Called to Unbelief

Fishermen at Sea by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Fishermen at Sea by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Sermon for Binkley Baptist Church:
Psalm 85 * Romans 10:5-15 * Matthew 14:22-33

I had the pleasure this week of Bible study with some members of the Binkley Sermon Shapers group, and when we read the story of Peter and Jesus and the boat and the water, one of the regulars, Paul, grinned and said “You got a hard one! Walking on water? It’s a little unbelievable.”

Exactly. This story does to us the very thing it’s about. It creates disbelief. But then, that’s what stories do. More than just informing us, they perform something, in us.

The stories in Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss are like that. After finding faith and love at midlife, Wiman is diagnosed with incurable cancer in the middle of the finding. As a result, in his words:

Doubt is so woven in with what I think of as faith that it can’t be separated. I am convinced that the same God that might call me to sing of God at one time might call me at another to sing of godlessness. I think it may be the case that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.

Doubt as a calling; can we imagine such a thing? Maybe. Will you pray with me?

May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God. May our believing and our doubting be fruitful in your kin-dom. Amen.

Let’s start with Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he is encouraging the mostly Gentile community in Rome to understand how Gentiles and Jews are now grafted together in Christ as the new people of God. Paul invites his fellow Jews to experience Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the law. Gentiles are invited to know Jesus – the One who lived and died and that God raised from the dead – to know this Jesus Christ as Lord of all. God’s Word has come near you, Paul says. When it is in your heart, and on your lips, you will be saved.

In your heart and on your lips. As the sermon shapers pointed out, this is deeply intimate language. Like the words of our psalm … righteousness and peace will kiss. But intimacy can only be experienced in relationship. Which takes trust.

Which is the language I love, when it comes to talking about faith, and doubt. Because faith is not just intellectual assent, for me. Rather, when I am strong in my faith, I am trusting in my relationship with God. And I am on solid ground with this understanding: the word used in the Greek New Testament for “believe” in the context of faith also can be translated “trust.”

When I doubt, it is not a matter of disbelief in God, but rather a dis-trust of my relationship with God. Literally. Dissing my trust in God. I am dismissing the reality of God’s everlasting love for me. I am derelict in the practices that keep me in the presence of Love, Love’s own self, and the differences those practices make in the quality of my life and my love for this world. That’s doubt. Not faith’s opposite … but maybe on a continuum with faith … maybe one element of a human faith.

So, what are we to do, when we doubt? Because we do doubt. Let’s look again at the story of Peter and Jesus and the boat and the storm. We all have storms, and Jesus … and – if we are lucky – a boat.

Jesus knows the disciples are going to need a boat to get to the other side …. So after he and the disciples and 5000 other people eat supper together, the story says Jesus immediately puts the disciples in a boat and sends them to the other side of the lake. And Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray … perhaps continuing to grieve the murder of his cousin, John the Baptist. Perhaps asking God for the strength to keep going. Maybe even asking God for a reason to keep going.

Evening falls, and Jesus spends the night on the mountain. Meanwhile, on the lake, a storm is brewing, and the wind is beating against the disciples’ boat. Early in the morning, Jesus comes walking toward the disciples in their boat. They see Jesus, and they think he is a ghost. I wonder … a ghost in general? Or do they think, “You know, for a minute there, I thought that was Jesus. But no one with a body can walk on water … maybe he’s dead and that’s his spirit, his ghost!”

And they freak out. As any rational person would. But immediately Jesus speaks to them and says “Take heart, it is I: do not be afraid.” Now things are getting interesting. Let’s slow down and take this frame by frame.

“Take heart …” in other words, take courage. Take love. Take hold of the intimacy of our relationship, in which you can trust.

Because “it is I …” in other words, this is “I AM …” speaking to you. I mean, who else comes moving over the face of the waters? In saying “it is I” as he moves over the face of the waters, could Jesus send any clearer message? “I am full of the Spirit of the Living God, the one present at creation, who brought life out of the waters of chaos. You don’t need to be afraid.”

Slow motion, now.

Peter says, “Lord, if it is you …”

I think this is one of the most complex and human phrases in the Bible. Peter calls Jesus Lord, an expression of faith and a recognition of authority. And then says “if it is you …” which is all doubt and challenge and conditions. Where is Peter going with this?

“… Command me to come to you on the water.”

Now, here I think we have a problem. Peter is asking Jesus to be a puppeteer, a magician, a power-wielder … all temptations Jesus has already overcome. As for walking on water? Well, let’s review.

Ruach, the rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters … check. That would be God the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 77, “your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” Yep, that would be God the Creator.

Matthew 14 verse 25, Jesus walking toward the disciples over the water? Yes, by the mystery of the incarnation, that’s God, too.

So, really, Peter? You know it’s Jesus. Are you not trusting Jesus to be Jesus? Or is it that you want to be God?

It is tempting. When our lives, or the life of someone we love, are at risk in the waters of chaos, we might think we’d like to have the powers of God. We might think, I could do a better job. We might think, I need to climb out of this boat and get right into the middle of that chaos because then I could fix it. Or at least get the heck out of here.

I’m thinking Jesus could have explained all this to Peter. But he has already told Peter what he needs to know. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” So he doesn’t explain or remind Peter of anything. He just says, “Come.”

And Peter gets out of the boat, which, okay, takes some faith, and starts walking toward Jesus, but when he notices the wind, he gets scared and starts to sink and cries out, “Lord! Save me!”

And immediately – have you noticed this is the third immediately in this story? Immediately Jesus reaches out his hand and catches Peter, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Seems a little harsh … I mean, isn’t this the same Jesus who said something about a mustard seed? A little bit of yeast? There must be more going on with Jesus than we can really see. Remember all those immediatelys. Jesus is feeling some urgency. And I don’t think it’s because of the storm, at least not the one around the boat. After all, John was just murdered. Jesus isn’t going to change his approach or his message just because a similar message got John killed. So, yeah. Maybe it matters to Jesus right now that his disciples have a clue.

Not about walking on water, though … If Jesus needed his followers to walk on water, he would have stood Peter up in the waves and called the other disciples out to join him. But that’s not what happened. What happened? Jesus and Peter climb back into the boat, and the wind ceased. Leaving the sheer silence, in which God can be.

“And those in the boat worshipped Jesus, saying “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Now, this is necessary information. In Matthew’s gospel, and in Paul’s evangelism, it is necessary to recognize the identity of Jesus, his being the Christ. God’s Word has come near you, Paul says. When it is in your heart, and on your lips, you will be saved.

But I think there was something else necessary. What gets performed in the story? Jesus didn’t just pull Peter out of the water. He put him back in the boat.

You know, I got to thinking about this. Peter was already walking on the water before Jesus got there. All the disciples were. If you’re in a boat being tossed in the waves, are you sitting quietly, all prim and proper? No, I think you’re moving and working and trying to keep the boat underway, even against the wind.

Because that’s what you do in a boat. Even when your leader has put you in a boat and sent you off without him, and you are not sure you know what to do without your leader, and the boat is taking some hits, good idea no. 1 is, Stay. In. The. Boat.

Because it is keeping you afloat.

Because your friends are in the boat with you.

Because Jesus put you in it … maybe for a reason. Maybe an urgent reason.

Because the boat is the place where your doubts can drive your faith to take a new form, maybe one that someone needs.

I have a confession to make. Sometimes – okay, many times – when I should have stayed in the boat, I leapt out. And sometimes, when I should have jumped, I stayed put. In both cases, because of doubt. Because of not trusting myself, or someone else, or God.

Of course, trusting doesn’t mean there’s no risk. God may have God’s eye on the sparrow, but the sparrow still falls. Jesus learned that lesson intimately, didn’t he. In the agony of the garden, in the even greater agony of the cross, he cried out to God, feeling forsaken. And is there any worse doubt than feeling forsaken?

Maybe that’s why, in the end, as he is saying goodbye to his disciples, and handing them the commission for the work ahead, this happens, in the final verses of Matthew’s gospel:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Some doubted … and we are just as called. In fact, some of us, as Christian Wiman says, some of us are called to unbelief, so that faith can take new forms. A different boat. A different road. A different drummer. A different song.

Some of us doubt, and our feet are just as beautiful on God’s holy mountain as any other messenger’s feet.

Some of us doubt, and Jesus promises to be with us always, to the end of the age.


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