I know we have a tough time trying to grasp the fullness of God. In one sense, it is a waste of our time because we know we are doomed to fail. How can the finite grasp the infinite? How can the created ever hope to grasp the Creator? In another sense though, we are obliged to try. After all, God has revealed Himself to us through His Word in the Bible and through His Son, our Lord Christ. Clearly, He wants us to know certain things about Him. And that makes sense. How could we be effective ambassadors if we did not know Him well. This week, among the other qualities which Matthew wants us to consider, I had to laugh at God’s humor and sense of irony.
As background to this week’s readings, a couple interesting discussions were taking place around the church, both locally and wider. In the wider church, a priest had done an article discussing the lack of church planting by our wider church. This discussion is taking place as we consider our numerical decline in light of the Great Commission. Of the so-called mainline denominations, our church is the absolute worst at net-planting churches over the last three decades or so. There are vibrant Episcopal churches being planted around the country (VA and TX immediately come to my mind—Bishop Scarfe and Dean-President Moore sent me and Rev. Bywater to learn how from VA while in seminary); unfortunately, there are also a lot of churches being closed. His paper looked at claims such as a clergy shortage, as our fondness to attack small issues rather than large, and at the belief that our wineskins no longer speak to the culture in which we find ourselves engaged. You can read the first part of the article on the paper, and some of the comments, at http://www.episcopalcafe.com/daily/evangelism/church_planting_part_1.php . For my money, the author answers his own question in his summary sentence of the third paragraph in the article. Thankfully, many Episcopalians no longer believe that Christ is the exclusive path to God. If Episcopalians no longer believe that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, then it makes sense that we are not really planting churches in unchurched areas. After all, if one can be reconciled to God through means other than Christ, why have a Christian church? Why pay any attention to the Great Commission? Why bother baptizing and making disciples? Why waste resources on things like buildings?
While that conversation was occurring in the wider church, another was occurring locally. Specifically, a Muslim lady approached me early in the week about explaining my faith to her. She had been reading the Koran and had made the uncomfortable discovery that much of what she was being taught was not in the Koran. She had mentioned this crisis of faith to some friends. One was familiar with me through my work with AA and recommended that she speak with me. Apparently, they think I am respectful of the denominational differences that exist among Christians. I am quick to explain what and why we do what we do, but I don’t seem to be arrogant in their experience. Anyway, she wanted to know if I could explain why I believe the prophet Jesus to be worthy of following, as opposed to the prophet Mohammed. I suppose, had I accepted the thankful position of the author, there would have been no need to waste my or her time explaining Christ. Had I accepted his premise, I could have sent her on her way with some sort of “oh, it really does not matter whom you choose to follow, only that you follow someone” platitude and been done. Listening to your chuckles, I know you know me far better than that.
What you may not know about me is that I am probably a bit more driven when it comes to evangelizing women correctly than many men. In my time at St. Alban’s, I have had the opportunity to speak with a number of battered women, a number of human trafficking survivors, and even a number of women of others denominational expressions who are, quite simply, victimized by horrible theology which declares, at its root, that women are responsible for sin and that only men can work against it. I am vastly over-simplifying things, but underlying many of these behaviors and teachings is the idea that Eve, and all her daughters, are responsible for sin. In this understanding, men would be good were it not for the women tempting or angering them. Women should be active in Sunday School and hospitality but leave the real work of church or the home to the men. Not that we need reminding around St. Alban’s, but let me remind us: at no time does Scripture require or suggest that women need to repent of being women. Do women sin? Of course. But, here’s a newsflash, we men are responsible for our own sins. No woman makes us sin. We are accountable to God for our own actions and sins. We men must repent of our unwillingness to do as God instructs and claim the mercy of the Cross and the hope of the Resurrection for ourselves. Just as must women.
Now, imagine those two conversations in light of our Psalm, our portion of Romans, and our portion of Matthew’s Gospel today. How would you answer those questions? How would you explain our denominational abandonment of the Great Commission, at least as expressed through a big decline in numbers and a willingness to plant churches? How would you answer the Muslim lady’s question regarding the person and work of Jesus? And, can you imagine the timing of the questions? As these are being lived out in the world around us, the lectionary editors some time in the past chose these readings for this, the ninth Sunday after Pentecost as these conversations are happening around us and amongst us.
I ask how you would answer specifically because that is precisely the question being addressed by Matthew in this part of his Gospel. Last week, we read of our Lord’s compassion and ability to provide sustenance to His people through the miracle of the five loaves and two fish. As I mentioned in passing last week, the loaves and fishes miracle is messianic in nature. Moses had to intercede with God to provide mana and quail. No one, and I mean no one, thought Moses had the power to provide for the people of God. And Moses himself, in Deuteronomy, even prophesied that God would raise up from among His people His own prophet. Jesus, though, does not appeal to God in the loaves and fishes. He takes the food, He blesses the food, He breaks the bread, and He distributes the bread and fish. There is no appeal, no hocus pocus. He is providing for His people in the wilderness. And such is His provision, such is His abundance, that there are twelve baskets of leftovers after the 5000 men, besides women and children, eat! In John’s account of this miracle, the people want to make Jesus king right then and there. Why? Because He has provided food in the wilderness, just as God said the Messiah would.
This week, we get this wonderful story that immediately follows. Jesus makes His disciples and get into the boat and head for the other side. Why? We are not told, but I suspect it is human nature. When I experience those mountain top moments of faith, I hate to move on. In that, I share a same focus as Peter and the others. Raise a guy from near death? Participate in the harvest for our Lord? Loaves and fishes at Community Meal? Yep. I want to focus only on those successes and avoid what I think are mundane or even failures.
The disciples, we are told, make some headway against the wind and storm. Clearly, though, they are unable to make it to the other side before Jesus finishes praying. When Jesus finishes communing with the Father, He heads out across the Sea of Galilee. In this miracle, Jesus is more than claiming mastery over the elements of earth. As impressive as it would be to see someone walking on water, think of the spiritual significance. I have reminded you from time to time that many in the ANE viewed water as a symbol of chaos. If you lived among the coast, you know the suddenness with which the weather can change. Storms can roll in, fog can roll in; storms can end, fog can dissipate. Heck, a beach that is safe one moment may seem to develop a rip current suddenly and without warning. When God broods over the waters in Genesis, part of the theological claim is that God is bringing order to chaos. To what seems haphazard, He gives meaning. To what seems evil or out of control, He works for our good!
Anyway, Jesus finishes praying and heads over to the other side where He has directed His disciples to go. Unlike His disciples, who must take a boat or walk around, Jesus simply walks across the lake on the water. As if that is not miracle enough for you, remember, Jesus is walking on water in the midst of a storm. The wind and the waves are causing these experienced fishermen some difficulty. But here comes Jesus, plain as day. As walking on water in not a common everyday experience, the disciples are shocked. They believe Jesus to be a ghost. You can imagine the panic.
Jesus, once again using the words of the burning bush, tells them it is He and not to be afraid. Apparently, the disciples are a bit dubious. Peter tells Jesus to prove He is not a ghost. “Command me to come to you.” Jesus does. Peter gets out of the boat and walks to Jesus.
The story is told by Matthew to help us understand who Jesus is. Matthew has already told us the story of the loaves and fishes, a miracle that claims messianic identity for Jesus. This miracle demonstrates what? Command over the elements of earth. Not only is Jesus able to walk on water that is being thrashed a bit by big winds, but He is also able to command a disciple to come to Him over that tumult. Who has such command over the elements of earth? God! Matthew is reminding us that Jesus is not just a messiah, a deliverer of God’s people in the sense of Moses or Joseph or a few others in the Old Testament. Matthew is testifying to us through this miracle that Jesus is God. He will further confirm that testimony by sharing with us Jesus’ power over demons and the supernatural and, finally, even death! Matthew’s testimony differs significantly from what the Jews expected of God and His messiah. Jesus is not just a military leader coming to free His people from oppression. Jesus is not just a kingly figure coming to rule according to and to teach God’s people His ways. Jesus is not just a prophet coming to call God’s people back into right relationship with the Lord. Jesus is God with us! Emmanuel! Incarnate!
Who do you say He is? It is the most important answer you or I or any other human being who walks this earth will ever give. If Matthew’s testimony is true, Jesus is God and Messiah. if Matthew’s testimony is true, Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If the testimony of all those who have preceded us in our faith is true, Jesus is the exclusive path of God. And such makes sense. If “spiritual but not religious,” if “ atheist,” if “I worship nature,” if “I worship Molech,” if “I worship Ba’al,” does lead to God outside of Christ, what kind of sick God do we worship? Why allow His Son, His Beloved, to die for our sins? What purpose does His Passion serve? What point does His Crucifixion make? And why is His Resurrection significant? Why are not others raising from the dead and testifying to us “Hey, it does not really matter what path you follow, they all lead to God.”? Why should we accept the role of suffering servants? Why should we claim to follow the Suffering Servant?
Back to the application of that truth this week. The Muslim lady who came in was having a crisis of faith. She wanted to understand why what she read in the Koran was not what she was taught in her mosque. More to the point, if those who were charged with instructing her properly were mis-teaching or, worse, lying to her, what else were they getting wrong? Our conversation, which lasted quite a while, finally came down to the answer to that question, “Who do you think He is?”. I shared with her these miracles (hey, they were on my mind) and their significance. Jesus was not just a fallen prophet. He was the fulfillment of God’s redemption of humanity, all humanity. Not just men, men and women and boys and girls and young and old. “How do you know what you believe is true?” Because God confirmed it in the Resurrection! Either those hundreds of people were deluded when they saw Him before His Ascension, or He was raised from the dead. Either St. Paul made the dumbest career choice after the journey to Damascus, or He really met the Risen Christ. All these disciples witnessed a Risen Christ! It fundamentally changed who they were. Matthew was a traitor, a tax collector. Peter. Poor Peter. No Apostle has more ups and downs, more highs and lows, than that wonderful fisherman who got out of the boat. Paul went from being the chief persecutor of those who called Jesus Lord to being the chief proponent, the chief ambassador, to those outside the Jewish faith. How do we explain those transformations? How do we explain those tectonic shifts? How do we account for their sudden ability to speak before authorities? How do we account for their abilities to work miracles in His name? How do we account for their willingness to die for Jesus? He was the God Incarnate Messiah.
What if my conversation, though, reflected the truth claim of the author of the paper examining why we fail to plant churches? What if I truly believed that we had moved beyond the understanding that Jesus was not the exclusive path? How would I have answered her? Go back to your mosque. The truth really isn’t that important. There really is no difference in what the prophets have taught. If we really have moved beyond that understanding of who Christ is, it is logically consistent that we should not plant churches. Heck, it is logically consistent that people should not want to get out of bed on Sundays and worship with us. If His identity is unimportant, if His role in salvation history is marginal, why sacrifice any time, any talents, any resources for Him and His Mission? Why risk being teased and becoming the butt of jokes for being a “Jesus freak”? Why believe that we even have a message of incredible good news for the world? Why make the sacrifices and courageous decisions called for by Paul in our readings today? Why feed the hungry in His name? Why minister to those imprisoned in His name? Why pray about the storms swirling in the world around us? Why care about war? Why care about refugees? Why bet your soul on a Savior who might not matter?
One last thing, in my passion today, in my efforts to be a faithful and good shepherd, I may seem hard and unyielding. As to the question of who Jesus is, I am unapologetically hard. I have staked my eternal life on the truth of His offer of salvation, and I have encouraged you and countless others to do the same. I began this sermon, though, discussing the vastness of God. I may know that Christ is the answer that the lady is seeking, but I understand the need to share His Gospel winsomely, gently. Our miracle today reminds us that God’s power is equaled by His compassion and His mercy. What happens to Peter when He loses His focus? What happens when Peter quits focusing on Jesus and notices the swirl of the storm? He begins to sink. Immediately, once Peter realizes what has happened, He calls out to Jesus to save Him. How does Jesus respond? Does Jesus condemn Peter for his “little faith”? Does Jesus say to Peter, “Hey stupid, you were fine when you focused on Me. You should have kept your focus. Now drown as you deserve.”? Does Jesus in any way condemn Peter for sinking? No. He reaches out His hand to Peter and lifts him out of the tumult. His power to save is equaled by His willingness to save, even to save those who have failed Him.
Some of you gathered here today can relate to Peter. Some of you have done amazing things for God’s glory and witnessed the mountaintop highs of your faith in your life. Similarly, though, all of us have failed Him. All of us have come up short. All of us have demonstrated our “little faith” in our circumstances and begun to sink. Perhaps the storm in our life was a brush with disease and death. Maybe the tempest in our life was a question of provision. Maybe the swirl of the storm in our life was the seduction of false teaching or simply forgetting who Jesus is. Maybe we have experienced a number of storms which exposed our little faith. It does not matter! Jesus still, despite our failures, despite our little faith, willingly and lovingly reaches out that hand of forgiveness and redemption to each one of us, just has He did for Peter. Jesus still willingly and lovingly wants to pull you up from the storm and save you! Better still, He willingly reaches out that hand to all who would claim Him Lord and Savior. In that sense, our faith is not exclusive. It is open to all. And it is our sacred responsibility and obligation, out of thankful and joyful hearts, to share His Gospel with all whom He has put in our paths and in our lives. Who do you say to them that He is? Is He just a nice guy, one path among dozens and dozens to God? Or is He the God Incarnate, Man divine, who commands you to walk into the teeth of storms and tempests for His honor and glory? The God who promised that you and I and all who walk the path set before us with Him as Lord, will do even greater things than these? The God who gave up His own life, that you and I and all who call Him Lord might live forever?