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  • Larry Payne

A Fear of Ghosts

Have you ever seen a ghost and felt a wave of fear? Matthew 14: 22-32 offers a fascinating yet puzzling scene. A raging storm has brought a vision that terrified the twelve disciples. In a moment, one disciple is out on the raging waves-- but eleven others are in the boat! What is going on

here? Each had seen the same thing: a human figure in the moonlight, striding above the waves, coming near. Maybe it was James who saw it first, or the fretful Thomas. “Hey, look over there. What is that?” 12 pairs of eyes strained against the dark and the pitching ship. “A spirit!” “You’re crazy- I don’t see anything but moonlight on the waves.” “There it is again!” By now some were standing, pointing and shouting. Then came a great cry as Peter jumped over the side as if he was at the shore. Now there were eleven shaking with fear in the tossing boat.

What makes you afraid? The answer will be different for each of us. But there is actually a more important question: What do you do when you are afraid?

Let’s read between the lines of our Gospel. I believe

it’s possible that each disciple may have expressed their fear in a different way. We might discover ourselves if we consider four the eleven men in the boat:

John had the mind of an intellectual. He stayed close to Jesus and often asked the questions that brought deeper explanations. His brilliant mind would share with the church the most profound theology of Jesus in the writing we call the Gospel of John. In his fear that night John may have thought, “What is the symbolism of walking on water? I remember the Psalmist sang, ‘You rule over the surging sea, when its waves mount up, you still them.’ I need time to analyze the theology and discover the meaning so I can teach others.

James, the brother of John, had grown up on this water. His practical mind was always filled with powerful energy, so much that Jesus nicknamed him one of the ‘sons of thunder.’ He held the rudder this night, an experienced sailor who knew how to guide the boat in bad conditions. Maybe in his fear that night he said, ‘I’m taking control of this situation. I’ve been through it before. You guys just follow my orders as we face the ghost.”

Andrew had been with Jesus from the very first. He knew the power of working together. When Jesus invited him to follow, he hurried to tell his brother. That night with his heart pounding with fear, he might have said, “Let’s call to some other boats to help us face this frightening danger. If we work together we can handle this. Peter, come back! Everyone, work as a team!”

Judas had a heavy responsibility. He was carrying on his person the total wealth of the disciples. If he lost that money, they couldn’t support themselves on their itinerant mission. We know what he said to himself that fearsome night. “I’m holding on to the coin bag no matter what ghost or demon or angel comes to this boat. I must guard what I have. People are depending on me. No fear is big enough to make me let go of what I have!”

Jesus came to be with them. The revelation of his presence changed everything. He was not a ghost but the original windsurfer, riding the gusting wind in his robe! (Could that be a naturalistic explanation of this miracle?) He was their friend and teacher, their guide and now their comforter. Jesus was in the boat, and the fear died!

Jesus will not condemn the way you react to fear. It’s a part of your nature, the way your body, mind and social adjustment has made you. Instead, he comes to you in the middle of the raging wind and calms the terrified heart. He rebuked Peter for not recognizing what he could truly do. We must welcome him into our fears.

So how should we handle our fears? We don’t deny them or curse ourselves for how we react. We accept our own fears and failings yet also accept Jesus as the amazing companion. He may appear when we least expect him, yet desperately need him. If you can find Jesus in your boat, then the fears disappear.

(Photo by S. Meszaros on

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