Maybe he saw it in their faces.
Probably Peter’s: a deep breath followed by a long sigh, a half-concealed eye roll. He saw his disciples’ slumped shoulders, their ashen faces – it had been a long couple days for them as well.
First, the horrifying yet not unlooked-for news of John’s beheading, then the attempted retreat by boat so they could mourn in peace; the faint buzzing of the growing crowd as they pulled ashore: an entire region grief-stricken as the news of Herod’s evil deed spread. A people rendered voiceless as violence against their prophets was enacted with impunity by the powerful; systematically undercut, regularly forced to stand by and watch their impotence put on display as the privileged marched by, waving their standards of hate and ill begotten power.
Yet again, one of this oppressed people’s beacons of hope had been snuffed out. So they came in droves to this itinerant rabbi to see if perhaps he would offer the hope they desperately longed for.
The rabbi sighed as he stepped off the boat, knowing the time to mourn his cousin would have to wait. Then, a long day of healing: speaking words of peace, touching the broken and bereaved. Hours passed. The sun which had ridden high in the heavens when they weighed anchor was starting to fall when his friends came to him and said, not without a little hope in their voices, that he ought to send the crowds away so they could get food and lodging before the night came on. He looked on his friends, then on the crowds, and coyly responded that they ought to give the hungry masses something to eat.
Probably he said it just to watch their eyes widen – he desperately needed a laugh – and then, well, something happened.
They gathered the food they had, organized the crowds to sit in smaller groups, and began to break and share. We don’t know how it worked, but there was somehow enough. Whether by a miracle of magically multiplying food, or the more banal (yet no less miraculous) inducement of strangers to provide for each other, they were saved from their hunger and, at least for the moment, from their pain and grief.
But now it was truly late, and he could tell his friends were done and their limit had been reached. So he released them, promising to hook up later after he’d dispersed the crowds, and, like factory workers hearing the bell, they breathed a sigh of relief and prepared the boat. He looked over his shoulder and watched them slowly sail away.
When – finally, mercifully – the last needy person walked away, he too sighed deeply and stumbled off to find rest. He was physically tired, but more than that, his heart was full of that heavy-emptiness we feel after long, sad days, like when the last guest leaves a funeral dinner and the family looks at the empty casserole dishes, deciding they can wait till morning. He stumbled down the darkened path and eventually collapsed, half in prayerful meditation, half in weariness.
He was awakened (or had he just finished praying?) by that clinging chill of pre-dawn and the growing sound of the wind as it whistled through the hills surrounding the lake. With a start he remembered his friends and wondered if they had made it to safety. He looked out upon the lake stretched out below, writhing in the wind under the pale moonlight. He thought he could make out an object on the water but it was too far away to be sure. He gathered his shawl about him and quickly made off down the path in the direction of the lake. When he reached the water’s edge, the disciples’ small craft was unmistakable, struggling several hundred yards offshore. He tried calling out, but his voice was lost in the wind. He walked closer to the angry waves and then, well, something happened.
His disciples would later say they saw him physically walking upon the waves. They assumed it must be some disembodied spirit (perhaps the Baptist’s!?) and were, obviously, terrified. He again called out to them, this time his voice carrying over the wind and waves:
Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.
Recognizing his master’s voice, the ever-impetuous Peter asks that he be commanded to participate and Jesus obliges. Peter steps out and, well, something happened – at least it started to. But then the power and terror of the deep combined with the exhaustion and emotional trauma of the previous day caught up with him and he “began to sink.” His voice trembling with fear (or was it from the water in his mouth?), he cried out in desperation: Lord, save me!
And Christ saves him.
Pulling him out of the waves, he helps Peter back into the besieged boat, and by the time he had steadied himself on the deck, the last wave had slapped over the rail, the wind died to a whisper, and from the gently rocking boat they could see the faint light of dawn tracing over the hills surrounding the lake. They were saved.
But what does that word mean, saved?
In the evangelical context of my youth, this term was often bandied about, generally as a response to a person’s intellectual assent to the “lordship of Jesus over their lives,” which typically meant averting an eternity of conscious torment in hell. Creation had gone wrong and Jesus saved creation from God’s punishment. Our job was to say “Yes” to Jesus (whatever that meant).1
But that’s not what’s happening in our Gospel text for today, when Jesus quite literally saves Peter from drowning and the disciples’ boat from capsizing. Their salvation is physical, visceral, immediate.
Nor, more pointedly, does it seem to be the thrust of Paul’s words to the Romans as we’ve encountered them these last weeks.
“But surely,” you might say, “if ever there was a passage that pointed to the power of a simple confession of belief, it’s here in Romans 10 when Paul outright says: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (v9).
However, just as the larger point of Matthew’s tale is not some saccharine claim that Christ will “calm the storms of your life,” but rather serves the writer’s larger agenda to cast Jesus as the long-expected Messiah, so too Paul’s words have a context: that God has overcome all barriers to bring people to peace with God, each other, and themselves.
We’re not going to solve all questions about salvation today, but from the example of our texts, I think we can safely say that to “be saved” means – at least – to know yourself as one in need. Standing before the mystery of the Divine acknowledging our lack, believing that Christ, in some way, comes not to take away the feeling of emptiness but to teach you how to make peace with it and live fully within it. To begin seeing Divinity in the world around – as hands breaking breaking the bread we need and as the bread itself; and in the world within – peace found in the midst of storms and not simply when they abate. Peace that emanates from you as the power to repair the wrongs of the world, when the powerful have their way with powerless, overcoming the writhing chaos under your feet to walk upon the waves, literally and figuratively drawing the drowning out of deep waters.
So that the saved may turn and become those who save.
1. To be fair, this is my memory, which is definitely colored by my current beliefs, and there were plenty of lessons and sermons over the years that said we were not simply saved from something, but for something, such as fulfilling the Great Commission: spreading the name and teachings of Christ to the farthest shore, allowing him to save others as well.↩