1 Corinthians 3:9-17: Matthew 14:22-34
It is easy to think that we are spiritually strong and healthy when life is good and things are going our way. It is a very different matter, however, when things are falling apart and we find that we have no place to stand. Life’s challenges can make hard truths quite obvious and call into question what we had previously taken for granted about ourselves and our world. Nonetheless, it is still possible to close our eyes to what we do not want to accept. We are free to shut out the light and cling stubbornly to the darkness in ways that will only drown us in weakness and despair. A far better response, of course, is to use our sense of brokenness to open our eyes to our dependence on the mercy of the Lord as our only hope for light and life, as the only sure foundation for our lives.
Today’s gospel lesson provides a vivid example of what is at stake when we recognize unsettling truths. St. Peter began to sink like a stone in a raging sea when he shifted his focus from entrusting himself to the Lord to being consumed with fear about the wind and the waves. By his own power, there was no way that Peter could have avoided drowning in this situation, but he called out “Lord, save me!” That is precisely what the Savior did by reaching out to Peter and rescuing him as He said, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” The stress of the storm revealed the weakness of Peter’s faith, which is not surprising because he had gotten himself into this dangerous situation by putting Christ to the test, saying “Lord, if it is You, bid me come to You on the water.” By his prideful lack of trust, Peter literally got himself in well over his head. He learned the hard way that he had no other foundation, no basis for his life, than Jesus Christ. If left to his own devices, he would have descended to the darkness of a watery grave.
That is a destination completely different from the one to which our Lord calls us. The God-Man came to do nothing less than transfigure us in holiness with His gracious divine energies. The Savior called His disciples to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48) He cited the Psalms: “You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High.” (Psalm 82:6; Jn. 10:34) While we remain human beings by nature, Christ enables us to become like Him by personal participation in His grace. That is why theosis is an eternal process, for God’s holiness is truly infinite.
The Savior revealed His divine glory to Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor so that they would know He is truly God and the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets of the Old Testament. The voice of the Father proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well-pleased. Hear Him.” (Matt. 17:5) Unlike a prophet or a teacher of religious law, the Savior did not come merely to provide instructions that would make people a bit more pious or moral. The One Who revealed His divine glory in brilliant, blinding light came to make us shine in holiness like an iron left in the fire as partakers of the divine nature by grace. The change at the Transfiguration was not in our Lord, but in the disciples’ ability to behold Him as God. As the God-Man, He calls and enables us to become transfigured in holiness such that we become radiant with the divine glory both in this life and for all eternity.
We cannot give ourselves the spiritual clarity to behold and share in His divine majesty, even as we have no innate ability to walk on the water. Peter did so briefly because he trusted in and obeyed the Lord as He empowered him to do so. But when he focused on the wind and the waves and was overcome with fear, he began to sink. Even as we cannot become transfigured in holiness apart from sharing in the life of Christ, Peter could not participate in the Savior’s miraculous ability to walk on the water apart from faith in Him. He learned that the hard way when he started to go under. Fortunately, he did have the presence of mind to recognize what was happening and that the Lord was his only hope.
The contrast between humanity left to our own devices in this world of corruption and the Savior’s fulfillment of our human nature is more stark than the difference between night and day. It is the difference been life and death, between participating in the radiant glory of God and sinking to the bottom of a dark sea of sin. Our Lord has conquered death, Hades, and the tomb in His glorious resurrection on the third day. His divine glory has flooded even the darkest abyss, even the most tragic and painful pits of despair into which we can fall. He has liberated us from slavery to the fear of death as the God-Man Who shares His restoration of the human person in the divine image and likeness with weak, fearful, anxious people like you and me. As we reach out to Him with faith from the depths of our hearts, as Peter did when he began to sink, we open our darkened selves to His light, we present our diseased souls for His healing. Instead of being captive to our own self-centered desires and proud illusions, we orient ourselves to the Kingdom of a Lord Who reigns through His Cross and empty tomb. That certainly does not mean that all our problems go away or that we will get all that we want in this life on our own terms. It does mean, however, that even our most difficult and painful struggles present opportunities to embrace Christ as the very foundation of our life, as the only One Who can deliver us from slavery to our own corruption and brokenness.
No worldly regime or culture can do that, and neither can any kind of therapy that does not pursue the purity of heart necessary to see God. (Matt. 5:8) The darkness roots deeply within us all, both personally and collectively, and nothing but the brilliant glory of the Lord can overcome it. Whether we know it or not, we inevitably sink like stones into the abyss whenever we make anything or anyone else the foundation of our lives. All good things have their place in God’s creation and we should despise none of them. But we will not become truly human unless we ground every dimension of our life on the foundation of Christ. As St. Paul writes, “we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” He teaches that we “are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you.” The God-Man has joined divinity and humanity in Himself and made it possible for us to become His living temples by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is another way of saying that He has made us members of His own Body, the Church. Our life, our identity, and our hope are all in Him, not in any of the false gods worshiped by nations, races, and factions that think they embody the fulfillment of the human person in this world. They will never save us from being pulled under by the weight of our personal and collective brokenness.
As we continue in the Dormition Fast, let us look to the Theotokos as the great sign of hope for what it means to be transfigured in holiness. She risked everything by saying “yes” to the unbelievable calling to become the Virgin Mother of the Son of God. Unlike Peter, however, she never took her eyes off the Lord and entrusted her life to Him throughout decades of struggles that we cannot even imagine. She became the Living Temple of God in a unique way and the first to follow Her Son into the heavenly reign upon the end of her earthly life. Let us look to her as the most radiant example of what happens when a human person, subject to the temptations that beset us all, refuses to be distracted from entrusting her life to God. She used the great challenges that she faced to commend herself fully to Him. He was and is the foundation of her life, which is why we must become more like her if we are to be transfigured in holiness as the people the Lord created us to become in His image and likeness. He did not breathe life into us so that we could sink like stones under the weight of our sins. No, He wants us to shine with Him in heavenly glory, even as we live and breathe upon the earth. The only question is whether we will make Him the foundation of our lives and refuse, simply refuse, to be distracted by the wind and the waves from doing so.