Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 14: 22-33)
Poor, poor Pete. I mean, you got to feel for the guy, right? All the great things he did, being the rock on which Jesus built his church – and yet he’d forever be remembered for his two perceived failures: denying Jesus three times, and this:
There he is, in a small boat with his friends in the middle of a large lake – so large you can’t see from one side to the other; so large that the water’s movements feel more like the deep, deep sea. Now Peter is a seasoned fisherman, but on this evening the winds are strong. So strong, in fact, that, despite their best efforts, they are pushed further and further out from land, out into the dark night. There is nothing more terrifying for a fisherman than not being able to control his boat on windy waters.
Morning arrives, and the winds have grown worse. And it is at the height of the chaos that Peter looks out over the tumultuous waters and notices….. something. No, someone. Someone out on the water, just standing there. That can’t be right. But it is – and now that someone is walking towards him. Walking on water!
Peter is terrified but he can’t not look. And as the figure draws closer, just a few feet away now, Peter sees: it’s Jesus. It’s Jesus walking to him on the windy waters. It’s Jesus saying to them all, Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.
The other disciples keep cowered in their corner. But not our Peter. No, no, no, no! Never one to hold back; never one to think before leaping. Which is why he now takes a leap right out of that boat onto the sea. He lays one foot down on the water’s surface and somehow – somehow – it stays there! He brings the second foot around and it, too, finds solid footing. Peter looks at Jesus, and Jesus is holding out his hand, telling him to come to him. On the water. And Peter does. One, two, three, four steps! He’s almost there. Almost to Jesus!
Until an especially strong gust whips up and startles him, and reminds him of what he’s doing. He takes his eyes off Jesus and looks down, just for a second; but that’s all it takes. The exhilaration he experienced seconds earlier is now replaced with panic. He grabs frantically at Jesus – his arms, his feet, his cloak, anything – as he begins to sink in the swirl. And just before his whole body is consumed, he is lifted up by Jesus, who takes him back to the boat, sets him inside, looks at him and says, You of little faith – why did you doubt?
Poor Pete! I mean, an epic fail, right? It almost would’ve been better if he had just stayed in the boat, never gotten out in the first place. A point seemingly underscored by Jesus himself, who offers up that stinger: You of little faith, why did you doubt?
How would Peter ever be able to show his face to those disciples again? How could he ever show his face to Jesus?
Some of you got up early last Sunday morning to watch the US women’s soccer team lose a heartbreaker to Sweden. It was new territory for the American team; usually dominating the field every four years in the World Cup, hardly ever a question of them advancing to the final. This year, they didn’t even make it out of the sweet 16. Lost on penalty kicks, including a miss by reliable veteran Megan Rapione.
And despite putting on a brave face in interviews after the match, you can tell Rapione was ashamed, as were her teammates. Such high expectations, unrealized. Letting a country down.
Noted author and speaker Brene Brown describes shame this way: “that intensely painful feeling of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” To underscore her point, Brown surveyed a random group of people and asked them to finish this statement, “Shame is….” Here are some of the responses:
- Shame is getting laid off and having to tell your pregnant wife.
- Shame is hiding the fact that you’re in recovery.
- Shame is having someone ask, “When are you due?” when you’re not pregnant.
- Shame is what you later feel when you’re the one who asked that question.
- Shame is your DWI.
- Shame is flunking out of school. Twice.
How would you finish the statement “Shame is….”, I wonder? How do you experience shame?
I’ll tell you how Peter would’ve finished it: “Shame is thinking you can walk on water, and actually doing it, and then sinking. Shame is being this close to getting to Jesus, and falling short.”
I mean, that’s how we typically view Peter here, right? Great guy, loyal follower of Jesus, but pretty big failure when it comes to getting out of the boat.
Or was it?
I mean, it’s interesting, is it not, how we tend to interpret and understand this story. How we almost instinctively focus on the way it ends, and those words Jesus says to Peter as he rolls him back in the boat: You of little faith, why did you doubt? Little faith. A doubter. Shame.
But is that really what Jesus is saying here? I wonder. I wonder because the Greek word for “doubt” here does not mean what we typically think the word means: “the absence of belief.” Instead, the word that the writer of Matthew chooses to use has a little more nuance to it: “a wavering of opinion.” Which means a better rendering of this verse is perhaps something along the lines of what we find in The Message translation, where Jesus says: Faint-heart, what got into you? You see the difference? Not judgmental. Softer. Empathetic, even. What got into you?
I wonder how different our understanding of Peter’s story might be if we chose to focus less on the fact that Peter started sinking, and more on what I think is the most important part of the whole story: that Peter got out of the boat in the first place! Right?! I mean, we almost forget that. But really – who does something like that? Who besides a Peter would’ve risked everything to do the one thing that mattered to him most: getting to Jesus?
It’s an entirely different story when we look at it that way. Not failure, but faithfulness. Not doubt and disbelief, but the greatest belief of all. And not shame of nearly drowning in the surf, but hope that led him to step out of that boat.
That is our Peter. And it’s also you and me. It is who we are called to be – making ourselves vulnerable and taking risks every now and then in our lives, in our communities, in our church. Stepping out of the boat, even when everything inside and outside tells us to stay put. Stepping out so we can get to Jesus.
How do you and I get out of the boat in our lives? We get out of the boat when we reach out to someone we’ve been alienated from for too long. We get out of the boat when we walk through the church doors for the first time in years, hoping we won’t experience hurt like we did last time. We get out of the boat when we decide to go back to school for our degree, even though the thought of taking an exam or writing a research paper terrifies us. We get out of the boat when we submit a heartfelt poem we wrote to an online publication. We get out of the boat when we love someone with no guarantees that they’re going to love us back.
And what about the church? How does the church get out of the boat? Well, that’s a little more complicated, isn’t it? Because we in the institutional church have been predispositioned to what I like to call “in-the-boat” Christianity. Following Jesus when it’s easy, where it’s expected, when the risk is low. Putting ourselves out there, but only to a point. Showing up, but mainly when it’s convenient. That’s the kind of church we’ve molded and shaped over the years.
The problem is that “in-the-boat” Christianity does not do a whole lot for the church or for those in it. It’s church in maintenance mode – and if there’s one thing that can absolutely kill a church, it’s trying to maintain things as they are. Thom Ranier, an author and church consultant, claims that there is a common thread that runs through every congregation experiencing various levels of decline. “Stated simply,” he says:
The most common factor in declining churches is an inward focus.
What does he mean by an inward focus? In an inward-focused church, he says, the ministries are only for the members. The budgetary funds are used almost exclusively to meet the needs of members. The times of worship and worship styles are geared primarily for the members. Conflict takes place when members don’t get their way. Pretty much everything in the life of the church revolves around the needs and desires of only the members.
That’s what an in-the-boat church looks like. And granted, it is tempting. Because it’s safe in the boat. Because it’s risky getting out of the boat. Because getting out of the boat and taking risks very well might lead to failure. Might lead to shame.
But see, that’s why I think Peter’s story provides perhaps the most compelling reason to avoid “in-the-boat” Christianity, and it is this: if our main purpose as followers of Jesus Christ is to follow him where he is – and I think we can all agree that should be our main purpose, right? – if our purpose is to be with Jesus, we are not going to find him in the boat. Because that’s not where Jesus is. Jesus is out of the boat. He’s out on those windy waters, in the swirling chaos of the tide, holding out his hand and calling us to come to him there.
So we don’t get to be with Jesus by staying in the boat. We have to get out of the boat. Which means we have to do what Peter did: make ourselves vulnerable and take chances and risks; and most of all, most of all, not be afraid to “fail.”
That’s what I believe God is calling the church to do. Not just our church, but every church everywhere. I believe God is calling us all to do this because the communities we are part of, the communities we are called to serve, they have no use for an “in-the-boat” church. Because an “in-the-boat” church is nothing more than a club, and they already have plenty of those. There are those who say our culture today has no need for the church, and I could not disagree with that more. What the world needs are churches who are willing to get out of the boat, do everything it can to get to Jesus and get others to Jesus, even if it means trying to walk on water, even if it means sinking a little while trying.
And here’s the good news: while we at Trinity certainly can and should strive to do more, I believe in many ways we’re already getting out of the boat:
We are open to new ways of engaging ministry and mission, like the shred-event this past Monday that drew 80+ people from our community and raised over $700 for NationsFord Elementary School, along with a truckload of school supplies. That’s getting out of the boat.
We’ve started a new ministry for our families with young children, as well as our “Tables for Eight” fellowship initiative, that focus on building connectivity and community. That’s getting out of the boat.
We’ve deepened our partnerships with our Weekday School and Philips Academy as these two schools continue to grow and meet the needs of our community. That’s getting out of the boat.
We’ve upped our game when it comes to welcoming outside groups into our facility, everything from an arts camp in our fellowship hall to anticipation around a concert music series in our sanctuary next year. That’s getting out of the boat.
We’ve tasked six of our own to come up with a new vision for a new Trinity, one that will transform this campus and this church, and meet the needs of our community in ways we never could’ve imagined before. That’s getting out of the boat.
We are constantly trying new things, leaning into this liminal season, not determining success by how many people show up but how many lives are impacted and changed. That’s getting out of the boat.
It’s what Peter was showing us when he held on to the side of the boat and brought that second foot down on the water: that being the church is not about filling pews or counting membership numbers or “reliving the good old days,” nor is out about being all “cutting edge” or jumping onboard the latest trend. None of these are ways we as the church get out of the boat.
No, we get out of the boat and make ourselves vulnerable and leave behind our shame and refuse to be afraid of failure for the exact same reason Peter did it all those years ago: because he was here and Jesus was there. And the only thing Peter wanted to do, the only thing that mattered, was getting to Jesus.
Take a look, beloved. Open your eyes. There is Jesus, standing out in the swirl of stormy waters. He’s holding out his hand. He’s asking us to come to him. What are we waiting for? I mean, seriously – what are we waiting for? Let’s take that first step together, shall we?
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Brene Brown, Daring Greatly (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 69-70.
 http://www.lifeway.com/pastors/2016/08/16/the-most-common-factor-in-declining-churches/, visitd on 8.23.2016.