Keeping Our Eyes on Christ

What happens when an eagle, flying in the sky, meets a storm? Well, the eagle does not try to fly away from the storm. Instead, as the storm sweeps in, the eagle sets his wings at the proper angle so that the winds will lift him above the storm. While the storm is punishing the earth below, the eagle is soaring above it, using the very winds of the storm itself to propel it above the storm!

What a fantastic and vivid image of how we can face the many storms of life – illnesses, death, disappointment, failure, betrayal and tragedy – whatever the storms may be, when they come, we can set the wings of our faith in such a way that the adverse winds will only propel us far above the storm!

Today, in the Gospel lesson, we see Christ teach His disciples this significant lesson. Jesus had just sent his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee while Christ himself went up to a mountain to pray all night. In the middle of the night, a fierce storm arose on the lake, and the disciples found themselves rowing against strong winds, as high waves battered the boat. These experienced fishermen knew the danger they faced. By early morning, they still were far from land when they saw Jesus walking on the water toward them. At first terrified, they thought that they saw a ghost.  But Christ comforted them by saying, “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.” 

Up to this point in the story, we hear about an incredible miracle – the Lord of nature walking on water. I could offer a sermon on the divine nature of Christ, and his authority over all creation! Today, however, I don’t want to focus on this point. Instead, we can learn a practical lesson for our own lives from what follows. 

Peter, still unsure that it is truly Jesus and not a ghost, calls out to him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  And Jesus answers “Come.” Peter obeys and starts to walk on the water as he keeps his eyes focused on Christ. One step, two steps. Peter himself begins to walk on water! As this second miracle occurs, Peter begins to notice the strong wind and waves all around him. In the midst of this crisis, as his focus turns more towards the wind and the waves instead of towards our Lord Jesus he becomes afraid, and begins to sink! He cries out, “Lord, save me!” and Jesus immediately reaches out and holds Peter in His loving arms, saying, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” They both enter the boat, and immediately the winds cease.

Here, Saint Peter offers a concrete example about what so often happens when unexpected storms sweep into our lives. Notice that while Peter kept his eyes focused on Christ, he was safe and secure – he even actually walked on water himself! The moment Peter took his eyes off Christ, however, and concentrated on the wind and water and waves, he forgot about the security of Jesus and allowed fear to enter his mind and heart. Fear never comes from God. God’s love drives out all fear. His peace and presence don’t allow fear to remain! But Peter did not allow God’s love to remain. For one moment, he focused on the storm, instead of overcoming the storm with the help of Christ!

The secret of successfully handling any and every difficulty in life is to focus on our Lord Jesus Christ instead of the storm. Don’t focus on the magnitude of your problems and troubles, which will lead only to fear and despair, but look to the greatness of our Lord Jesus, and trust in Him who can calm even the mightiest storm. Jesus’ words, “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid,” are for us as well, in the midst of any difficulty we may face.

Unfortunately, we Christians often act in a schizophrenic way. We say we believe in God, we come to Church to worship Him and fill our lives with His presence, we might even turn to Him each day in prayer. But when tragedy, struggles, and disappointments come, which inevitably they will, at the moment when we precisely need God most, we forget about him and try to handle our situation in a rational way, using only our own abilities.

Today’s reading emphatically reminds us to turn our eyes away from everything else and only focus on Christ. When facing any challenge or problems, don’t go over all the details of the problem again and again, without allowing Christ to enter into the midst of the situation! When we are troubled, it does no good to keep our mind recounting the difficulty of the problem. Turn your eyes away from the wind and water and waves, and instead look at Jesus standing there with his arms open, inviting us to walk on water with Him!

In the Gospel, notice the reaction of Jesus the moment Peter begins to sink. Peter feels overwhelmed, and cries out, “Save me Lord.” and immediately Jesus reaches out to help him. Christ is our ever present help, ready to come whenever we call in need! Beware though, because the devil tries to deceive us by making us think we are alone. This was the main problem with the disciples on the sea of Galilee – they thought they were alone; they thought Jesus was back on a mountain, far from their need.

And we often make the same mistake in our own lives. We proudly think we can handle the problem ourselves, and ignore, or forget the fact that Christ is near. In days of tension and stress when we are burdened with life’s challenges, and all the world seems dark, we may think, “If only our Lord Jesus was here with us.”  Well, today, the Gospel lesson optimistically tells us, “He is here. Look out into the storm and see him coming for us. Do not be afraid. Never despair. Take courage and find hope!”

Before I conclude, let me address one other misunderstanding Christians sometimes have about the storms of life. Some think that being a faithful follower of Christ means that all problems of our lives will disappear. What a naïve and childish attitude! Our Lord never promised his followers an easy life. In fact, he clearly warned the opposite. “Anyone who follows me,” He said, “must deny himself and take up his cross.” In other words, a follower of Christ will face persecution, difficulty and struggle. Disciples of Christ must carry a heavy cross, BUT, in the midst of these difficulties, Christ promises that He will be with us. God will not save us from the storm, but He will be with us in the midst of the storm.  He won’t stop the storms from coming, but He will give us the strength to overcome any storm!  For He knows that in facing storms, we grow stronger by learning to rely on Him!

Look, for example, at where one can find the strongest trees. Often these will be found at the top of a mountain. Why? Because it is precisely there that the storms hit hardest, and that’s where the trees resist the powerful winds by developing deep roots. Let us learn, therefore, to use the storms of life to help us become stronger by relying more on Christ and thus, growing in our faith!

One final aspect about the storms of life is that along with strengthening us, such storms also come to test us, to show us where we are in our journey of faith. When a ship is out at sea, and a terrible storm comes with waves pounding the ship and winds howling about, one may wonder if the ship will hold together?  It is a terrific struggle. But really, the battle was fought long before, in the forest where the timber grew, in the shipyards when the nails were pounded in and the planks laid. Others fought the battle by the care they gave throughout the years by guarding the ship against dry rot and broken ribs.  The storm in the middle of the sea is simply the test; the battle was either won or lost long before in the process of building and caring for the ship.

It is the same with us. We must build our ship of life carefully and prepare it for the days of the storm which will surely come. Through prayer, fasting, study of our faith, practicing of good works, stewardship of all we have, and living a spiritual and Christ-centered life, we slowly build a strong and sound ship that will be prepared to face the most vicious storms of sea. Then when the storm attacks us unexpectedly, we will be ready and sure in the security of our ship, for the battle has been fought long before the storm actually comes!

So today, let us learn from the Gospel three important lessons of life. First, we must always keep our eyes on Christ in the midst of storms, instead of looking at the wind and the waves. Second, we can be sure that storms will come. Even for us Christians, and I should say especially for those who follow Christ, we can be sure that various temptations, struggles, and storms will come. Let us not be surprised by them, nor let us be unprepared for them. We know that they will come, so this leads us to our third point – Be vigilant and ready! Our time to prepare for storms is not at the moment of the crisis, but long before. Here and now we must take the time to cultivate an intimate and serious relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, and participate in all the spiritual exercises and traditions of the Church. In this manner, we will be ready to face anything and everything!

Remember and carry with you Christ’s words to Peter: “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.” 

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