Today’s gospel is sandwiched between the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and the discourse on the Eucharist. John wants to prepare us for the full meaning of the Eucharist. The multiplication of loaves reminds the Jews of how God fed the Israelites with manna in the desert. Today’s crossing of the sea reminds them of the whole Exodus passage when they were pursued by the Egyptian Army, but God saved them all. So the storm and wind speak of the dangers they were facing. But what is important is that God is with us through all these struggles in life. He is with us in the storm and He is present to us par excellence in the Bread of life, which is the Word of God and the Eucharist.
This gospel message is as timely for the Church now as it was during the primitive days. As the early Church grew in number, it faced division arising from the failure to observe justice. There were complaints about unfair distribution of food and discrimination by the Greek-speaking Christians. Their widows were being neglected by the Church, unlike the Palestinian widows who spoke Hebrew. This was a potential problem, for if left unaddressed it could sow seeds of resentment and cause the early Church to break apart.
This issue of preserving the unity of a growing Church is not new. It is a constant challenge in any Christian community today. Every organization that grows too fast and becomes big will face the challenge of attending to the personal needs of every member of the community. The truth is that when the organism gets larger, its leaders are bound to lose touch with their members at a personal level. As such, the real issues on the ground sometimes do not reach the ears and the attention of the leaders early enough, or adequately. No community is perfect and can ever be. When a community expands, there is bound to be miscommunication, often giving rise to misunderstandings and suspicion. Disillusionment is often the reason for people to leave the Church because they feel that their interests are not met and that they do not belong. Jealousy and favoritism will cause the community to break apart.
If we feel that we are being threatened, then the scripture readings assure us that Jesus is not far, but that He is in our midst even when we are in the storm. There is no need to get discouraged or be afraid. This is what Jesus was assuring the disciples, as the boat tossing in the waves is a symbol of the Church under trial and tribulation. We need to let Jesus into our lives. What do we do in the face of problems and challenges?
The first thing that faith requires of us is to immediately set ourselves to tackle the situation as soon as we can before it gains momentum and gets out of control. This calls for a human response to a practical problem at hand. We note that immediately the apostles “called a full meeting of the disciples and addressed them, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food; you, brothers, must select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom; we will hand over this duty to them, and continue to devote ourselves to prayer and to the service of the word.’” This decision of theirs was a quick and decisive response to a potential conflict that was simmering and threatening to become explosive.
What is notable is that the apostles did not try to resolve the problems themselves. They knew their limitations and were clear of their calling, which they said, is “to devote ourselves to prayer and to the service of the word.” They did not allow practical issues to side track their objectives. Keeping focus on their mission and calling prevented them from allowing secondary issues to hinder them from their real vocation in the Church. As Church leaders, lay and clerical, we often get carried away with micro-managing, so much so we end up doing all the tasks that should have been delegated to others. Instead of focusing on the vision, we end up attending to all the secondary issues, executing the mission but losing sight of the objective.
When we fail to delegate, we fail to realize that Jesus is with the Church, the Body of Christ, and not just in the hierarchy and the appointed leaders. So we should take a page and learn from the apostles how they engaged the rest of the community in getting things done. Instead of dictating how things were to be done, they delegated the task to a group of men chosen by the community themselves, and “prayed and laid their hands on them.” Of course, delegation is not a matter of just having people appointed to undertake some tasks, as some leaders who over-delegate are wont to do. That would be another costly mistake to make if the tasks are given to the wrong people. Leaders must therefore ask for the wisdom of God to choose wise men who are well known for their piety and prudence. Pushing the buck to someone else who is not suitable for the task would cause more trouble than be of help.
However, whilst we should act rationally in the face of challenges, we should, as Church, not merely look at our problems purely on the level of intelligence and common sense. Of course, grace does not destroy human nature and we must make use of the natural resources and natural endowments that God has blessed us with. This is another mistake Church leadership quite often fall prey to. Everything is seen as in the corporate world, on the logical level. This approach, whilst not wrong, is inadequate because we leave out the dimension of grace that comes through faith. It is important that when examining the issues at hand, we should bring them to the Lord in faith and listen to what the Lord wants to tell us. Isn’t this the gift of wisdom and understanding that the Holy Spirit gives to the Church? It is a knowledge that goes beyond mere natural human calculation.
This was the message that Jesus wanted to prepare His disciples for in the greatest miracle, which is the Eucharist. He prefaced the exposition on the Eucharist by the miracles of the multiplication of loaves and the calming of the storm. There are many things in life that are beyond reason, such as the real presence of our Lord in the Eucharist. Of course, it is beyond human comprehension that wine and bread could be transformed into the body and blood of Christ, and indeed many non-Catholics mock at our Catholic belief in the real presence of our Lord in the Eucharist.
As in the case of the storm, when the disciples were so afraid of drowning as “the wind was strong, and the sea was getting rough”, the Lord unexpectedly came into their midst. The evangelist noted, “they had rowed three or four miles when they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming towards the boat. This frightened them, but he said, ‘It is I. Do not be afraid.’” What is even more significant was that when Jesus came to them, they were brought to the shore on time. “They were for taking him into the boat, but in no time it reached the shore at the place they were making for.” With the calming presence of Jesus, their fears were wiped away. They found peace and safety. From one of fear of death, they received a new lease of life. Such is the power of divine intervention, especially when we least expect it. The disciples did not even cry out for help. They must have been busy wrestling with the storm until Jesus intervened miraculously and took them away from the storm to the shore.
Again, faith in miracles demand that we dare to let go and let God take over. This does not mean that we have to abandon reason. But reason must not restrict the possibility of the intervention of divine grace and is always open to the impossible. It presupposes that we are ready to surrender our reason after we have done all we could and learn to trust in the Lord instead. It requires us to surrender all our decisions to God and allow God to be the Lord of our lives, especially when it means taking risky choices, sometimes even against the grain of reason. This demands that we are ready to die to ourselves and our plans and take the adventure of faith, like Abraham, the prophets, Christ and the apostles. Can we be open to the radical intervention of God, or do we want to play safe by following our human reasoning alone?
If reason alone can solve all problems, then faith is not needed at all! If the Church depended on human ingenuity, then the Church would merely be another ideological establishment in the world, propagating its ideas. The Church would then not be divine, nor the institutions, like the sacraments, be efficacious, as they would remain only rituals. Rather, the Church is the work of the Holy Spirit and the power of God at work in the world. We must not resist the Holy Spirit and never presume to work without a conscious awareness of the Holy Spirit in our lives. For this reason, using our human resources to deal with the challenges ahead of us must always be combined with human prudence, but always in the context of prayer and faith. So it is the seamless unity and balance between faith and reason, grace and nature, prayer and work, human authority and divine power, institution and divine authority, that will ensure that God works powerfully in and through us. So leaders must pray as much as they work for a solution when confronted with challenges. Without faith in God’s grace and in prayer, we will only lead our people further into the storm.