January 15, 2023
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
Right out of seminary I served as a pastor in the British Methodist Conference for one year. In their system a pastor is not just assigned to a church but a circuit of churches so that you have preaching responsibilities in other congregations as well. One of the churches in the circuit I served in Bristol, England had a cooperative-parish relationship with an Anglican Church. One Sunday I was assigned to preach at this Anglican Church. It was a beautiful, very old building.
I have no recall of what I preached that day as I am sure by that afternoon the congregation did not either. It was no doubt a forgettable sermon, but what I shall never forget is what happened after that service.
I stood at the door and greeted people as they left, then went to the vestry to get out of my robe and gather my belongings. Since I was one of the last people in the building and it was rather quiet, the sound of a loud clank and click got my attention. I walked into the empty sanctuary and called out to see if anyone was around. No response. So I went to the front door of the church to push it open, but it was locked. The door had one of these really old fashion, large iron locks with the keyhole you could see through. It required a large key to unlock and without there was no way to open the door.
I figured the curator of the church was locking up and probably waiting on me to leave another exit. I walked to the side doors. Same response. I went to the very back of the church. All locked. I started jogging around the inside of the church calling for the person to make sure they knew I was still there. No answer. It began to sink in that the sound I heard was that person leaving after locking the front door. She must have assumed I’d already left the building.
No problem, I thought, they have to have safety measures so this sort of thing couldn’t happen. But no door had anything like a crash bar or some way to get out. This place was probably built when Henry VIII was on the throne. So then, I began looking for a window to crawl through. There were only stained glass windows, the bottoms of which were about 8 feet up.
After spending 20 minutes frantically inspecting every possible way out I realized I was locked in church. No cell phone. This was pre-cell phone days and there was no phone in the church. Thank goodness they had evensong services that night. When the pastor arrived six hours later and I told him what had happened, he laughed and said, “Well, my American brother, you must have had marvelous time to develop your prayer life.” The cooperative arrangement between our churches about ended that day!
Have you ever been locked in church? There are a lot of ways you can. You may not have had my experience, but you can relate to feeling locked in by ideas and beliefs you no longer share. Maybe you can remember a time when you felt locked in by certain prejudices or values of a community that became uncomfortable for you. Perhaps you got locked in by limited thinking and freedom to ask questions.
Sometimes the very place that helps us discover and build faith can become an obstacle to that faith.
So let’s look at today’s story we just heard read. It’s the story of Jesus walking on water. It’s a miracle story, but you may be surprised to learn that its really a story about the church, about doubt, and about faith.
Let’s begin with the church part. This story is what inspired the first logo for the church, a boat. I can imagine leaders of the early church getting together and saying, “We need an image. We need a brand that describes the values and heart of who we are. One day there will be the internet and social media and this will help us.” So they hired a first century Jewish marketing firm that interviewed the disciples and learned about all their experiences with Jesus, and they came back with this image: a first century Galilean fishing boat (pic), a wooden boat with a mast and cross beam to hold the sail, so it looked like a boat with a cross in it.
Today the World Council of Churches use this as their logo (pic). Even some of our language goes back to this logo. We call the central part of a sanctuary in churches a nave, which comes from the Latin word, navis, meaning ship or boat.
What did people see in this story that made them feel this is a good picture of the church? Let’s look at it a little closer. The story begins with Jesus sending the disciples off in a boat at night while he goes up on a mountain to pray. That’s three strikes against them. Fisherman don’t go out at night. Then, the sea is a scary place. The sea represents the uncontrollable, dark, forces of the world. That’s why at the end of the Book of Revelation when John describes a new heaven and earth, a picture of paradise, he says, “and there will be no more sea.” (Revelation 21:1) And then the third strike is that they are alone. Jesus isn’t with them.
A storm comes up and begins lashing the boat furiously. Matthew even points out this was in the fourth watch of the night, this is when the night was darkest. Maybe this is why people thought the boat is a good image for the church. The early centuries were stormy times for the church.
They still are. Between scandals and schisms, a culture that grows increasingly disinterested in religious affiliation, and political divisions that creep into the pews, the church is going through a stormy time today. Our United Methodist Church is splintering. In November over 100 congregations disaffiliated from the Indiana Conference. That’s about ten percent of congregations in the conference. Many of my colleagues are retiring early because they feel their ministry has become conflict management and facing constant attack and criticism. There are stormy times for sure.
But, here’s the good news. Jesus notices what the church is going through. He sees the disciples and notices the wind is against them, so he goes to them walking on the water. This was a symbolic gesture on Jesus’ part. The Old Testament speaks of this in several places like Job 9:8: “(God) alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.” Walking on water is something only God can do.
At first this is a scary sight for the disciples. But once they realize it is Jesus, Peter asks to come join Jesus. He gets out of the boat and walks on water too, until his attention goes to the wind and waves, and he sinks. So Jesus rescues him, they climb into the boat, and the storm dies down and the disciples all worship Jesus and say, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Now maybe this is why a boat became a symbol for the church. This is the first time the disciples worshipped Jesus. It says they had been amazed before, but now they worship. They are full of faith!
So let me ask, when did doubt first appear in the story? Many people would say it is when Peter walked on water but then he turned attention to the wind and waves and began sinking. They would say doubt was taking his eyes off Jesus. I don’t disagree with that, but I believe doubt appears earlier in the story. I believe doubt started with Peter’s decision to leave the boat. When he realized it was Jesus walking on water, in a few seconds of contemplation, the idea must have come to him that there was more to Jesus than he would know staying in the boat. That there was an experience of Jesus he had yet to know. In order to get closer to Jesus he will need to leave the boat.
Lean over to the person next to you right now and say, “Where’s he going with this?” Here it is: Have you ever felt that to get closer to Jesus you will have to leave the church?
What a counter-intuitive notion, huh? After all, the boat was where many of the disciples first met Jesus. They were in a boat when Jesus first came to them and invited them to follow him. The boat represents the beginning of faith, the place where they first committed their lives to Christ. But along the way the boat can become confining. There are experiences of Jesus beyond the boat.
Have you ever felt like the church is a boat and if you don’t leave it your faith will die? Maybe you struggle with some of the things the church believes. Perhaps your beliefs changed. Maybe you just start to feel that what Jesus stands for is not what you see in church. And you’ve got to leave in order to grow and more of what Jesus wants you to be.
Faith must always be bigger than the community where faith is formed. When the church reduces faith to what it says and does, the boat has sprained a leak.
In her book Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor tells her journey of deciding that for the sake of her faith and her health she would need to resign as pastor of the church she served and return to teaching. She wrote, “As a general rule I would say that human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God. (As the grandson of Mahatma Ghandi) said, ‘People of the Book risk putting the book above people.” (p106)
Some of you have shared similar sentiments in your responses to our survey on doubt and questions about God and religion. One person wrote:
Why do so many who claim faithful discipleship in the name of Christ behave and act in a way that is so unlike the teachings of Jesus? Is there really this much room for different interpretations of Christianity? As we continue in this polarized world how can followers at St. Luke’s feel confident in our faith?
If you think about it, sometimes what we call doubt isn’t really doubt, it’s more like complaint. We have a complaint, not so much with God, but the people of God, religion, and the way our religion works or doesn’t work. There’s probably a time for all of us when we have to leave a boat, maybe not entirely, but at least go in search of other experiences of God outside out boat, in order for our faith to grow.
Sometimes we doubt if we should stay in the boat, but this is not the end of doubt in the story. When the disciples see Jesus they are terrified, but Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I.” So Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Where have we heard the words before, “Lord, if it is you?” Remember when Jesus was in the wilderness? Satan came and said three times, “If you are the Son of God.” This is the second place doubt shows up in this story with Peter. “Lord, if it is you.” Peter isn’t certain. He isn’t comfortable staying in the boat, but he isn’t to sure about leaving it either. But he wants to share Jesus’ power, because if he can walk on water, then he would have power over his storms. And that’s a dangerous temptation because if Peter has power over his storms then he won’t need to trust in a Savior who does.
So he gets out of the boat and walks on water…until he looks at the wind pushing the waves and he starts to sink. And now we see the third example of doubt in this story. Doubt in himself. Peter cries out, “Lord, save me.” Perhaps the most important words in the Bible. “Lord, save me!” “Lord, save us!” Lord, save our world!” We can’t do it. We need help. We are dependent on a Lord who comes to us. A Lord who rescues us.
My preaching professor, Dr. Fred Craddock, said the point of this story is not that had Peter kept his eyes on Jesus he would have never sunk. That’s not the point. The point is not how much faith does Peter need to walk on water. And that is not a solo act. We need the support of others to help us believe like that.
Craddock says, “The sermon Matthew preaches is a sermon to the church. It is a sermon for all the followers of Jesus in all our little boats in all of the storms, trying to make it alone—and they couldn’t. That is a hard lesson to learn. The church is never, you are never, I am never exempt from the temptation to try to go it alone.” (The Cherry Log Sermons, p34)
Sometimes it is true, we have to leave the boat to rediscover faith, but its also true that we need the boat to keep that faith.
Our Wednesday Pastor’s Book Study is using Brian McLaren’s Faith After Doubt in which he shares much of his own challenge with church. He was evangelical and thrived for a time in theological beliefs like the inerrancy of scripture and exclusion on non-heterosexual people. But then as he asked his questions he experienced rejection and exclusion. As he watched more of the way evangelical Christianity got pulled into divisive politics he found he was losing his desire to be part of church at all.
But this all changed when he was asked to attend a rally in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017. Faith leaders reached out to him saying their community had become a center for white supremacist activity. There was a rally coming up and they wanted to form a multi-faith coalition that presented an image of Christianity that was loving, inclusive and grace-filled. He attended and was there when the van plowed through the crowd and killed a woman. He saw those carrying crosses and shouting slogans of intolerance and hate. But he realized that there were those standing up for the true church, the church of justice and compassion. He talked about how the church kept him from leaving the church.
The church’s hidden need is doubt, because that’s what keeps the church true to its mission to live out the values of Jesus. We need doubt, but not a doubt that leads to cynicism, a doubt that leads to faith. Faith in the true church that looks like the life and values of Jesus being lived in the world today.
If the church is to continue to stand a chance in our world, it will depend on its willingness to challenge people to think about what they believe is true, and then live out their truth.
Today is Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. Martin Luther King was a bigger doubter than most people realize. In a 2007 article in the Seattle Times, Clayborne Carson, head of the MLK Papers Project at Stanford, said that King had lots of doubts about basic beliefs when he was in seminary. He doubted the idea of the virgin birth and being born again.
This brought King lots of controversy and conflict, but as a friend of his observed, “you come to a secure faith through honest doubt.” King’s doubts over theological questions built an inner resolve in him. He discovered the courage to face the resistance from established perspectives.
Your doubts are building something in you. So let them grow, because you never know how God will grow them into something that changes our world.