By Paul Wheatley
I believe in the Church.
When we gather and say the words of the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” I mean what I’m saying. I believe that God the Father has called the Church, as the body of Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit in us, to manifest God’s presence to the world.
I believe that because God is one, we — who are many — are called to be one in the Church. I believe that because God is holy, we — who are sinners saved by the grace of God — are made holy by our union with Christ and through the refining fire of the Holy Spirit. I believe that we are catholic — not just because we cross ourselves, or believe Jesus is present in the bread and the wine we take each week, but also because we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. Catholic: according to the whole. Our church, through the ministry of our bishop, in communion with the other bishops of the Anglican Communion, and in communion with the bishops through the ages, back to the apostles, is a worldwide church, an apostolic church.
I believe in the Church, not because the Church is so great, because I think we’re any better than anybody else. In fact the Church is going through somewhat of a rough spell these days.
I once gathered for lunch with a group of Oak Cliff pastors. As we went around the table to tell our stories and the stories of our churches, many were the same: Our church began at some time in the past when things were going well in the neighborhood, something changed, and the church struggled as a result.
But this isn’t just an Oak Cliff story. By most accounts, the church in America, and in the West in general, is in decline. We don’t have the influence we used to have, or the money we used to have, or the whatever we used to have. The forces of cultural change, of declining faith, or just declining religiousness, or whatever else have taken their toll.
And the news coming out of Iraq presents another picture of the church — embattled, persecuted, oppressed, threatened with martyrdom, and perhaps even with extinction. The vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad has told recently of a child he baptized being brutally killed by Isis militants, and this is just one of many stories we aren’t hearing. It is easy to be moved to anger, or despair, or fear in the face of such disheartening news.
But I believe in the Church. I believe in the Church because I believe in miracles.
In today’s readings, we have two pictures of the miraculous: God breaking rocks and shaking the earth on the mountain with Elijah, and Jesus walking on the water and calling Peter out of the boat to join him. And I think both of these pictures of the miraculous have something to say to us today as we live as the Church in the world.
God calls us beyond fear of the challenges around us into faith that meets Jesus out on the tumult of the water, calls for his help as the master of the wind and waves, and at last welcomes him as God with us, in the boat as he guides us to the shore in peace.
A little bit of background: In the Old Testament passage and our Gospel reading, we have instances of faithful people battered by their circumstances. Elijah is on the run for his life, persecuted, and he begins to wonder if he is the only one left who still follows God. But God comes to Elijah first in storm, quake, and fire — powerful signs that the author makes clear are not God himself. And then the sound of sheer silence precedes the voice of God, responding a second time. God will preserve a remnant. Elijah is not alone.
In the Gospel, the challenge is different. The disciples have just finished gathering up the bread from Jesus’ miraculous feeding of 5,000 in the wilderness when Jesus ships them off in a boat headed for the other side. There on the boat, the wind is against them, and the waves batter them as they fight their way across.
Elijah is persecuted and threatened with death. The disciples are just going about the job Jesus has given, and things aren’t going their way. Whether we find ourselves in the Elijah moment — when it feels like the world is out to get us, going to hell in a hand basket, and we feel alone, still clinging to a faith that has become not just unpopular, but contrary to the spirit of the day — or if we find ourselves out there on the boat, where nothing seems to be going our way, we want God to show up. We need God to show up.
But in both of these stories, God shows up in unexpected ways. For Elijah, God isn’t in the quake and the power. His voice comes after a sound of sheer silence. For the disciples, Jesus comes to them peacefully walking across the water, calling them to step out in faith.
I. Have you ever wondered why Jesus walked to them on the water? I mean, why didn’t he just magically appear on the boat? Why didn’t he fly to them, speaking words of power over the wind and the waves? He’s already fed 5,000, and healed the sick, and earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, he’s actually calmed the wind and waves from within the boat, after the disciples woke him from his sleep. Why did he walk to them on the water?
In the Israelite mind, the waters were a place of chaos, just as they were in the beginning when darkness was over the face of the deep, in the Exodus when the Red Sea swallowed up the armies of Pharaoh, and in the flood of Noah. But God’s power over the waters brings life in creation, deliverance for the Israelites, and a new beginning in the story of Noah.
The disciples — and the Church who would follow in their footsteps — are called out from the crowds into the boat to cross the sea. We are called to live not in a peaceful existence apart from the world, but are called to set sail toward the chaos of the world, where the winds often blow contrary to the way God has called us to go, and the waves threaten to capsize the boat and send us to the bottom of the sea. But God has called us into the boat, the Church, and he has called us across the sea.
But when the storms rage, and Jesus is nowhere to be found, we want Jesus to do something huge! Save us! Rescue us! The fear of the waves and winds of the world can leave us overwhelmed and crying out for a God who can match the power of the threatening winds with more power. But Jesus just walks across the water.
When I feel weighed down by the challenges of the Christian life, and I don’t know what else to do, I don’t want him walking calmly across the water. I want Jesus, 50 feet tall, standing at the foot of my bed saying, “Paul, here’s how I’m going to fix it. Ready? Boom!” Like Elijah, we want God to break the rocks and shake the earth, to rip the heavens in two and save us. “But,” as it says, “the Lord was not in the earthquake.”
Jesus walks across the water. He doesn’t run. He doesn’t fly across with thunderbolts coming from his fingers to chase away the winds. Jesus walks to them because when darkness covered the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters at the beginning, the Son of God was master over the chaos of the deep. And now, just as the Spirit hovered over the face of the waters, now Jesus comes to them, peacefully walking over the chaos of the deep as Lord of Creation. This is the one who calls out, “It is I, do not be afraid.”
How then, do we respond?
II. Jesus calls us to take a step of faith that meets him outside the boat.
When Peter hears Jesus’ words of comfort, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid,” his response is somewhat surprising: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus simply says “Come,” and with a word, Peter is out of the boat.
If things were scary for Peter before, it must have been terrifying once he felt the wind and the waves outside the boat. “When he noticed the strong wind,” it says, “he became frightened.”
Why did Peter come up with this test? Just invite Jesus in, and check him out in the safety of the boat! There are a million good reasons to stay in the boat. Once you’re out of the boat, you are out of ways to help yourself. You are out of Plan Bs, and you are left depending on God to be who he says he is. There are a million reasons to take the safe route, the status quo; but there’s only one reason to step out: Jesus said, “Come.” Peter had to step out, to feel the waves, to feel the wind, and most importantly to feel the fear. Peter had to know what it was like to trust in Jesus completely, before he could know Jesus was 100 percent reliable.
But the funny thing is that when Peter steps out onto the water, who knows? Maybe it’s all just a crazy dream. We’ve all dreamt of flying, or of breathing underwater, and awoken to find it was just a figment of our subconscious. It isn’t until Peter fails, when he doubts and begins to sink, and then calls out for help, that he knows that it truly is the Lord who has come to him.
So many of us never take that step. We are so afraid of our own failure, or of God failing us, that we never get the chance to cry out in fear, and see God show up.
III. But once Peter falls and calls out, Jesus rescues him, and they return to the boat together, they disciples can receive Jesus as “God with us,” saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
And this is our call, to step out in faith that meets Jesus out on the waves, calls for his help as the master of the wind and waves, and at last welcomes him as God with us in the boat as he guides us to the shore in peace. This is a life of faith. This is worship.
Sisters and brothers, I believe in the Church. I believe that Jesus has sent us out into the world as a boat, the ark of salvation. The Church is always one generation from extinction, one wave away from sinking to the bottom of the sea. But the Church will not survive because we get on the good side of a demographic shift. Our church will not survive because of a new name, a new vicar, or a new deacon.
This church, like the whole Church, is called to bear witness, to step out, to move past fear and into faith, and to call on the one who can save, and welcome him into our boat with worship.
I will close, as I often do, with words of encouragement from St. Augustine, our patron:
“The boat carrying the disciples — that is, the Church — is rocking and shaking amid the storms of temptation, while the adverse wind rages on. … But although the boat is thrown into disorder, it is still a boat. It alone carries the disciples and receives Christ.
It is in danger indeed on the water, but there would be certain death without it. Therefore stay inside the boat and call upon God. When all good advice fails and the rudder is useless and the spread of the sails presents more of a danger than an advantage, when all human help and strength have been abandoned, the only recourse left for the sailors is to cry out to God. Therefore, will he who helps those who are sailing to reach port safely abandon his Church and prevent it from arriving in peace and tranquility?”
All is left is for us to cry out to God. He alone can save. He alone comes to us as master of the waves. He sent us out from shore, calls us out of the boat, and he will come again to us and calm the waves. So come, let us worship him.
The Rev. Paul D. Wheatley is assistant professor of New Testament and Greek at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.