Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 10, 2008

2008.08.10 “Extreme Discipleship”

Central United Methodist Church

“Extreme Discipleship”

Matthew 14: 22 – 33

August 10th, 2008

“Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.  And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.  But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.”  So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.  But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”  – Matthew 14: 22 – 33, from The New Revised Standard Version

     Wow! Did you see the Opening of the Beijing Olympics Friday evening? The best word I can think of to describe it was the one the New York Times used: “astonishing!”

      Did anyone see Ron and Donna Campbell?  They are there!

      And that’s just the opening ceremony. In days to come we’ll see the actual games themselves: track and field, swimming (and Michael Phelps). As the late Jim McKay used to put it, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

      I don’t know if you were like me, but when I was a child, whenever I would watch sports on TV, I could only watch it so long before I’d want to go out and actually do it. Baseball and basketball, of course; but what about pole vaulting? I used a large bamboo pole that came in the middle of a rug.  Actually, I went through a couple of those, because they turned out not to bend as much as I thought they would. I thought I was pretty good at it, until I tried to do it in a track meet, with an actual fiberglass pole, and got blown away.

      But those are “established” sports. What about extreme sports: anybody into those?  We’re not talking golf or tennis here, but mountain biking or rock climbing or bungee jumping or sky-diving.

      The nature of such sports might be characterized by a conversation I had with my son a few years ago, when he bought a mountain bike.  He pointed out something I wasn’t aware of, that mountain bikes don’t really need brakes, because once you get started, you’re not really going to be stopping anyway, except maybe by rocks or trees. 

      Which brings us to the reason most of us don’t do much flinging ourselves out of boats or airplanes or mountains; it’s not that we couldn’t do it; it’s because we’re afraid. FEAR!  Our fear of heights, of tight spaces, of deep water, or, as a friend put it, fear of hitting hard surfaces from high altitudes.

      Today’s Gospel suggests a new extreme we are invited to try: not scuba diving nor water skiing, but water-walking.  And it’s not really an extreme sport, it’s extreme discipleship. And with it comes its own associated fear: John Ortberg summarized it well in the title of his 2001 book:  If You Want To Walk On The Water, You’ve Got To Get Out of The Boat.

      The story of Peter’s misadventure in walking on the water is a much-loved, well-worn story in the history of the church.  It has been – and should be — used more as a teaching parable than as a nature miracle, a proof of Jesus’ divinity.  

      Because if you’ve ever tried walking on the water, you know how that goes.  Maybe you heard about the Baptist Pastor and the Methodist Pastor who welcomed the new Catholic priest to town. “We just want to let you know that if you want to be a pastor in this town, you’ve got to learn to walk on water.”  “Walk on water?”, the priest says, “only Jesus could do that.” “Follow us,” they say, “we’ll teach you.”  They take him out to the lake, and the Baptist pastor steps out onto the water, and walks on it. He comes back, and the Methodist pastor goes for a stroll on the water!”  “Your turn,” they say to the priest. The priest steps in the water, goes completely under, and comes up splashing and gulping for air.  “So, says the Baptist preacher to the Methodist preacher, “should we tell him where the stumps are?”

      The story in the Gospels is almost as strange.  It’s told only in Matthew, Mark, and John; Luke doesn’t include it. Only Matthew adds the story about Peter attempting to try it for himself.  You know, you can only watch so long, before you want to try it.  And, like my pole-vaulting, he found out he wasn’t as good at it as Jesus.

      Really, don’t you find that part of the story – the part where Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” — strange? On your most confident days, is that something you would do?  “Lord, if it is you, command me to risk my life, to tempt death, to walk out across a dark, swirling, sea!”  Wouldn’t that be like saying, “Lord, if it is you, command me to stick my hand into the fire.”  Or, “Lord, if it is you, order me to jump off a building?”

      Is it any wonder that throughout history, Christians have used this story, not to learn how to walk on water, but for lessons about discipleship? 

      You see, we’re in this boat, in a storm.  Sometimes the boat is the church, which unfortunately, has sometimes been portrayed as a ship of fools. Ever heard the old line found in a medieval manuscript?  Question: “How is the Church like Noah’s ark?” Answer:  “Because if it wasn’t for the storm on the outside, we couldn’t stand the stink on the inside.” 

      More often though, we are in this boat, in a storm, and the boat is our life.  And the sea is so vast, and our boat is so small.  And if that isn’t scary enough to begin with, stepping out of the boat, even at the invitation of Jesus, is an even scarier thought, kind of like jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. But if we want to walk on the water we’ve got to step out of the boat. 

      Throughout the history of the church, I’m amazed and humbled at the risks Christians have taken, when they were asked to step out of the boat they were in, in response to the call of Jesus.

      I can only imagine the kinds of storms Christians found themselves in when this story was written, in the ‘80’s of the first Christian century, when internal strife and external threats tempted many to flee or to fade away from the faith.  Perhaps it was the few – like their hero Peter – who were faithful and fearless enough to attempt to remain faithful to Christ.  And even then, it was not easy: as the story makes clear, if you take your eyes off Jesus, you will begin to sink beneath the waves.

The German Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis, saw this clearly. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, he said of this passage:

“Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord.  If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith . . . The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus.  Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if [people] imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.”

A few years ago, I read a book by historian Howard Zinn, a biographical memoir entitled You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times.  (There’s a lot of good material in trains, boats, and planes, huh?) In Zinn’s book, as in all other memoirs I have ever read of those early days in the civil rights struggle, when I read of the risks they took, the abuses they suffered, and the courage they displayed, I am humbled.  By their decisions to act for what they believed was right, for a new idea whose time they believed had come, they risked not only personal abuse and physical injury, but the risks of losing jobs, alienating friends, and endangering their family.  I think it was Ralph Abernathy who once observed, “We got pretty good at praying with our eyes open.” Keeping their eyes on Jesus, no doubt.

      The life of faith is still like this, isn’t it?  At the invitation of Jesus, we want to step out of the boat, and walk on the water – to engage in extreme discipleship, but our comfortable pew — I mean, our berth — in the boat prevents us, and our fears paralyze us. 

      We might want, for example, to be more faithful in worship attendance, more faithful in spiritual disciplines like praying and reading the Bible, but then we’d have to break out of our old routines. We might wish we could be more generous in our giving, but we fear we might not have enough to live on. We might sincerely want to forgive others who have wronged us, to respond to evil non-violently to evil, to find ways to love our enemies, and to be more courageous and vocal in our stances for peace and justice. But to do any of those means we have to change, to give up our old, comfortable ways, and step out of the boat.  And that’s a hard thing to do.  It’s much easier just to stay in the boat, and not rock it at that.  

      I have come to believe that every now and then, in our spiritual life, for the sake of growth, we need to do something bold and dramatic.  Why?  Because if you want to walk on the water, you’ve got to get out of the boat, as comfortable as it may be.

      In fact, this may even be how you recognize it as the call of God to you.   Remember the old saying, “You know it is the call of God when it calls you to places you don’t want to go, to love people you don’t want to love, to do things you don’t want to do?”

        A few years ago on Day 1 (formerly the Protestant Hour), United Methodist Bishop William Willimon preached a sermon on this text asking this exact question, “How Will You Know If It’s Jesus?” (Day 1, “How You Will Know If It’s Jesus?”, Bishop William H. Willimon, August 7, 2005)

      His answer was that you will know it’s Jesus, because Jesus is the only one who extravagantly, recklessly, commands you to leave the safety of the boat to step into the sea and test the waters, in order to show you what your faith is made of.  That’s Jesus.

      Remember, the story begins with Jesus calling a group of ordinary people to drop their fishing nets, leave their families behind, and venture forth with him on a perilous journey that’s called discipleship.  That’s Jesus.

      First, he said, “I’m going to teach you to catch people.” And then as we go on the journey with him, he says, “Now, I’m going to teach you to carry a cross.”  That’s Jesus.

      So why should we now find it strange that one of those disciples might say, “Lord, if it is you, call me to get out of the boat and to walk on the waves”?  Or for Jesus to say, “Come ahead!”  That’s Jesus.

      And when, in the dead of night, in the midst of the storm, the call comes to us to risk the storm and defy the waves, to step out of the boat to walk on the water, whose voice would that be? Who would call ordinary, fainthearted people like us to high adventure, to extreme discipleship?

I think we know whose voice that would be.   Amen.



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