A reflection for Sunday 13th August 2023 by the Rev'd David Warnes

One of the saddest situations I had to deal with as a teacher was trying to comfort and support a boy whose mother had died of cancer. That his prayers for her recovery had not been answered was difficult enough for him. What made it far worse was that another pupil told him that his prayers had not been answered because his faith wasn’t strong enough. That is a view of the nature of faith which I think is profoundly unhelpful and it’s based in part on a misreading of the moment in today’s Gospel when Jesus says to Peter, whom he has just rescued:

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Our three readings today have a common thread. They are all about faith. In our reading from the 1st Book of Kings, Elijah is feeling very sorry for himself and questioning God’s providence. It’s almost as though he is challenging God to put things right. God’s response is unexpected - not an instant solution to what is troubling Elijah but the promise of a close encounter with the divine. The encounter takes a form very different from what Elijah expected, for God is not manifested in the wind, in the earthquake or in the fire but in

“a sound of sheer silence”

And it is after that silence that God finally speaks to Elijah. There’s something important here about listening, and about how important listening is in the life of prayer.

Many sermons on today’s Gospel locate Peter’s lack of faith at the point in the story where he has begun to walk on water but notices the strong wind and begins to go under. In fact, his lack of faith is apparent before he steps out of the boat. Jesus has told the frightened disciples who he is.

“Take heart, it is I…”

And in saying that has said much more than you or I might mean when we say: “It’s me”. The Greek words that the Gospel writer uses,  Ego Eimi, are the very same words that God speaks to Moses in the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. You’ll remember the story – Moses is tending his father-in-law’s sheep when he encounters a burning bush and hears the voice of God. He’s told to go back to Egypt and lead his people to freedom, and he isn’t convinced that they will listen to him, so he asks God what God’s name is and is told “I am that I am”.

So when Jesus says

“Take heart, it is I…”

He is proclaiming his divine nature. And Peter’s response isn’t the response of faith, but rather:

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

By using the word “if”, he’s putting Jesus to the test. And it isn’t Jesus who fails the test, it’s Peter.

St Paul offers us a far better understanding of faith than the schoolboy who believed that if you have enough of it, then you’ll get what you want. God is not like a slot machine, dispensing favours if you insert a pound coin but unwilling to respond to a fifty pence piece.

In today’s passage from Romans Paul reminds his readers that faith is not mainly about believing that God will make things right for us in the here and now, but rather the belief that the God can bring all things, including us, to perfection. That kind of faith is best cultivated by prayerful listening.

In emphasising the value of prayerful listening, I’m not questioning the value of petitionary prayer – the kind of prayer in which we bring people and situations before God, as we will shortly in our prayers of Intercession. The prayer of listening and the prayer of asking are of equal importance.

I am sure that many of you will have felt, in times of trouble and at times when prayer was difficult, sustained by the knowledge that others were praying for you. I certainly have. And prayers for healing are sometimes answered though it remains an unfathomable mystery why that is not always the case. The boy who prayed that his mother would be healed of her cancer was right to do so. Had the other boy, who made that hurtful and unhelpful remark, been more accustomed to listening in prayer he might have taken to heart Jesus’ words:

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And the importance of listening was emphasised in last week’s Gospel for the Feast of the Transfiguration.

“Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”