Today’s scriptural reflection is from Brian Flanagan, an Associate Professor of Theology at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. Brian’s research focuses on ecclesiology, liturgical theology, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. His recent book is entitled Stumbling in Holiness: Sin and Sanctity in the Church. As an undergraduate student at Catholic University, Brian was an intern at New Ways Ministry from 1996-1999, and he now serves on New Ways Ministry’s Advisory Board.
Today’s liturgical readings can be found by clicking here.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus has spent the night praying by himself after a long day of ministry; he needed some “me” time, or perhaps, some “I AM” time! The disciples are in the boat in the midst of some rough waters, and Jesus comes walking to them “during the fourth watch of the night,” that liminal time between midnight and dawn when anything is possible – when there might be a little light to see by, but not enough to see clearly.
In this moment of confusion and fear as they spot him, their first instinct is that they must be seeing a ghost. But Jesus tells them not to be afraid, foreshadowing another time he has to convince his friends that it’s him, and not a ghost, in the days after his resurrection.
“It is I,” our translation says; equally valid is the way the Gospel of John often translates the phrase, with its theological harmonics: “I AM.” Peter being Peter, he wants more proof, in about as dramatic a way as possible – “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” and Jesus invites him out into the wind: “Come.” It starts off fine–although we have room to imagine how far away Jesus was and how far towards him Peter got before he lost his nerve. But like a rookie tightrope walker who looks at the ground instead of the rope, Peter begins to sink as he sees how strong the wind is. Luckily – grace-fully – when he cries out, “Lord, save me!,” Jesus is right there, to catch him, and to gently rebuke him for letting his doubt overwhelm his faith. That must have been an awkward walk back to the boat – either with Jesus carrying Peter all the way, or walking back, in silence, along the tops of the waves.
What can we as LGBTQ Catholics and allies hear in this story? How might this story illuminate our relationship to God and to the winds, the waves, the boat, and the other disciples back in it? I find at least three places that might be relevant.
One way of hearing this story is as a parable of the often frightening experience of coming out as LGBTQ. I can’t hear Jesus’ call to Peter to come to him across the water without thinking of his call to Lazarus in the tomb: “Lazarus, come out!” This isn’t a unique call to LGBTQ Catholics, in that trusting in Jesus to bring us from death to life, hearing Jesus’ invitation to courage and to trust in him, being lifted up when we falter — well, that’s just called being a disciple of Christ.
But the experience of telling the truth about ourselves, even when the winds seem dangerous and staying safely and quietly in the boat would seem a lot more sensible, is the history of many of our LGBTQ lives, of choosing honesty, courage, and trust in God above dishonesty and false security. Jesus invites us, as LGBTQ Catholics, again and again, to come out to him across the water, and in doing so to learn more about our own trust in God and our ability to rely upon him in a pinch.
A second way in which this story might have relevance to some of us is about how we experience our failures. As a gay Catholic trying to be a theologian for my church, I have often made the mistake of paying more attention to the dangers of the wind than to the One reaching out to meet me. Coming out, many have said, is a process, a repeated act of choosing honesty and trust over dishonesty and fear; depending upon our locations in the world or the church, there is room for prudence, but I for one have often erred by confusing hiding from fear with prudential discretion.
When we go back into the closet in various ways, when the wind and the waves of prejudice or misunderstanding seem too strong, we begin to doubt the One who tells us not to be afraid. We lose faith in the God who loves us, and we lose faith in our fellow disciples’ love for us as well. It is a comfort to know that Jesus will save us again and again when we falter in our courage, but not without a gentle rebuke that will hopefully, like Peter, help us to learn to trust.
Third, and finally, we can learn that our call to courage, and confidence is not meant for us alone, nor experienced by us alone as LGBTQ Catholics. In various ways many people, especially those most vulnerable in our world and our church, also have wisdom from their experience of the Christ who saves us. But in our unique stories, LGBTQ Catholics have a lot to teach the rest of our church about walking on water. It’s a skill that all Christians ought to have, that takes trust and practice, and even then, you end up in the drink every so often. But as Peter showed throughout his life, learning to walk toward Jesus in faith, and to make him the focus of our attention rather than the winds and the waves of our fears, is the work, and the walk, of a lifetime. “Take courage, I am. Do not be afraid. I’m here to catch you.”
—Brian Flanagan, Marymount University, August 9, 2020