A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sermon (March 25) - "Unbinding Your Heart: Faith Focus"

Have you ever seen someone you know very well but not recognize him or her? A couple shared about a surprise they had while traveling in Europe. Walter and Jean settled in at their quaint table at a restaurant in Paris, France. Suddenly, a man was waving frantically to them from across the room. He got up and headed towards them.

“Walter! Jean! Good to see you!”  Walter and Jean could’ve sworn they’d never seen this man before in their lives! They looked at each other for help but neither one recognized him. Then it occurred to them. He was Walter’s cousin! They saw him at least twice a year. And here he was, traveling in Paris at the exact same time they were, eating at the same place! They just weren’t expecting to see him in Paris. So it took a while for them to register that it was him! “Well, hello, cousin,”  Walter said. “What are you doing in Paris?”

The disciples have that kind of experience with Jesus. Jesus sent them off in a boat while he took some time to pray. He planned to meet them on the other side of the lake. “Go on ahead,” he might’ve said. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

Everything seemed fine and dandy. But a windy storm came up on the water. The disciples’ boat was taking some pretty good hits from the waves. They were afraid. So Jesus walked out on the water to reassure them. When the disciples saw Jesus coming, they thought it was someone else. Maybe even a ghost! They didn’t recognize him. No one expects to see their cousin from Peoria in Paris. They weren’t expecting Jesus!

St. Matthew included this story in his gospel because he knew there would be times when the church felt like Jesus was far away. Probably his little congregation already had struggled with tough waves and blustery winds.

Every congregation does. Growing pains, conflict, and just plain distractions can batter this ship of ours. If we’re really on a journey with Jesus, it’s going to be exciting, and a little bumpy from time to time. We even can count on some moments of seasickness! Anything really good, really worth doing, is difficult occasionally.

What St. Matthew wants us to know, what Jesus wants us to know, is that we are never out on the high seas alone. Matthew really drives this point home. It’s his gospel that ends with the Great Commission. The last verse he leaves us with is Jesus saying, “I am with you always, to the very end.” We are completely assured of Jesus’ presence with us. Always.

The question is not, “Is Jesus with us?” The question is, “Are we expecting him?” If you’ve heard this story before, you know that usually the point you hear with the story is that Peter failed at walking on the water. We assume that the moral of the story is “Have faith! Get out of the boat!” Something like that. But I don’t think Jesus intended for Peter to walk on the water. The whole thing was Peter’s idea, not Jesus’.

Look at the thirty-first verse. When Peter begins to falter, Jesus says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus is not asking Peter why he doubted his own ability to walk on water. Jesus is not saying, “Why didn’t you believe in yourself, that you could do this?” Jesus is asking Peter, and all the disciples: “Why did you doubt it was me? Why didn’t you know I would be coming to rescue you on the water? Weren’t you expecting me?”

Friends, I need to ask you a crucial question. Are we expecting Jesus to show up in this church? Do we believe he knows about us, cares about us, and is here with us? Do we believe he can get this ship through any storm that may come? If we are going to continue this journey in God’s Spirit, we will have to find ways to keep expecting Jesus to show up. Unbinding your Heart gives us the two things that must be in place if we are to effectively share faith with others.

The first thing that needs to be in place is for our own spiritual lives to be well-tended. We must be alert to God’s presence in our own lives every day. And the second thing is that our eyes must be open and receptive to what God would have us do next. As individuals and as a congregation, we must expect God to use us in unexpected ways. If we want to do effective ministry, we have to expect Jesus to show up.

Jesus has shown up all over the place in this 6-week Unbinding Your Heart Lenten journey. Where have you seen him? Let’s hear about where some of you saw Jesus.  

[Two Testimonies – Deb Smith & Bob Lambert]

Jesus is with us always! The question is not, “Is Jesus with us?” The question is, “Are we expecting him?” How can we keep our eyes open to seeing Jesus? The tiniest change, consistently implemented over time, can make a big difference in our ability to expect Jesus. If we can get in the habit of looking for him, we will see him. One small change can refocus our eyes to recognize Christ with us.

A small church declined nearly to the point of closing their doors. They had been through several pastors in just a few years’ time. Finally a layman in the congregation offered to preach for a while since they were without a minister. He mostly just told stories from the Bible. One Sunday he realized that they no longer made announcements inviting people to be baptized or to join the church.

So this lay preacher decided to begin making these announcements again. People thought it was really silly. “It’s just us!” they said. “We’ve been members all our lives.” But he just said, “You never know what God might do.”

One Sunday, a young couple started visiting the small church. They came back the next Sunday. And the next. And the fourth Sunday they came to church, and they heard the pastor announce about joining the church. After worship, this couple said they had never been baptized and they would like to be.  When the church members heard this, they were thrilled, but also horrified. The baptistery area was being used for storage!

It hadn’t been cleaned out in years. But they didn’t want to put the young couple off longer than necessary. So they scheduled the baptism for the following Sunday. And they were busy little bees for the next few days, moving boxes, cleaning, painting, and fixing it up. That baptistery was finally used again for those two new Christians that Sunday morning. And there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Jesus was there too.

Seeing Jesus is not a casual happenstance. It’s a cultivated habit! A little change, consistently implemented, can keep our eyes expecting Jesus.

A moment in a worship service to invite someone to join the church. Jesus is with us always!

A prayer, prayed before every meeting. Jesus is with us always!

A candle lit to remind us of Jesus’ presence. Jesus is with us always!

A time each day to wait silently for God’s direction. Jesus is with us always!

A little change, consistently implemented, can keep our eyes and hearts expecting Jesus. Seeing Jesus is not a happenstance. It’s a habit.

I have seen a painting depicting this story of Peter walking on the water. You've probably seen it, too, or a similar one. It's a picture of Jesus, standing firmly on the water, his face calm and serene. Meanwhile, Peter's face is full of fear as he sinks below the waters, feeling the waves lapping up against him. Jesus' hand is extended to Peter, and Peter is about to take his hand. What a reassuring image! But there is so much more here.

Consider what happened after Jesus pulled Peter up from the water. Can you see it in your mind’s eye? Peter's face is full of relief. Jesus is smiling and has his hand in the middle of Peter's back. They're very close to the boat. If you look closely, you can see that Jesus is pointing Peter back to the boat. He and Peter are about to get in the boat together. All of the disciples are gathered around. Thomas has his hand out to help Jesus over the side. Some of the disciples are already kneeling in worship. Others are
shouting, “It is the Lord!”

Can you see the picture? Open your eyes, friends. And see Jesus here. Jesus Christ is in this church boat with us. Jesus is with us always. When Jesus rides with us, he takes us to places we’ve never been before. He took the disciples to a new place for their ministry. In the boat together, they were back off into the wild blue yonder.

They were sailing free again, to another place and more people who didn’t yet know God’s love. When they arrived, people in need of Jesus' touch stood in line just to get near him. Many were healed. And the disciples were along for the ride.

He’ll be taking us some place new too. We’re sailing with him to new places and new people who need him. Are you up for the ride? Let us trust in him with all of our hearts, and not forget his teachings. Let’s ride the waves with him at the helm of this ship. Let's see where he leads us next!

Based on the resource, "Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism," Chalice Press, 2008

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