Lessons about discipleship
Matthew 14: 22-32.
Over the last month or so we have been looking at Jesus teaching the disciples about the Kingdom of God. We looked at Chapter 13 of Matthew which is one mega lecture on the Kingdom, seven different parables explaining how the Kingdom works. Then we looked at what came next, the feeding of the five thousand, where Jesus shows in practical ways how the kingdom works in real life.
Today we move forward and look at how the Kingdom seems to be experienced by the disciples, by us.
Because it is one thing experiencing the Kingdom of God, God’s rule in our life, when we are feeling it for the first time. Then we can see it as something that starts small but had great influence, then we can see it as something worth giving up everything else for.
But what happens over time? How do we experience the kingdom of God in the long run?
And I think this incident illustrates how many of us feel about God’s work in our life.
So I have called this sermon, ‘Lessons about discipleship.’
So let’s go back to the passage.
And first of all I want to look at this incident the way we are tempted to look at it.
Jesus has fed the five thousand; Jesus has sorted all that out. The disciples were there, but they never sorted the problem out. Jesus said that they could sort the problem out but they couldn't see how...so Jesus sorted it out. The disciples handed out the bread and fish, the disciples collected in the left-overs. But it wasn't the disciples that did the really hard work. The disciples didn’t solve the problem. And their reward? Jesus sends the disciples out on their own on a boat and Jesus himself disperses the crowd.
Does that seem like a punishment to you?
To me it feels like the disciples are sent off to think seriously about what they have done, or rather not done.
My wife is a childminder and she has a naughty step. You misbehave and you sit on the naughty step; to work out what you have done wrong and you're not allowed to leave that step until you have worked it out.
This boat seems to me like a naughty step.
And I think a lot of the time that is how we feel.
I remember a seminar where I heard a minister of a huge church say that he felt his job was unfair. If things in the church were successful then it wasn't because of his hard work, it was because of the grace of God. It was God who was blessing them. But if things were going badly it was always his fault.
I think sometimes that is the way we interpret what happens in our life, especially when we are active in the church or in church organisations. We feel like the disciples here, that we have done a lot of hard work, it might not have been perfect but it was the best we could do, and our reward seems to be that Jesus sends us off on our own. We feel isolated.
And then to make things worse often when we feel on our own a storm hits us.
And where is Jesus?
I have a lot of time for volunteers in this church.
They give up a lot of their time to help others. And often they feel that they have to do all that stuff, and when they are distracted by the God-stuff, then they get hit by some crisis that they never saw coming, like a family member suddenly taking ill. And where is God in all of this?
And in the midst of all that we can get quite angry. The only reason the disciples are there in the first place is because Jesus put them there. The passage is very clear about that. Jesus ‘made’ the disciples get into the boat.
Did Jesus know this storm was going to happen?
Did Jesus deliberately put the disciples in danger?
Is that what Jesus does to us?
Because sometimes that's how it feels. It feels like he has forced us to do stuff and then while we are doing his stuff our world collapses and God is nowhere to be seen.
And then there is the next bit which is even more confusing. Jesus comes to them, they don't recognise him and when Peter asks to go out on the water he starts and then fails to walk to Jesus. Jesus saves him but tells them that they have little faith. Is it Peter who has little faith because he couldn't continue to walk on the water? Was it the other disciples who had little faith because they never got out the boat? Either way, it seems like the disciples have failed again. It doesn't matter what they do, they fail.
They stay in the boat, they fail, the walk on the water, they don't do it good enough, they fail.
It is very easy to read this passage as a lesson in discipleship and ask ourselves, ‘What is the point? We will never be good enough.’
I think part of the problem is our perception.
We look at the Kingdom of God as like the rest of life.
And the rest of life is a test.
And in the test the consequences of how we do gets worse and worse if we fail.
We start to go to school and we get spelling tests. And these are so important. If we don't pas then we don’t move onto the next stage.
We get older and we sit exams and we either pass or fail. If we fail we don’t get the university course that we want.
We go for interviews and we either pass or fail, we either get the job or we don't.
We choose partners that we want to spend our life with. That is like a mega test. We fail that one then we can be stuck in a relationship that destroys us or makes us miserable for years. We can get a divorce but that can take years to finalise and we can end up older and poorer and miserable.
We kind of look at life as test, a test where we can pass or fail. And we are so desperate to pass because the consequences of failure are so great.
And because the rest of life is like that we kind of look at our relationship with God like that. It is a pass or fail thing. And if we fail we are talking eternity in hell, you can’t get more serious than that.
It is understandable that we then look at the Bible in that light, and we look at this passage in that light.
And the disciples have failed at the start, put on the naughty boat and sent off alone, and at the end they have also failed, they are the ones with little faith.
Let’s just flip all that over.
Let’s presume that our perceptions are all wrong.
I have been reading a book by Richard Rohr (From wild man to wise man). And his belief is that God does not love us because we are good, we can never be good enough to pass the good behaviour test. We cannot control or manipulate or force God to love us because of any goodness that we are or do. And yet we still try, we try to think, ‘if I am a decent person then God has to love me’. If this is a pas/fail thing then if I can get above others in the goodness stakes then I have a better chance of God loving me.
And it doesn't work that way.
God DOES NOT love us because we are good, God loves us because HE is good.
And that love is always available, always free, always there.
So if we look at this passage again...from a God that cares, a God that loves.
Then a caring Jesus has seen that the disciples are tired, so he sends them away on the boat to rest. Jesus looks after the crowd because in the end Jesus is letting the disciples know that the final responsibility for others is his, not theirs. They can help in his work, but the burden of his work, his world is not theirs, it is his.
A lesson we all need to remember at times as disciples.
The work we do is not our own, it is God’s, and God has the final responsibility, not us. And at times we need to rest, God might take us out the game for a while because he cares about us and wants us to rest. It isn't a punishment, it is a sign of love.
And when the storm hits its highest, who is there in the middle of the storm? It is Christ.
When Peter shouts out for help, who is there? It is Christ.
When the storm is calmed who is there? It is Christ.
Christ never deserts us. We may panic at times and in the panic fail to see Christ with us. But that is not because Christ has deserted us, it is because we are panicking. If we cry out we will feel his hand reach out to us.
I have told you this before but in eastern stories often the point of the story isn't at the end the way it is in western stories. In our stories we learn through time that the conclusion of the story is at the end, the twist in the tale is at the end, the meaning is at the end, it is at the end that the story makes sense.
But in eastern stories the point of the story is often right in the middle. And things flow into the middle then flow out of the middle.
And a clue to that is when the story starts and finishes at the same place. If you read a Bible story that starts and finishes at the same place then often the point of the story is in the middle.
For instance the way this incident is told it starts with all the disciples in the boat, and it finishes with all the disciples in the boat. There are ten verses between the beginning of the incident and the end, so roughly five verses in would be the point of the story.
And five verses in we have this verse.
‘Jesus spoke to them at once. ‘Courage!’ he said, ’It is I. Do not be afraid.’
The whole story revolves round this fact. No matter what the disciples face, no matter what we face. Jesus is with us.
‘Courage!’ he said, ’It is I. Do not be afraid.’
Life is not about passing or failing, life is about seeing God is always with us.
One last thing. What Jesus says to them, ‘How little faith you have! Why did you doubt?’
That wasn’t a fail on the part of the disciples. That was their new starting point.
The truth about discipleship is that we always forget we are a work in progress.
As people who maybe have lived a life of faith for many decades, we might have grown better than we were before; we might have more patience, have more compassion, have more tolerance than we used to have, but we are not the finished product. We will still make mistakes, we will still misunderstand situations, we will still fall flat on our face every now and again. But that is all right. Because we are still a work in progress.
Our faith isn’t something that comes complete, our faith is a journey which we travel on throughout our life.
And in this journey we will always be learning, always be growing, always be facing new challenges. The choice we have is not the journey, the choice is who we journey with. Do we journey alone, or do we journey with Christ and with the community of faith?
Look at this incident.
If this was a pass/fail thing that Jesus was doing he would have got in the boat and said, ‘Right you failed the five thousand feeding test. You failed the faith test. Peter you failed the walking on the water test. The rest of you automatically failed that test because you never even went on the water. So once the boat reaches the shore you are all out and I get some new disciples.’
But that never happens, they get out the boat and continue on in the ministry, watching what Jesus does and how he does it.
The truth is, discipleship is not about what we do, discipleship is about what we become. And ‘becoming’ is a slow process.
So the lessons to learn from this passage.
We help God in his work, but it is not our responsibility, so don't take on the burdens of the world.
Our life is not a pass/fail thing. Our life is a loved-by-God thing. And God is there for us, always has been, always will be.
And it is not about what we do, it is about what we are becoming, and ‘becoming’ is a work in progress thing. Which means we are always learning, always growing.