July 29, 2012 – Faith or Not Faith
To listen to the recorded sermon, click on this link: Faith or Not Faith
If the gospel reading today sounds very familiar, you’re right, we just read about Jesus feeding the crowd of 5,000 men, plus women and children last week. But this week we get to hear what came next – the miraculous day, part 2. There were a lot of miraculous days during those years that Jesus traveled through Galilee and Judea, days on end of healing and powerful teaching, but this day seems to have been especially memorable. All four of the gospels tell about the feeding of the crowds, and everyone but Luke includes this second part about Jesus walking on the water. It was an important day.
It was memorable first of all for the crowds who were there. The crowds who flocked to Jesus were mostly people who lived in poverty, and their lives were pretty much a constant search for the bare necessities of life – you were lucky if your labor from day to day put food in your children’s mouths and clothing on their backs. When Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount the speech we know so well about considering the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and when he said to those people, “Don’t be anxious about food, what you are going to eat, or about clothing, what you will wear, because your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” he was talking to people who often didn’t know from day to day if they were going to survive. He wasn’t offering good feelings, or nice sentiments – he was telling them something radical that had the power to change their whole way of life – if they could hear the Father’s promise of care for them and if they could begin to see that he created them for so much more than mere survival. But to the crowds on the day Jesus fed the thousands, all the people could see was someone who could put bread in their mouths, someone who could feed their hungry families, and so in desperation they tried to seize Jesus and make him their king by force. And so Jesus slipped quietly away into the mountains by himself.
When we share our faith with our neighbors or relatives or friends, it’s helpful to remember those poor crowds, because people today are just as likely to be living in that same kind of fear and desperation. There are so many people who feel like if they relax their frantic search for security for one moment, if they let go the reins of their life for one second, it will all come crashing down around them. They have no sense that there is anyone who cares for their comfort or safety or joy; they think that there is no one who has the power to keep everything in their lives from spinning out of control. What looks like selfishness or greed from the outside is often the pure terror people live with each day, the sense that they’re utterly on their own, the loneliness of feeling that ultimately everything is up to them, that if there is to be any meaning in their lives at all, they have to create it themselves. Without Jesus, people are still like sheep without a shepherd, as much today as they were two thousand years ago.
If you remember from last week, when the crowds showed up the disciples were already exhausted from their first solo mission of ministry. They were supposed to be going off with Jesus to get some rest when the crowds arrived – many thousands of them – and you can only imagine how tired they were now, at the end of the day of caring for them all – it was coffee hour times a million. And now Jesus had gone off up into the mountains on his own and the crowd was probably more than a little agitated trying to figure out where he’d gone, and the disciples decided they’d better get going themselves. So John says they got into a boat and headed toward Capernaum. It was night, pitch dark out on the sea, and a strong wind began to rise. The disciples rowed about three or four miles on the rough waters, which was probably a little over halfway across so that they were alone in the storm, far from any land, far from any help. And it was then and there that Jesus decided to show up.
I love this part of the story. It’s only six verses long, just the briefest episode, but it is so preposterous that if it had not really happened I don’t think anyone would ever have thought of making it up. John doesn’t really say much about it, though he was there at the time – all he does is to simply say what happened. I’m sure they were all hoping that Jesus would join them when they got to Capernaum; they would have expected that, because that village was sort of their base of operations in Galilee. And as much as they could look forward while trying to row their boat through the wind and the waves they must have anticipated seeing Jesus soon. But they could never have expected that they would see him this soon, that he would come walking up to them, not as they pulled the boat ashore at Capernaum but here in the very middle of the dark sea. Simply put, they were terrified. Matthew says they thought they were seeing a ghost – what other possible explanation could there be?
Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. It is I.” And in the wind and the dark, in the midst of their tiredness and terror, those men had to make a choice. It was a choice between faith and not-faith…between listening to what their own minds and experience told them was just common sense – and listening to the voice of Jesus. Jesus didn’t explain himself, didn’t explain anything; he just told them, “It is I.” – literally “I am.” They are actually the very same words God said to Moses when he met him at the burning bush. Moses asked God, “Who can I tell the people you are?” and God told Moses, “Tell them “I AM” has sent you.” It is the name God claimed for himself, “I am who I am.” It is the name that calls us to choose between faith and not-faith – God is, or he is not, there is no other option.
Reading the story in John chapter 6 of our Bibles, sitting at the kitchen table or in an easy chair in the living room, maybe with my commentary at hand, I can take notes in my journal about how Jesus was demonstrating his lordship over creation, and how he was using the special name of God so that I could make that connection with the God of the Old Testament, and how he used that old formula “Fear not!” like the angels always do when they bring a message from God to his people. And those things are all very interesting, very true, and they are very important – but they are still comfortable.
But in the wind and the dark there was no time for speculation; there was only that choice, between faith and not-faith. Was Jesus with them, or were they alone in the storm with a ghost? And if we are honest as we read this story, as far away as the wind and the waves and the boat seem to be, we have to admit that we have been in this same situation ourselves. In our lives, too, there are moments when the howling darkness – of fear, or loneliness, or insecurity, or failure, or grief – seems to be the only reality there is. Our imaginations put into that darkness all kinds of unfriendly and ugly things, and sometimes the presence of Jesus seems no more substantial and dependable than a ghost. In that moment we find ourselves having to choose between faith and the fear of not-faith: fear of the troubles that we are battling, fear that we aren’t strong enough to make it through, fear that if we reach out to Jesus he will prove to be nothing more than our wishful thinking, and we will have to face the reality that we are absolutely alone. The alternative to fear is only faith – to believe the words that Jesus speaks to us, “It is I.” “I AM”
Those twelve men in the boat, in the face of everything – from rationality and common sense that screamed out that people just don’t go walking around on top of the water, to superstition that reminded them of every ghost story they’d ever heard as children – they made the right choice. They chose faith. They chose to hear the voice of that one who loved and knew them best. And verse 21 says, “Then they were glad to take him into the boat.” Isn’t John the master of understatement there? These men went from terror to joy in that one moment of decision. And it is as if in making that choice of faith they had learned everything for that day that Jesus intended them to learn, so that they were ready at long, long last for some rest, because John says, “immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.”
If you remember the two women who were good friends of Jesus, Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead, Luke tells the story of a time when Jesus was staying at their home in Bethany. And Mary was sitting at Jesus’s feet, listening intently to every word he said, but Martha, like the good hospitable woman she knew she ought to be, was bustling about trying to make everything perfect and becoming more and more annoyed at her sister who wasn’t helping. Doesn’t every woman hate that story, because it seems to say that it’s only important to be spiritual and that all the serving that we do, all those things that our hearts and our hands love to do for the people around us, is actually worthless. But really, that isn’t what Jesus is saying at all. He tells Martha this – “Only one thing is necessary.” In the sea of her cares and busy-ness, he is calling Martha to that same choice the disciples were faced with out on the dark sea in the storm, the choice between faith and not-faith. Are we and our cares the only reality, or is Jesus really there? Are we determined to make it on our own, whether because we are proud of ourselves or because we are terrified of being failures or because we are just wallowing in feeling sorry for ourselves – or will we reach out in faith, glad to take him into the boat of our stormy lives? It isn’t a choice we make once in a lifetime – the disciples would have to make it again and again from that night until the moment they all fled in terror at Jesus’s arrest – but it is the one choice, the one thing necessary, faith or not-faith. But in every storm, the ultimate reality is that Jesus is faithful; he is always there to say to us, “Don’t be afraid. It is I.”