Rev. Jeff Chapman
22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake.
26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear.
27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. (Matthew 14:22-29, NRSV)
I have a friend who is another pastor in town. We have lunch together every so often and every time we do he always has a great story to tell me. I’ve come to expect it. If I buy him a burrito, he’ll tell me a great story.
Some time ago he told me this story about a friend of his who was a long time pastor of a very large and successful church here inSacramento. As I understand it, this particular church had developed a partnership with another congregation inRussiawhich they supported over the years. This was was in the early 90’s, just after the fall of communism, and so this little Russian church was brand new and horribly under-resourced.
At one point some funds were made available for the pastor of this simple Russian church to come and spend a week here at the church inSacramento. The thought was that even in just a short time he could see how the church worked, take part in their programs and ministry, listen to their leaders and, in the end, bring back some wonderful wisdom and ideas toRussia.
So he did. For one week he went to every event on the church calendar, which was a lot. This church was full of classes, programs, studies, services. The pace of activity was furious. The involvement of the people was impressive. The church buildings themselves were like nothing this Russian pastor had ever seen. By the end of the week he was exhausted by the ceaseless activity of this energetic congregation.
Finally, on his last day here, the two pastors met together for lunch to debrief the week. Over the meal that afternoon the American pastor eagerly asked his Russian counterpart, “So, after all you have witnessed this past week here in our church, tell me, what is it that you will take back to tell your church in Russia?”
The Russian pastor, as gracious as ever could be, thanked his American friend for the great opportunity he had been given, and for the tremendous hospitality he had been shown, and then answered the question this way. He said, “Well, when I go back toRussiaand they ask me what I learned here in the American church I will tell them this. I will tell them that it is truly amazing all that the church can do without God.”
Ever have those moments when somebody tells you something and you instantly know that you will never forget what you just heard? That happened to me at lunch that day. As soon as my friend told me that story I knew I would never forget it. Because even though I don’t know exactly what this Russian pastor saw in that American church to cause him to say such a thing, I can easily imagine.
I know that there is no way that I could ever walk on water without God’s help. In fact, I wouldn’t just need God to help to do what Peter did, I would need God to make me do what Peter did! And that makes me wonder, what else in my life can I say that about? Are there places in my life, in your life, in the life of our church, where we are so absolutely dependent on God that we will immediately sink like a rock unless God shows up? What do we as a church do that we could not do without God?
Of course, the easy answer to that question is nothing. If God were to completely remove Himself from our lives, from our world, there is nothing we could do. In fact, we would cease to exist. I truly believe that the sun comes up every morning because God makes it come up. Every heartbeat, every breath, is a gift from God. And this is true for people whether or not they believe in God. Even the atheist would cease to exist if God, even for an instant, completely removed his hand from his life. In the most basic sense, we can’t do anything without God. I get that.
So maybe the question goes more like this. What are things that others are not able to do that we in the church are able to do because we believe and trust God? Anybody can row a boat out into the middle of a lake without God’s special help. The same cannot be said, however, about walking on top of that same lake. God has to help with that one.
I made two lists. My first list is called the “rowing the boat across the lake” list. These are things we do in the church that other people or organizations, even those who have zero faith in Christ, can do just as well as we can do, if not better. Here’s a sampling of that list.
Run creative programs. Build impressive buildings. Raise lots of money. Make beautiful music. Deliver eloquent and inspiring speeches. Do good deeds. Serve the poor with compassion. Set goals and visions. Develop leaders. Organize people. Stand up for important causes.
As you know, there are completely secular organizations and people in our world who do all these things and, in many instances, do them better than many churches do them. That Russian pastor is absolutely right. It’s amazing all that the church can do without God.
So I made a second list. To be honest, it was a lot harder to make. I call it my “walking across the lake” list. What are the sorts of things the church, or individual Christians, can never even begin to do unless God specifically intervenes? Here’s a sampling of that list.
Apart from God we cannot lead people to faith in Christ. It doesn’t matter how compellingly the Gospel is presented, unless God moves in a human heart that human heart will not open.
Apart from God we cannot add any power to the sacraments. Unless God shows up, the water is just water, the bread and wine are just bread and wine. We get wet, we have a little snack, and that’s about it.
Many broken relationships will never experience deep and permanent healing unless God provides such healing. Same with addictions and habits. Deep and eternal transformation of the human heart and soul is simply not possible without God’s grace.
On a personal note, I have not found it possible to love and forgive my enemies without God’s help. I have not found it possible to give away more of my money than common sense would dictate without God’s help. I have not found it possible to face death and tragedy with hope unless God helps me to do so.
If any of us in the church tries to do any of these things without God we may as well try to walk acrossLake Tahoewithout God. It is not possible. There is, truly, a great deal we are called to do that we simply cannot do without God. The obvious question, of course, is how much of it are we doing? And if there is some of it that we are not doing, what is it that holds us back?
Let me just say this. None of these things happen without faith. You don’t step out of the boat to walk on water unless you have faith that Jesus will keep you from drowning. That’s why Peter, at least at this point in the story, is such a wonderful model for us. Give him credit. The dude stepped out of the safety of the boat onto the lake in the middle of a raging storm! What was it that led him to be able to take such a step of faith?
Well, a couple of things. To begin with, Peter had a history with Jesus. Time and time again he had seen Jesus work in powerfully miraculous ways. And the more Peter came to know Jesus the more he came to trust his faithfulness, his power, his authority.
Secondly, notice that Peter didn’t step out of the boat until Jesus told him to step out of the boat. You can make up all sorts of plans, but if those plans aren’t God’s plans, good luck. As Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” If God doesn’t first call you to step out of the boat, you step out of the boat in vain. Peter stepped out of that boat because he knew it was Jesus’ will for him to step out of that boat.
Lastly, Peter didn’t step out alone. Jesus didn’t call Peter to go and walk out on the water. Jesus called Peter to come and walk out on the water. Christ was already out there. It wasn’t knowledge Peter gained from Jesus, it was power. It was the power of the very presence of Jesus himself.
When we are called by God to take a step of faith, the things which helped Peter will help us. The more history you have with Jesus the more you trust him. When you know Jesus has told you to take a step there is great assurance that you are taking the right step. And when Jesus is there with you, well then all the power and authority in the universe exists to help you do whatever it is you have been called to do.
In the end, however, Peter still had to take the step. Right? He still had to climb over the side of that boat and put his foot out onto the surface of that lake. He still had to demonstrate that in the face of all the reasons this was a bad idea, he still had enough faith in Jesus to obey him and do it anyway.
It’s the same with us. A step of faith is always that. It can’t be rationalized. It often doesn’t make sense. It involves risk. It usually involves facing our doubts, or our fears, or our weaknesses. If you and I are ever going to experience a greater measure of God’s power in our lives, it will almost always mean that we have to take that first step of faith. Peter had nothing at all to do with his being able to walk on top of that lake. He did, however, have to take the first step out of the boat.
So, here’s the question I want to ask you today. In what area of your life is Christ calling you to take a step of faith? He may have shown you his faithfulness. He may have given you a clear call. He may be out there himself waiting for you to join him. Now, how is he calling you to take the first step forward? Where in your life is God calling you to walk on water, to do something you could never do without God’s help?
In thinking about that question, writer John Ortberg suggests that there are two indicators that can help us figure out where God may want us to step out of the boat.
The first indicator is fear. Frankly, lots of times God is asking us to step out of the boat precisely at the point of our fears and precisely because he wants us to overcome them.
Maybe your fear, for example, is that you will not have enough money. If so, God may call you to give away more than you think you could possibly give away so that when you do you learn that God, in his faithfulness, provides for you all that you need. Maybe your fear is talking with other people about your faith. If so, could it be that God is calling you to take a risk and share your faith with somebody. In doing so, maybe you discover that God could use even you to bring the hope of salvation into the life of another person.
Think about what you fear today. There’s a good chance Jesus wants you to take a step of faith towards him in that direction.
The second indicator is frustration, or compassion, or a combination of both. All through scripture we see examples of people who are motivated to trust God in remarkable ways because they have become frustrated with the brokenness of our world and compassionate towards those who are suffering because of it. David couldn’t tolerate Goliath mocking the God of Israel so he went out to battle the giant with only a slingshot in hand. Elijah hated the barbaric practice of pagan idolatry so he took on all 450 prophets of Baal singlehandedly.
Down through history there are countless examples of people who God used in mighty ways because they took enormous steps of faith which were motivated by frustration and compassion. People like Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and countless others whose names we’ll never know this side of heaven.
What abuse, or injustice, or brokenness in the world has you frustrated and moves you to compassion. There’s a good chance Jesus wants you to take a step towards him in that direction. What sort of power might you see unleashed in your life if you took such a step?
Whenever I read this story of Peter I always think about one thing. What must it have been like for him to walk on the water that day? Can you imagine? What a trip! Think of the exhilaration, the thrill, of doing something you know would never be possible apart from God.
Let me tell you something I suspect some of you already know. Living in this world at this particular time in history affords us so many opportunities to do so many amazing things. Just a few weeks ago I strapped a pair of planks on my feet at the top of a 10,000 foot mountain and glided down to the bottom on the snow. Several times as I skied that day I actually thought to myself, what an amazing thrill it is to be able to do such a thing.
Still, let me tell you, there is no thrill in this world that even comes close to the thrill that we can experience when we step out in faith towards Christ and take the risk that allows him to do something in us, or through us, that could not possibly have been done without him.
Have you ever experienced what it is like to be used by Christ to make an eternal impact in this world? Many of you have. And you know that there is no thrill in this world that even comes close to thrill of finding your woefully under-qualified self in the hands of Christ being used to do what it is you were created to do for his glory. There is simply nothing like it. And once you step out of the boat in faith and, by the power of Christ, walk on water, you will never again settle in life for cheaper thrills. There is nothing in the world like being used by God to do what it is God made you to do.
Let me close with a story. Henrietta Mears was just a simple Sunday school teacher for single young people at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. By the time she died in 1963, however, her decades of ministry had made a formative impact on the lives of literally hundreds of Christian leaders including, to name just a few, Billy Graham, Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright, and United States Senate Chaplain Richard Halverson. In her case, it was frustration that led Henrietta Mears to take one step of faith after another.
When she became frustrated at not being able to give her students first-rate materials in class, she began a little publishing enterprise out of her garage which eventually grew to become Gospel Light Publishing, one of the largest and more effective Christian publishers of its day.
When she became frustrated because so many Christians living inLos Angeleshad nowhere to retreat outdoors in quiet and listen for God’s voice, she drove into theSan Gabriel Mountainsone day and found what she thought was the perfect location. She prayed about it and then went to talk to the man who owned it. Though he had no intention of selling it, when Henrietta walked through the door he didn’t have a prayer. Today Forest Home is one of the premier conference centers in the whole country.
When she became frustrated that she could not find a good single-volume introduction to the Bible that could help her students study scripture, she wrote one herself that eventually sold hundreds of thousands of copies, right down to today. And on top of it all, this simply Sunday School teacher did all these things in spite of the fact that she was a woman living in a day when many people thought women had no business doing these sorts of things. She did them anyway. In faith, she stepped out of the boat time and time again.
At the end of her remarkable life, as she lay on her deathbed, somebody asked her this question. “Miss Mears, if you had it all to do over again, would you do anything differently?” After thinking it over for a moment she answered, “If I had it all to do over again – I would have trusted Christ more.”
Never once has a person ever regretted trusting Christ and taking a step of faith out of the boat when Christ calls them to come and do something that, without him, could never be done. Never once.
It’s amazing all that the church can do without Christ. It’s even more amazing all that the church could do with Him. Or rather, He with us.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read Matthew 14:22-29. What do you notice this time through the story?
What do you think it was that ultimately led Peter to step out of that boat onto the lake? Why Peter and not the others?
In your own life, what have you done (or are you doing) that you could not possibly have done without Jesus?
What is something you have seen our church do that we could not possibly have done without Jesus?
In what way do you think Christ may be calling you to take a step of faith in your life at this time?
How do you think God may be calling Faith Presbyterian Church to take a step of faith at this time?
What is the relationship between prayer and faith?
Do you have a Henrietta Mears story? Who is somebody you know (or have heard about) who has taken steps of faith and been used by God to do amazing things in life?
Further ScriptureReadingsfor the Week:
Monday: Psalm 24 ~ I John 1:5-10
Tuesday: Psalm 25 ~ Matthew 4:1-11
Wednesday: Psalm 26 ~ Genesis 9:8-17
Thursday: Psalm 27 ~ Romans 10:9-13
Friday: Psalm 28 ~ I Timothy 2:1-6
Saturday: Psalm 29 ~ I Peter 3:18-22
Sunday: Psalm 30 ~ Genesis 12:1-4