This Sunday’s Gospel is the story of Jesus walking on the water (Mt 14: 22-33). The phrase “He dismissed the crowds” is repeated in the first verse.
Jesus “made” the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side while he dismissed the crowds. After he dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain to pray. Jesus made space for himself so that he could go up the mountain by himself.
Elijah does somewhat the same thing in the first reading, one of my favorites from the Hebrew Scriptures (I Kings 19: 9 – 18). The difference is that Jesus makes a conscious effort to go up the mountain whereas Elijah seems more on a journey and finds himself at a mountain cave. Granted that it is not just any mountain. It is God’s mountain. Later in the story the “Word of the Lord,” –is it God?–tells Elijah to stand on the mountain. I have always imagined this as Elijah being in a cave on the mountain.
Both prophets find themselves on the mountain and praying, for that is what listening for God is all about. Elijah hears God; he hears the Voice of the Lord in the silence that follows the wind and the earthquake and the fire. He steps out of the cave after hearing the silence and prays in a different way. He talks with God and finds direction.
We don’t know anything about Jesus’ time of prayer other than he is by himself. Does he listen for God? Does he hear God? Does he talk with God? We don’t know. He is there to pray in the evening but by morning he is down from the mountain and walking on the sea. In the past I have assumed that Jesus is at peace when he has come down from the mountain but Matthew doesn’t tell us that.
I am in the boat with my fellow disciples. I am caught up in the wind, in the noise. Am I terrified because of the wind that batters the boat or am I terrified because I see Jesus walking on the water or because of both? I am not the one who gets out of the boat. I let someone else take that risk. Sometimes I have been the one to step out alone and explore the risky, the unknown. Sometimes I find that others follow and sometimes I feel that I am “out there” by myself. It is during the latter times that I become frightened. I become frightened enough to call out, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on me.” That is my version of Peter’s plea, “Lord, save me.” This is my prayer in the midst of chaos, not in the midst of silence.
Jesus and Peter get into the boat, the wind ceases and all of the disciples worship Jesus. Is Peter’s worship different from the others? He has had an intimate encounter with Jesus. He is the one whom Jesus has saved from the waves. But the battering wind ceases for all of them. Peter’s risk seems greater. Jesus’ grace is for all. Is Peter more aware of that grace and more appreciative for it than the others? Perhaps. We don’t know. That is the end of the story.
It only matters, if it matters at all, because the one who seeks Jesus, even in a conditional way — “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you” — is the one who takes the greater risk and is the one who is more aware of the grace, of the salvation. There is a part of me that says that this doesn’t matter. Yet it does. We are left with a bunch of “what ifs.” For me, the greatest is “what if Peter had not responded to Jesus’ call?” Peter is the one who overcomes the fear of seeing a ghost. Peter is the one who calls out to Jesus. Peter is the one who steps out of the boat. Peter is the one who becomes frightened in a different context than the others. Does that mean that Peter’s experience of Jesus’ saving touch is greater that that of the others? It is certainly a bit different.
I see Peter in more of a partnership with Jesus than the other disciples. His moment of salvation may be earlier than that of the other disciples but they all experience Jesus’ saving grace. Their salvation, their experience of the new calm, their realization that Jesus is the Son of God is no different than Peter’s, or at least the story doesn’t tell us that it is. It only tells us that, because Peter took the risk, he becomes frightened and Jesus reaches out to him in particular. But Jesus only questions Peter’s faith as well.
I hear my own guides telling me that, in the end, it doesn’t matter whether Peter experiences Jesus’ saving touch before the others or not. Jesus saves all of them from the chaotic winds. But it does matter, maybe not at the end of the story but certainly in the middle. Peter is the one who steps out of the boat into the unknown. And Peter is the one Jesus saves before he calms the sea for all.
I need to remember this the next time I am fearful of stepping out into a leadership position. I don’t expect that I will be saved any “more” than others but only that someone needs to take the first step. Someone needs to recognize the grace filled chance in the midst of chaos and fright. Someone needs to have the courage to call out and to step out. That courage may help good things to happen even while I am doubting and risking. We may all be saved but that salvation needs to start somewhere.
Lord, save me!