Seeing today’s gospel brought me back to a spirited discussion that took place on the first day of a new semester in seminary. We arrived in the room to find two words written large on the board. JESUS SAVES.
The professor welcomed us, introduced herself, pointed at the white board, and said “For the next hour…discuss.” What do those words mean to you? What does Jesus save us from? Or should we say what does Jesus save us for?
Apparently those two words mean different things to different people. Often it depends on where in your life you (rather like Peter) are drowning: sin, finances, addiction, depression, or relationship? (The list goes on)
When I saw those words on the board, my mind went to a funny memory. When I was in middle school, there was a billboard in my home town of Napa, California. That billboard had the same two words-JESUS SAVES. What made it funny was that a vandal with a sense of humor somehow got up onto that billboard to add the words, “GREEN STAMPS.” What made it even funnier was that my mother was a serious saver of green stamps and it was nothing short of a religious experience when she would amass the correct number of stamps to earn a new toaster or set of dishes. In part as a result of that experience, my mind was open to the possibility that there could be wider meaning to “Jesus Saves.”
Peter calling to Jesus to SAVE him is a central part of Matthew’s gospel text this morning. We should note that illustrations of sea crossings where Jesus gets into or out of a boat are important within the synoptic gospels. They illustrate times when the disciples get to glimpse something important about Jesus and when they’re given the chance to respond.
When Jesus begins walking towards the disciples they think him a ghost. But Peter is intrigued and wants to try it too. The whimsy of his excitement is charming in the Greek where the original reads more like, “I want some of that water walking too!”
Jesus just made it look easy, that is until the winds and the waves come up and Peter’s confidence turns to anxiety. When he begins to get “that sinking feeling” is when he cries out “Lord, save me!” We can bet he was questioning whether getting out of that boat was really such a good idea. But here’s the thing. If we ever hope to walk on water, getting out of the boat is essential.
Too often this story is reduced to the object lesson of Peter taking his eyes off the Lord. That’s a piece of it but larger is the confession that Jesus has the capacity to save. We often overlook the fact that Jesus provoked the disciples to take a risk with their faith.
So here is something to think about. Does the Peter’s doubt come when he begins to sink? Or does the doubt come in when he cries out for the Lord to save him? There’s nothing wrong with the walking, the trying, or even the sinking and the failing. Or does his doubt comes when his anxiety turns from water rescue to the fear: what if God doesn’t save me? What if I really do drown?
I think this may be at the heart of our fear. My week is bookended by two funerals. Both of the deceased likely cried out to God to save them, one from depression and one from cancer. I also learned that a dear friend is not only battling throat cancer but now lung cancer. I’m certain all three asked/are asking the question of what if the “saving” doesn’t come in the here and now.
That’s the tricky thing about faith. We have to step out of the boat. Faith starts with action, with taking a step. The best intentions in the world don’t do much without action, but taking that step, even with the worst of intentions, just might give us the experience of meeting God on the road, on (or in) the sea.”
Faith is the willingness step out of the boat, whether you think you’ll sink or skate. And Peter had that. So why does Jesus address him as “you of little faith”? Not because of the faith he lacks, but because of the faith he has. Peter has a little faith-and over time he grew that faith. He grew it by putting one faithful foot in front of another.
Dylan Breuer writes, “ That’s why I take hope and not condemnation away from reading the stories of Jonah, and Peter, and the rest of God’s reluctant prophets and Jesus’ wavering disciples. They didn’t have it all together but the steps they took, however cluelessly or clumsily, made space in which they and others could encounter God’s mercy, giving rise to generations of risk-taking and faith growing that- shared across the Body of Christ-could not only move mountains, but turn mountains and valleys to plains.”
God does not demand that we step out of airplanes or take crazy risks. All God asks is that we get out of the boat and step forward, even if the ground beneath us is no more substantial than water. What matters is that we are walking toward Jesus, whose hand is held toward us, stretched out in invitation, stretched out to grasp us no matter what.
Thanks be to God.