There are two places in our passage where Jesus calls to his disciples. First, at the beginning, after the feeding of the 5000 Jesus beckons them to gather in the boat for a journey across the sea. Many theologians have interpreted the boat in this passage to be the church universal. The church, the denomination, the body of Christ that we are called into and through which we get to know God better. Secondly, in the middle of the passage, Jesus calls to Peter and his disciples to leave the safety of the boat. There are times we are called to step out of the boat in special ways to do something extraordinary. These moments often come during a stormy time in life. Other times they arrive because of a special opportunity or a focused period such as Lent. For you as an individual and certainly for us as a congregation, now could be such a time for us to step out in boldness together. Let us pray. Loving and gracious God, hold us in the gusts of life and guide us by the power of your holy spirit. Through Christ we pray. Amen.
Yesterday afternoon our family went to the Barnum and Bailey Circus at the Verizon Center. I had not been since I was a wee lad and it’s just like I remembered it only more so. Elephants, clowns, tigers. With more jumps and activities than one could imagine. Our kids loved it. What impressed me the most were the tightrope walkers. The flyers who walk step by step on inch-thick wire high above the ground and try not to fall. They amaze me in that they don’t look down. They continue on those tightropes and look straight ahead. They must train the walkers not to look down, for that is where the fear comes from, so they best look straight forward towards the horizon.
What also amazes me is how the occupation of being a tight rope walker tends to run in a family. It’s kind of like NASCAR or Indy 500 auto racing, where it seems now the kids and grandkids of racers I grew up watching are now the stars. Same with tightrope walkers. Most prominently the Walenda family. Where for generations now tightrope walkers have been born and bred in that family. It’s dangerous and many of them have died crossing on the rope. One would think the younger generations would gravitate to safer occupations as a result. But today the great grandson of the famous Karl Walenda, Nik and his wife, both perform with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, even as they teach their children the family trade.
My guess is the daredevil tight rope walkers are not Presbyterians. While we have to balance a lot in our polity, most of us are not high flying tight rope walkers. Most Presbyterians are more reserved and down to earth. We prefer order and decency to risk. We like to see what is on the ground before we take the step in front of us. We like to know that there is something solid that will catch us when we fall. All this was brought home to me at the circus after they shot a girl 60 feet in the air out of a cannon when my wife turned to me and said, “This experience is reinforcing our risk aversion as a family.”
We are not the only ones who seem cautious. So were Jesus’ disciples. Matthew tells us that after the feeding of the 5000, Jesus commanded the disciples into a boat to sail across the Sea of Galilee. The water was large and threatening and the wind was against them. They were afraid. They clutched the side of the boat. They did what did what humans usually do, held onto what they knew. Furthermore, the disciples were having so much trouble seeing they thought Jesus was a ghost.
We don’t need to be daredevils in life, but we don’t have to be afraid either. There is merit in boldness. Jesus says something important to Peter, he tells him to “Take heart.” Other translations, like the NIV, render the Greek as Jesus saying, “Take courage.” The New Testament understanding of such courage comes from our trusting God. Such heart is a gift from God. We don’t manufacture or create such courage. We receive it. Real courage comes from knowing we are not alone. Some of the most courageous people I know are not afraid of dying because they trust what is on the other side. They are not afraid of failing because they know God is committed to them. They are not afraid of showing their true selves because they know they are made in the image of God. They are not afraid of stepping into the future because they know that nothing in this life or the life to come can separate them from the love of God.
Jesus offers courage. He offers heart. He asks us receive it, trust it, take it, claim it. Make it our own.
We may think of ourselves as cautious, that we have only a little faith. But like the disciples, we may be bolder than we realize. The disciples deserve some credit. For them, just being in that boat was an act of faith. The disciples sailed at night. Sailing at night was difficult. Fishing in the water at night was scary so the disciples rarely did it.
If we think of the boat as the church, just being in the boat, the church, in this day and age is hard. With all the distractions and competition for attention and cultural pressures, there are always headwinds to being the church. We don’t live in a culture where, when everyone settled down to live in one community, the first thing they did was join a church. By being here today, by joining the church you show you are not interested in staying in the shallow water of life. You want something more. You have chosen to be here. You have stepped into the boat with Jesus. If you have the faith to step into the boat of the church than you have the faith to take the next step, to venture into the seas when Jesus calls you. If you have the courage to follow Jesus into the boat, you have the courage to follow Jesus anywhere.
So you have at least a little faith. Peter had a little faith. When Peter ventured forth, the going was rough, and he almost sank and perished, but Jesus reached out his hand and he caught him at just the right moment. He helped Peter back into the boat. He stilled the wind and the waves, and Peter was saved. Jesus said Peter had but “a little faith.” I think that actually is a compliment. Peter had little faith and yet he was the one who got out of the boat. A little faith is enough. We learn later on in Matthew’s gospel when that phrase “little faith” is used that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed we can move mountains. At the feeding of the 5000 a little faith and some loaves and fishes fed a lot. It’s amazing what a little faith can accomplish when you grasp the courage Jesus offers.
Like the tightrope walkers, Peter was able to keep his head looking forward. He was looking for a call. The decisive moment came when Jesus asked them to trust him and let go; the call came when Peter was looking to go out from the boat. If Peter had not had that “little faith” to step into the future, if he had not asked Jesus for a call, and obeyed Jesus’ call to step out of the safety of the boat, then Peter would never have had the opportunity to get close to Jesus.
A few years ago, Harvard Business School professor Clay Christenson gave a commencement speech in which he said that when he was in graduate school he decided to spend an hour a day thinking and praying about why God put him on the earth. Ultimately, he said he “figured out the purpose of his life at the age of twenty-three.” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about Christenson’s practice and suggested that the point of life is not to figure it all out. It’s to journey along the route. Brooks wrote, “Life isn’t a project to be completed; it’s a landscape to be explored.” You must be able to respond to life situations as they come, asking “What is this situation summoning me to do?”
The best of our faith is our opportunity to take each situation as an opportunity to respond to God’s grace. To look for the grace and the summoning. Matthew wrote his Gospel to a largely Hebrew audience who revered the law. The Israelites had the law, and faith in God was seen as fulfillment of the law. Religion over time became acting in ways consistent with the law. Jesus was trying to train his disciples to think in a new way. To go a step further towards the exciting life God had offered in Christ. Jesus knew he wouldn’t be with them forever, and so they needed to be equipped to act boldly on their own. To step out without constraints and act with grace.
We are the same way. We might like to stay on a solid ground. But eventually something unexpected happens and we find ourselves walking a tightrope. Like it snows on St. Patrick’s Day and we have to scramble for child care. Or we wonder how the cold war returned or ask, “What do you mean we can’t find the airplane?” The doctors can’t explain why we keep getting sick. Or why the flu keeps hitting our kids (my wife and I were asking that very question at 4am this morning)? Or why our wages don’t go up fast enough? Or why the relationship we depended on now seems distant?
One thing to remember is that Jesus is not afraid of the storms. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus ventures out into the bad weather. He is out in the storm. But then that is sort of what we celebrate at Christmas isn’t it? That God comes to be in the midst of the storms of human life: loving us, training us, showering us with courage and grace and allowing us to step out of the constraints of obedience into the joy of new life.
The German theologian Paul Tillich once wrote, “Without an abundance of heart, nothing great can happen. So do not suppress your abundant heart.” In Lent we focus on spiritual practice. We engage in spiritual practices for many of the same reasons the Israelites followed the law, to practice relationship with God in a world with many distractions. But we go a step further, we do more than obey God to complete a project, we do so to respond to the way we are summoned in each situation. As Christians we are similar to a long distance runner, who practice running to strengthen their heart so that they can go a long way when the race arrives. We observe Lent to develop an abundant heart. The ultimate aim is not just to remain consistent with the law. The goal is to practice faith so that we can take heart, an abundant heart, when Jesus calls to us. When we have a chance to do something great we can step out with Jesus.
Right now as a congregation we have an opportunity for something great. A capital and connectional campaign which will allow us to meet one on one and raise the funds we need to maintain our building, grow our ministries and steward God’s creation. Sometimes our culture and the boat says trust where you are. God says to trust Jesus and step into the future. God has blessed you in special ways. I hope you will grasp this opportunity to show your abundant heart.
Peter asked Jesus to summon him. Peter doesn’t ask to stay in the boat or if he can walk on water. He asks for a calling. He speaks for all of us. We all have a longing for passion. For excitement. For fun. To make a difference. To step out of the boat. To meet the future head on.
The great preacher William Willimon once wrote about this passage, “The story of Peter leaving the boat implies that if you want to be close to Jesus, you have to venture forth out on the sea, you have to prove his promises through trusting his promises.”
In the boat, on the seas of life, let us sail with courage and heart. As Edgar Guest wrote,
The things that haven’t been done before, those are the things to try; Columbus dreamed of an unknown shore at the rim of the far-flung sky, and his heart was bold and his faith was strong as he ventured in dangers new. And he paid no heed to the jeering throng or the fears of the doubting crew. The things that haven’t been done before are the tasks worthwhile today; Are you one of the flock that follows, or are you one that shall lead the way? Are you one of the timid souls that quail at the jeers of a doubting crew, or dare you, whether you win or fail, strike out for a goal that’s new?
You didn’t become a Christian to sit on the sidelines. You don’t get up every day hoping to be humdrum. We must be like Peter and keep our heads up, not looking down, looking for the horizon and asking God for guidance. Because every once in a while an opportunity comes in the life of a person or congregation or family to do something special. To make a real difference. Where Jesus says, “Take courage. Take heart. Take my hand. And come with me.” Amen.