Sermon: Everything I need to know about discipleship I learned in fifty feet of water
Everything I need to know about being a disciple I learned in fifty feet of water. Well, maybe not everything; but three things at least.
One is that human beings are not meant to walk on water – not created for it, not called by God to do it. Seems like a no-brainer, but you know me. I know now it was my ego, but at the time I thought it was all about Jesus. I thought, “With Jesus, anything is possible. If he is God, everything is possible.” I see now you have to be careful what you mean by “anything” and “everything” and how you interpret “possible.” And maybe even what kind of “God” you have in mind.
We were out on the lake in a storm with the wind against us, and we were not too confident. We were still reeling from the execution of John the Baptist in prison by King Herod. We weren’t surprised he was in jail; his and Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God put them at odds with the government and the dominant culture of our time. But when Herod so easily disposed of him it shook us that John’s being a prophet of God and speaking God’s truth about the king in the end didn’t give him any protection.
After that the feeding of the thousands momentarily bolstered our belief in the real coming of the kingdom of God. But now we were out on the sea again – that place of primordial chaos, and we were alone. Jesus put us in a boat, told us to meet him on the other side where there would be more people to reach with the kingdom of God, and then he disappeared.
Didn’t he know the sailing would be rough, and that against the currents and trends and tides of the world we’d be getting nowhere? The boat on the sea has always been our symbol of the church in the world, and no matter how hard we rowed and how hard we tried to find a favourable wind we seemed to be getting nowhere, blown off course, maybe even going backward.
So when we saw Jesus coming to us across the water we imagined the worst. They must have got him, too. They must have killed and silenced Jesus, just like John and just like the world always seems to silence the real prophets, and this was his ghost coming to haunt us.
But “Take heart,” he said, in the way he always did. “It is I,” like Yahweh saying to Moses, “I am that I am” – that holy affirmation of sacred being-with-us. And “do not be afraid” – the one thing that angels and messengers and Sons of God always say to us to put us at ease.
The others in the boat believed when they heard that, and accepted the mystery and grace of his coming to us in the storm. They waited for him to come and join us in the boat.
But me? Oh, no.
“If you are the Son of God,” I said, “command me to come to you on the water.” I had to make Jesus prove himself in some special way for my benefit. And I had to be the one, didn’t I, to be different and special; who could go beyond limits and boundaries; who could go that one step beyond everyone else; who could be just like Jesus – at least like I imagined him. Only now do I see the devil’s hand in it, like in the temptations Jesus faced in the desert: “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread … if you are the Son of God, why don’t you claim all power and authority … if you are the Son of God, leap from the top of the temple and God will send angels to protect you from harm.”
Jesus humoured me, though, and let me learn the only way I know how – by failing and falling. I felt so close to him and was so totally focused on him that I really did walk a few steps. But who was I fooling? How could I imagine I could do it by myself apart from the others, and why did I imagine that was actually what Jesus wanted me to do?
Which brings me to the second thing I learned: boats are good, and that’s why Jesus sends us out in them. In the boat, for one thing, we disciples are together – listening to one another, supporting and correcting one another in what we feel and believe and think we know, helping one another to see Jesus and God more clearly, seeing and hearing Jesus and God in one another. The idea of “just-me-and-Jesus” walking on water together is tempting to people like me; far better though is the reality of being with the others in the boat, rowing together in the direction Jesus sets for us.
Because the boat does get us through. As leaky and slow and cumbersome and sometimes too big and sometimes too small it may be, from the Ark of ancient times to the church of tomorrow, the boat is how we get from A to Z, how we find the courage to venture out from safe harbour where we’re really of no use to anyone out there in the world, and how we get to the other side and to the new groups of people Jesus wants to reach out to with us.
And even when it is slow going and we seem to be getting nowhere, Jesus is patient with us. He knows how hard it is sometimes to make headway, whether it’s the tide and trends of the world against us that slows us down, or our own slowness and stubbornness to go in the direction he wants. Either way, when he was coming to us on the water it was not to scold us for not being further along. It was to join us wherever we were and to be with us for the rest of the journey.
Which is the third thing I think we all learned: that Jesus is always ready to save us wherever we are, rescue us from whatever predicament we are in, and help us find a place in the boat – help us find ourselves among whatever people and in whatever community of belief we need for our own healing and wholeness. No matter how foolish or sinful or proud any of us – or anyone else, might be at times, there’s a place in the boat for us all and for anyone else who might come along, because that’s just how Jesus is. It’s how God is.
Neither Jesus nor God want anyone to be out there – either on the sea or another shore, all by themselves. And if we really believe in Jesus as the Son of God, we’ll use the boat we have to leave the safe harbour behind and go out on the sea like Jesus wants us to, to reach anyone or any group of people who need to know about God’s love and God’s kingdom at work in the world and in their lives.
And that’s not the devil talking this time; that’s me and what I learned in fifty feet of water about being a disciple of Jesus.