Our theme for district conference this weekend is Focus on Jesus. The theme is based on Matthew 14, which tells the story of Jesus walking out on the sea to the disciples in the boat in the midst of a storm. You know the story. Then Peter walks out on the water to meet Jesus but when he moves his focus from Jesus to the tumultuous sea he begins to sink. Our moderator, Karen Pierson, asked three different churches to be in charge of one of the conference worships: McFarland, Restoration LA and La Verne. Each worship service was designed around the very same text from Matthew 14. We preachers were each asked to bring the message God placed on our hearts based on the very same text.
I love Karen Pierson and I would do anything for her. But I have to admit that when she told me what she was asking us each to do, I was skeptical. I thought, “Oh great. I go last when there is nothing left to say.” But the more I thought about it the more brilliant of an idea I realized it was. The Bible is an amazing book. It calls out to us in different times, in different circumstances, in different locations. It is alive and it calls out to McFarland and Restoration LA and La Verne and Pomona and Los Banos and Sacramento, and Papago Buttes…all of us. There are messages for all the churches of the Pacific Southwest District in its wonderful pages. Plus, hearing from different churches enlarges our vision.
What got a hold of me in this text that I couldn’t shake off was that as Jesus walks out on the water to his disciples they don’t recognize him. There was something so persuasive about him that they had left their lives, their jobs, their families behind to follow him. Since that moment of decision to follow him they have been with him almost all of them time and yet, in this story they don’t recognize him. They think he is a phantom.
The disciples were in the midst of a ravaging wind storm when Jesus walks out to them on the water. They were fighting to keep their boat afloat. And yet, as you read this text you see that none of that seemed to unnerve them until they saw this ghost-like figure walking out to them on the water. That is when they became terrified. Rarely does the Bible speak of emotions. So when emotions are mentioned, take notice. These men are truly terrified by what they think is an apparition….a ghoul….floating on top of the water and coming straight for them.
Jesus can tell he has frightened them and so he calls out, “Take heart. I AM. Do not be afraid.” Some translate “Take heart” as “Have courage.” The word “courage” comes from the root word “heart”. “Let your heart, not your eyes, lead you on this one.” “I AM,” Jesus says. The One who said, “I AM the Door. I AM the gate. I AM the bread. I AM the true vine” identifies himself with a simple I AM statement. But they still aren’t sure if this is Jesus.
You can argue that it was the fourth watch of the night, sometime between 3 and 6 a.m. and so it was pitch black outside. They couldn’t see him well and they didn’t have cell phones with flashlights they could activate. Or you could argue that in their culture the sea was considered a location of evil and chaos and they expected to see a phantom coming out of the sea. You could argue that they were completely exhausted from bailing water out of the boat and trying to stay afloat and in their weariness it was hard to be clear-headed and focused. All of these are plausible ideas.
But this wasn’t the only time that people had a hard time recognizing Jesus. In the story Jesus tells in Matthew 25 about separating the sheep from the goats it isn’t just the goats that didn’t realize they had met Jesus. The sheep were also astounded that they had met Jesus. Neither the sheep nor the goats were making their decisions about whether to help their neighbors in need based on the idea that they might be helping Jesus. They didn’t even know they had met Jesus. “Seriously? When did I see you?” they both ask.
It is hard to keep your focus on Jesus when you don’t recognize him or when he shows up in disguise as your neighbor in need. And so the question for me has become, if the sheep didn’t see him and the disciples didn’t recognize him, how will I know when I meet Jesus?
Well, Peter was a bit ahead of me here. Peter decided that he would make Jesus prove he was who he said he was. “Lord, if it is you then command me to come out to you while you are still on the water.” Isn’t that the strangest test? He doesn’t say, “Lord, if it is you tell me my mother’s maiden name? Lord, if it is you tell me what I had for dinner on Thursday night? Lord, if it is you tell me what color eyes I have.” No. “Lord if it is you then command me to get out of this boat during a wind storm, with evil and chaos swirling around my feet and walk out on the water to you.” It is like saying, “Lord if it is you command me to jump off the top of the Empire State Building and make a soft landing next to you. Lord, if it is you, command me to walk on burning coals to reach you.” Somehow, in Peter’s way of thinking, this kind of test would prove this phantom-like being was Jesus.
Jesus calls back, “Come on out Peter, the water is fine.” And that is all Peter needed to hear. He needed this ghost-like creature to invite him out of the boat and somehow that helped him to recognize Jesus.
Jesus claiming to be Jesus didn’t work. Jesus speaking the phrase “I AM” didn’t do it. Peter didn’t ask for proof about shared experience. No. Jesus inviting Peter to leave the boat and step out beyond his comfort zone…to follow Jesus even if it might mean death… that is what did the trick. Only Jesus would ask this much of him. “Yup, it’s Jesus. Only Jesus would ask me to risk everything.” We know it is Jesus by what he invites us to.
So Peter leaps out of the boat. He takes heart. He uses his heart and not his head. Peter doesn’t think, he just heads for Jesus. So really, walking on the water wasn’t necessary. It didn’t benefit anyone. Except that it did serve to let Peter know he was talking to the One who said:
“Leave everything behind and come and follow me.”
“Drop those fishing nets and come and follow me.”
“Sell everything you have, give the money to the poor and come and follow and me.”
“Let the dead bury the dead and come and follow me.”
“Deny yourself, take up your cross and come and follow me.”
To focus our hearts on Jesus means leaving the boat….stepping out beyond our comfort zone….into the evil and the chaos around us…to join Jesus in the work of the Kingdom of God.
On September 12, 2001, a couple stood outside of the wreckage at ground zero in New York City. Their daughter had been killed in this hateful act of terrorism and they needed to come to the scene of her demise. A reporter interviewed this weeping couple. As he wrapped up the interview the journalist said, “I know that you will be able to go to your house of worship this weekend and I hope you will find consolation in your faith.” The grieving mother said, “No, we won’t be going to our place of worship this weekend. We are Christians and we know that Jesus wants us to forgive. Frankly, we’re not ready. It’ll take time before we want to be with Jesus.”
I don’t think that woman would have any problem recognizing Jesus in a crowd or walking towards her through a tumultuous sea. She knows what Jesus looks like, what he demands of her and the rest of his followers.
And so did loud, impulsive Peter. He knew it wasn’t Jesus unless there was some kind of cross involved. He knew it wasn’t Jesus if he didn’t invite you right into the muck and mess of life to stand alongside him. So Peter jumped out of the boat into the swirling chaos of the sea. He was doing great….and then a large gush of wind hit Peter broadside. He was following Jesus into the tumult and then it smacked him upside the head. His courage, his heart became frightened and he began to sink. But he had no doubt that the one on top of the waves he had mistaken for a phantom was Jesus. “Lord, save me!” he cried. And Jesus immediately reached out his hand.
In the book by C. S. Lewis, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” the character named Susan realizes that the king of Narnia is not a person but a lion and that frightens her. She asks, “Is he safe?” The reply is, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
Jesus invites us into the work of bringing in the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. It isn’t safe. Jesus is inviting us into the chaos of the sea; the dens of the empire; prisons; the borders; refugee camps…but he isn’t asking us to go anywhere he hasn’t arrived ahead of us.
When we come upon challenging times of our lives, when the chaos swirls around our feet and threatens to pull us under, when we know that we are out of our depth…that we can’t do this work alone…that is when we cry out, “Lord, save us.” And Jesus reaches out his hand and takes a hold of us. Once you have had that experience and you have felt the hand of Jesus, disguised as another, reach out and grab hold of you….it gets easier and easier to recognize him. Amen.