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Getting Where We Want to Go

Sermon - 7/19/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

John 6:16-21

The text for this morning is the story of Jesus walking on the water in the gospel of John.  But we are more familiar with the story as it is told by Mark and Matthew, so I want to begin with those two texts.

In all 3 of the texts, this story is coupled with the feeding of the 5,000 from the five loaves and two fish.  And it goes on from there -- actually, I'm going to reflect on that story next week.

So beginning, then, with Mark, because Mark was probably, most likely, was the first to write a gospel.  We read in chapter 6, I invite you to follow along so you can compare for yourself the differences in the three versions.  Chapter 6 of Mark, verses 45 through 52:

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

47 When evening came, the boat was out on the lake, and he was alone on the land. 48When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. 49But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 50for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ 51Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

 

So we get the picture here, Jesus is on the land, the Disciples are out on a boat, the wind comes up, they're struggling, and Jesus casually strolls by and they think they've seen a ghost.  He reveals himself to them, tells them there's no need to be afraid, gets in the boat, wind ceases, the Disciples are astounded.  They don't understand, end of story.  A little bit more to that, but. . . .

Skipping to Matthew's gospel, chapter 14, verses 22 through 33.  And the first thing we note is that Matthew's version is twice as long.  Matthew has a whole new story added to it.  The first half is essentially the same as in Mark, a few details have changed -- Matthew leaves out this business of Jesus intending to pass by that makes us wonder.  Doesn't mention the destination, a few other small changes.  But I'm going to skip to the second half, the new part that Matthew adds that occurs immediately after Jesus tells the Disciples to 'take heart, it is I, do not be afraid'.  Beginning with verse 28:

28 Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." 29 He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

Once again, as in Mark, when Jesus gets into the boat (this time with Peter) the wind ceases.  But note the change in the reaction of the Disciples -- instead of astounded and confused, they "get it".  They worship him, saying "You are the son of God".  Pre-shadowing the great confession of Peter that will occur two chapters later (remember when Jesus asks 'who do you say that I am?', and Peter is the one who responds "You are the Christ, the son of God").  And I think there's no question that Matthew wants us, when we get to that point of the story, and we hear that great confession, to remember this story of Peter struggling in the waves when Jesus chastises him for his lack of faith.  As if we would have enough faith to get out of the boat and walk on the water, right?  But Jesus chastises him.  It's a way to remind the reader that faith is about so much more than saying the right words.  It's about getting out of the boat.  It's about walking a life with Jesus.

So that leads us now, then, to the third version of the story in John's gospel, chapter 6, verses 16-21.  And in-between the story of the feeding of the 5,000 and the walking on the water, there's this transitional statement -- new in the story -- in which John's informs us in verse 15:

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

So we're given this reason for Jesus' withdrawing in a time of prayer.  And then we read:

When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’

[By the way, if you've got good eyes and you're reading along in the pew Bible, there's a little tiny footnote after the "It is I", I think it says the letter "f", and if you go down to the bottom of the page, it says "Greek:  I am".  That's the literal translation.  And that's a whole other sermon I'm going to save for another day, but I wanted to just point that out.  Those that know a little about the meaning of the name Yahweh and the verb "I am" will make that connection. 

But here comes the twist, in the conclusion to the story as John tells it in verse 21:]

21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.

 

No reference to the wind at all.  Instead just the sudden movement of the boat.

So what can we say about the curious case of Jesus walking on the water?

First of all, the variations in the story suggest to us once again that these stories were very 'fluid' in the first decades of the early church.  The details change depending on the perspective of the gospel writer, or to suit the purposes of that writer, and we should not be dismayed or distressed or surprised by that.  Indeed, much more surprising would be if they were all identical, kind of like the teacher grading essay questions, right?  When you have two essays that are exactly the same, you know something is fishy.

If nothing else, variations like these remind us once again that the truth of the gospel is not found in the historical details, but in the person of Jesus.  Another way of thinking about it:  we don't have to take it literally to understand the point, the meaning of the story.

Second, all three of the stories, in essence, make the same point.  In all three, the wind is blowing, the sea is rough, Jesus is not in the boat.  Unlike that other story where he's asleep in the boat.  In this story he's not in the boat -- he's out there in the storm.  Which should make us pause to reflect on that.  And then when he gets in the boat, all is well. 

And I think as a metaphor for the storms of life the message is pretty clear:  life is better with Jesus in your boat.  Which makes me think that people that put those little plastic Jesus' on their dashboards of their car, you know, they've got the right idea!  So long as it's not a bobble-head Jesus, that would be going a little too far J.  I don't think the point is to turn Jesus into a good-luck charm, but that notion of traveling mercies that goes with that.

To me, the point of the story is more like that old song "You'll Never Walk Alone".  A whole bunch of people have sung it -- Aretha Franklin, the Righteous Brothers, Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand.  It's just a great, powerful song:

When you walk through a storm hold your head up high
And don't be afraid of the dark.
At the end of a storm is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark.
Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Tho' your dreams be tossed and blown
[sound familiar?].
Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone,
You'll never, ever walk alone.
 

And then the big crescendo of the orchestra:

Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone,
You'll never, ever walk alone.

 

I can't sing it quite like Elvis, but a great, great song J.

Many are the ways that Christ may come to us amidst our own storms of life.  A stranger who comes to us when our car is broken down on the side of the road, to lend a hand.  An inner presence in a time of crisis that gives us the assurance and strength to walk on.  A still, small voice in the earthquake, the wind and the fire, that speaks to us.  Family and friends who are there for us in our time of need.  We have experienced that in so many ways.  For every person in every situation it may be different.  But Christ comes to us, that we may not walk alone.

The point of the story in all three gospels is not "look and see what wonderful miracles Jesus can do!", you know, performing magic like a magician, walking on the water.  That's not the point.  The point, rather, is to urge the followers of Jesus to call upon him when times get tough.  Like a bridge over troubled waters (another great song, from Simon & Garfunkel).

And there's a third point that is unique to John's gospel, which therefore I want to focus on.  And that is this peculiar twist at the end of John's story.  Inviting Jesus into the boat gets them immediately to their destination.  Doesn't even say whether or not Jesus actually gets in.

Now again, we don't have to read this literally to understand the point of the story.  And even if we did, the point would still be in its metaphoric meaning, not in its literal.  Otherwise, we simply reduce Jesus to be some type of super-fast speedboat.  So it's in the metaphoric meaning.  And what does that mean?

I suggest to you that the operative factor here is not the time element, but the destination.  The instantaneous arrival of the boat to land is just a way to emphasize that this is the work of God.  The main point here is not that Jesus calms the storm, but that Jesus gets the Disciples through it.  And it invites us to consider that when we are struggling against the wind, when we are going nowhere, when the waves of the storms of life batter our boat, what would it mean to invite Christ in?

Diana Butler-Bass, in her book "Christianity for the Rest of Us" (that many of us read a year ago), tells the story of Foster, a man who lost his job in Pittsburgh, in a time much like this (only now, much worse).  He lost a good paying job, and it forced his wife to go to work and to become the breadwinner.  And he became the stay-at-home Dad, taking care of his kids.  And this caused an existential crisis, you know, the man is supposed to bring home the bacon.  And he spent a lot of time with his pastor trying to figure out what this meant, what God was calling him to do, to be.  The turning point came when he was working at the computer, looking for a job, and his daughter came to him and needed something from him, or just wanted to go out and play.  And he said to her 'sorry, honey, I've got to look for a job so I need to on the computer'.  And she said to him:  "You're my Dad, that's your job!  You don't have to do anything else, but you've got to do this".

And it changed his thinking.  It was kind of like this 'aha!' experience for him as he reflected on that.  And he realized, yeah, she's really right.  And it got him to thinking about working with children and the importance of that, being good role models.  And that led him to go back to school to get a degree in education, so he could be a teacher.  Which of course has the added benefit of being able to be home with his children in the summertime when they are home.  And he said that finding a new call, a new sense of direction, gave him new purpose and hope.

To be a disciple of Jesus is not about going for a nice boat-ride with Jesus.  It's about getting to the other side of the sea.  Or to put it differently, it's about being a pilgrim instead of being a tourist.  It's not just about a relationship (wanting Jesus in our boat), it's about that destination (getting to where God wants us to go).

Butler-Bass quotes Daryl, who summed up for her what it is like to go from being a tourist to a life as a pilgrim, and he said:

"I took a leap of faith.  It was a leap back from the wilderness into a new relationship with God.  I felt radiant, lighter than air.  I felt that I had found a home".

To go from a life of wandering in the wilderness, to a home in the metaphorical 'promised land' is what being a Disciple of Jesus and being a member of the body of Christ is all about.  Finding our place, finding our destination and purpose in Christ.

There's one more level to this meaning of the story.  In ancient Christianity, the boat was often seen as a symbol for the church.  The gathering place where they worshipped was called the 'nave'.  The nave is the inside of a hull of a ship.  So the sanctuary, still to this day in many churches, is called the nave. 

The symbolism of all the Disciples, in the boat that suddenly is taken to it's destination when Jesus is invited on board is a very apt metaphor for the church.  Without Christ we are a destination-less vessel lost at sea.  Christ is central to our purpose and mission. 

Leonard Sweet, a popular Christian author and speaker puts it this way:

"The primary role of the church is not to be an aesthetic, cultural movement.  The primary role of the church is not to be an intellectual or missionary movement.  The primary role of the church is not to be a political or social justice movement.  The primary purpose of the church is not even to change the world or preach to the world or to serve the world.

The primary function of the church, from which stems all others, is to be the body of Christ.  Quite sacrament-ally, Christ en-fleshed, incarnated, embodied, in presence and in power"

And you see, that's the whole point of the beautiful new banners that Nancy Comer made for us [hanging in the sanctuary]:

Quoting Teresa Avila, that Christ has no body on earth but yours, but ours.  We are the hands, the feet of Christ by which we bless the world today.

        

 

         

 

In his report to our congregation, our consultant, Dick Hamm, stated in the preface to our Strategic Plan that he presented over a year ago:

"Rather than merely assimilating new members into the institution, FCC will seek to assimilate people into the faith and into faithful lives of discipleship in which each member is doing ministry and mission in the name of Jesus Christ and of First Christian Church."

The destination, or the vision, that we identified in that process that Dick led, or we might better say Dick guided but the Holy Spirit led (as we engaged in that process of discernment), was to be a congregation that is:

Transforming Lives, Transforming Christianity, and Transforming Our World.

And 'transforming' has a dual meaning.  It first of all means that we seek to transform the lives of others, to transform the way we think about our faith, to transform our world. 

But it also means that we seek to live lives that are transforming.  To embody a faith that is transforming.  In other words, it's not just about changing others, it's about changing ourselves. 

Wanting Jesus in our boat, wanting to get to where we would, and God would, have us go.

Dick Hamm put it this way, he said:

"That we will live our core values by being an intentional community of diversity, equality, openness, boldness and humility that forms people of faith.  We are a community that believes that our continuing vitality is dependent on investing our resources in issues of social justice for our community and our world, while also investing our resources in the spiritual lives of our members and friends and the spiritual life of our church.   That means a community that walks for the homeless and also walks the Labyrinth.  That means a community that works for living wages while also living in prayer, discernment and contemplation.  That means a community that pays attention to inclusive language but also gives deep attentiveness to the Bible.  That means a community that serves and works to change the world while serving each other and changing ourselves.  We are constantly seeking to understand the deeper implications of God’s grace and the mystery of life and seeking to embody it in our congregational life.

 

This is what it means to be the body of Christ.  This is the destination we seek.  And the gospel of John says:  if we invite Jesus to be in our boat, we will get there.

Indeed, with Jesus in our boat, we already are.

 

 


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