the Lord to save him, and Jesus does. And pulling him out of the water, Jesus says, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Faith is an activity...it’s an action. It’s not a sentiment, it’s not a feeling, and it’s not a set of beliefs. It is something that is done in us and it is something that we do. Faith is a gift and it is a choice…it is an offer from God for friendship with Him, and it’s an offer that requires acceptance and work on our part.
On that night in the Sea of Galilee, Jesus Christ revealed Himself to Peter and the other disciples. By word and deed, the Divine Son of God manifested Himself to a bunch of fisherman…showing forth His Divinity and calling them to see and to believe. With hand extended, the Lord of heaven and earth called Peter forth from the boat to the water. He called him forth from a vessel made by human hands and ingenuity, a vessel that was now no match for the might of nature, and into the waters of the Sea…the very waters made by God’s hand and creativity. Peter responded…he left the failing certainty of his boat and entered into a new world…a world where his certainty would have limits, where his knowledge and understanding would only take him so far. And with eyes set on his Mysterious and Divine Friend, he began to tread the waters. The Lord revealed Himself and called, and Peter answered. But this activity would be short-lived…Peter would soon take his eyes off of Jesus and long for his own certainty and knowledge once again. And so he sank.
Though God no longer appears to His people according to sight, as He did on the sea, He does continue to manifest Himself by His Word. The invisible God, from the fullness of His love, address us as His friends, He moves among us and invites us into friendship with Him. He speaks to the human heart…in the midst of its joys and sufferings, in the midst of its peace and fear…and He calls us out of our boats, out of our certainty, to enter into a world of friendship that surpasses our wildest dreams. This is a gift…and it is a gift that He offers freely to every man, woman, and child. There is not a human heart that has ever beaten, is beating, or will beat that has not also felt in its innermost chambers the movement and stirrings of God. And when we do get out of the boat, when we begin moving after we recognize that He has moved us…this is faith. And though we go forth from the boat of certainty and unbelief to the waters of faith, though we plunge ourselves into this exchange without the benefit of seeing, we do not go forth blind. He gives us the Church to help direct us as we encounter these stirrings and movements…He gives us the Holy Scriptures and the teachings of the Church to help us make sense of it all and to direct us out of the boat. He gives us great saints who can, by their words and deeds, beautifully attest to the wonderful reality that awaits us. But faith is still an activity, and so it requires our response. It requires us to submit our intellects and our wills to God…to risk the comfortable, but temporal and fickle certainty of our boats, and to admit in humility that there is more to life than what we can see, and measure, and understand.
St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most brilliant theologians and mystics of all time, said that, “Faith is a habit of the mind whereby eternal life is begun in us making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent.” In other words, having been moved and stirred up by God Himself, we are presented with a choice: will I follow this movement or will I write it off and ignore it? When we choose to believe, when we choose to cooperate with this great gift, we must continually and habitually choose it anew every moment of every day. Peter had little faith because for him it was not yet a habit…it did not flow from his daily effort to respond and to surrender his precious certainty to God. But after some time, after continuing to experience the profound movement of God in His life, Peter would have great faith…so great that he would give his life for it.
And the same can be true for all of us. The Lord is moving about alongside us as our hearts brave the stormy seas of life. He speaks to us, as He did to Peter, and He calls us out of our boats, out of ourselves, and into friendship with Him. We should ask ourselves now, as He manifests Himself on this holy altar: are we willing to risk it all and to get out of our boats? If so, then we can begin a journey of becoming people of great faith.