Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Call of Faith

Texts:  Roman 10:4-17; Matthew 14:22-33

OUR GOSPEL READING FROM ST. MATTHEW this morning recounts one of the most famous miracles our Lord Jesus ever performed. People who have no idea what Jesus actually preached or taught know about Jesus walking on the water.  Whether they believe it or not, they know that this is reported about Him.  Jesus Christ walked across the surface of the Sea of Galilee.
Do you ever wonder why Jesus did this miracle?  Maybe we just think, "He did it because He's Jesus and He could."  Well, yes, Christ did have the power literally to put nature under His feet.  But our Lord never did miracles simply to make a sensation or, heaven forbid, to pass the time.  He always performed His signs and wonders for a specific purpose: to make people wonder who He is, and to give them-- to give us-- true signs that He is who He says He is.  The miracles of Jesus call people to saving faith in Him as the only-begotten Son of God, so they will put their faith in Him.

    Verse 22 begins, "Immediately, Jesus . . . " Immediately after what?  Jesus has just fed ten to fifteen thousand people (5,000 men, plus women and children) with five little loaves and two puny fishes.  He has just demonstrated divine love for needy humanity.  What would you think if you were a member of the crowd?  St. John tells us about that.  They wanted to make Jesus an earthly king.  Hurray, a continuing source of free food!  Theirs was not saving faith.

    What about the disciples?  The feeding miracle would begin to tell them who and what Jesus was, but the lesson was not yet complete.  After all, they might've thought that He was just a great prophet, and God merely multiplied the loaves and fishes through Him.  After all, the disciples were good Jews, and good Jews just don't go around declaring that a Man they eat and drink and camp out with is Almighty God come in the flesh.  Jesus knows that the call of saving faith needs to be more compelling still.

    So, "Immediately, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side" of the lake.  He knew what He was going to do and what the circumstances had to be for Him to do it.  He allowed them to get a good distance away from shore.  It was still daylight when He sent them away, and by evening, the Greek text says the disciples were already many "stadia" from land.  A stadion is about 300 yards, so "many stadia" would be a mile, two miles, or more, well into the heart of the sea.  Meanwhile, Jesus went up onto a mountainside to pray.  We are not told what He shared with His heavenly Father, but we may certainly believe that He prayed for His disciples and their response to what they were about to see.

    And still the boatful of disciples is out on that water, with the strong wind blowing strongly and the waves slamming the sides.   They couldn't make any headway. They were tired,  frustrated, and fearful.  At last, during the fourth watch of the night (that is, between 3:00 and 6:00 AM), they spy a human figure approaching them on the water.  Their eyes tell them it's Jesus, but their minds cannot believe.  Tell me, do you blame them?  An apparition is gliding towards you, illuminated only by the pale light of the moon and stars, you're exhausted already: wouldn't you conclude that you were seeing a ghost?  The disciples cried out in fear, and so would you and I.

    But in mercy and love Jesus immediately calls out, "Take courage!  It is I!  Don't be afraid."  He calls them to have faith in Him, that it is really He, to have faith that He comes in comfort and help, and not to bring dread and fear.  Even in this extraordinary situation, with Jesus demonstrating His power over nature by walking calmly and smoothly on the surface of the tossing waves, He is still Jesus, the One who saves us.  Even while we are fearing for our lives in the tumult of the sea, He is still the Lover of our souls.  Be not afraid.  Call to Him in faith!

    And Peter, blessed Peter, responds to Jesus' call to faith with a faith-filled call of his own.  He says, "Lord, if it's you, tell me to come to you on the water."

    And Jesus says, "Come."  And Peter comes.  And miracle of miracles, Peter walks on the water, too.

    But something happens.  Peter sinks.  Jesus rescues him and says, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?"

    Faith in Jesus and in Who He is is central to this episode.  It is central to the passage we read from Paul's letter to the Romans.  Everything in life and death depends on the call of faith and our responding in faith to that call.  But what is faith?  Especially, what is Christian faith or trust in Jesus Christ?

    Faith is greatly misunderstood these days.  To hear some people talk, you'd think it was some kind of substance you could measure out by the pound or by the yard.  Or it's something we have to gin up in ourselves by working and straining at it, like developing our muscle strength or lung capacity. Or that faith is a feeling.  And if we're feeling negative or sad about something, that shows that we have no faith about it.

    And certainly there are places in Scripture that seem to support some of these ideas.  We've just heard how in our Matthew passage itself Jesus laments that Peter is of "little faith."  Other places, like in Romans 14, St. Paul speaks of those whose faith is "weak."  Somebody who takes Scripture on hearsay, or gives it the once-over-lightly, it's not surprising they'll get the idea that faith is some sort of commodity or capacity that we have to come up with.  That's true for immature Christians and nonbelievers alike.

    But we are sons and daughters of the kingdom of God (Amen?), and we are called to read our Bible closely, in the light of the Holy Spirit.  And when we do, we see that saving faith is never an end in itself.  Faith is always in something, or rather, in Someone, and it always leads to action.  Saving faith is the attitude of heart and mind that says, "I trust Jesus to keep on being who and what He claims to be, and I'm going to act like I believe in Him, whether I feel like it or not."  That is the faith that calls us out of death, darkness, and sin by the power of Christ crucified and risen again.  That is the faith that continually calls on the crucified Christ to keep on leading us to righteousness, light, and life, now and into eternity.

    So you see what happened to Peter that night on the Sea of Galilee.  He started trusting in his feelings of fear instead of relying on Christ.  He started staring at the terrible effects of the wind instead of keeping his eyes on Jesus, Who'd already proven that He's the Lord of all nature.  Jesus says Peter is of "little faith" because he started out well-- he began by trusting in Christ-- but his response of faith only went so far.  "Why did you doubt, Peter?" Jesus asks.  "I didn't change.  I am still the same.  You began by trusting in Me; go on doing it!"

    This is Jesus' call of faith to us to us as well. He died and rose again from the dead, a far greater miracle than walking on water: Yes, certainly, we can trust Him to raise us.  Matthew reports that Jesus and Peter both climbed into the boat, the wind suddenly died down, and faith found its response in the disciples.  They worshipped Jesus, saying, "Truly, you are the Son of God."

    This is what the miracle of Jesus walking on the sea was for.  It was to make all His disciples understand who Jesus is so we will call out in faith to Him.  And that includes us.  He sounds the call of faith in our ears and expect us to respond with faith that goes on trusting Him, no matter what. 

    But how?  St. Paul helps us in his letter to the Romans, chapter 10.  The whole point of Romans is that we human beings must be rescued from the effects of our sin, or we're doomed.  Without righteousness that equals the righteousness of God, we deserve His judgement.  Typically, we  humans try to overcome this problem by keeping the rules.  Nations and cultures in different times and places have differed about the details of the rules and how strictly you have to keep them, but people pretty well agree that it means being kind and unselfish and not murdering other people and not taking stuff that isn't yours.  But God got hold of the Jews and laid out the rules in writing.  It's called the Law of Moses, and as Moses says (Paul quotes him in verse 5), if you do the commandments, by them you will live.  To live is to prosper on this earth and find salvation in God's kingdom in heaven.

    But who of us can claim we have "done" the law?  Doing the law means keeping all of it!  And there we were, breaking the commandments of God as infants in our cribs!  We were selfish, grabby, angry without cause, wanting our wants and needs to be satisfied and be blown to anyone else.  We destroyed our chances of earning life and salvation before we even could be taught what the law says.  How could we gain the righteousness God requires?

    We can obtain the righteousness that comes by faith.  This righteousness is not up to us, and faith is not up to us.  We don't have to climb up into heaven to bring the holy Jesus down.  We don't have to dig down into the grave to bring Him up from the dead.  No, Jesus in His own power and authority has come down from heaven, He's taken flesh, and become a Man like we are, except without sin.  Jesus, in His own power and authority, has risen up from the grave and ascended to the right hand of God the Father Almighty on high.  He has accomplished all this for us.  He has demonstrated once and for all that He is the Son of God, He is Lord, and He Himself puts the word of this truth into our mouths and into our hearts. 

    By His word He calls us to faith in Him, so that we can gladly proclaim, "Jesus is Lord!"  We were not witnesses of Jesus' miracles and resurrection like the disciples were, but even without that, He Himself makes it possible for us to believe the truth that God has indeed raised Him from the dead.  He calls us to faith in Himself, the Resurrected One.  Not in some false Christ, not some ghost or mirage or figment of our imaginations, but in Him, the God-Man who even now sits in heaven in His glorified physical flesh.

    It is now the same for everyone, Jew or Gentile: "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."  We call on Him (Paul makes it clear) because the Lord has first moved us to believe in Him.  Like Peter getting out of that boat, we trust Jesus for our salvation because the Holy Spirit has already given birth to saving faith in our hearts.  We believe and we go on calling on Him in faith, no matter what storms may arise in our lives and no matter how absent God may seem.  Why?  Because Jesus is Who He is and has called us to faith in Him.

    But, Paul asks, how can anyone call on Jesus if they don't yet believe in Him?  And how can they come to believe in Him if they've never heard of Him?

    Brothers and sisters, this is the great evangelical imperative of the Christian church.  God knows those who are His own.  He has chosen them for salvation before the creation of the world.  But He uses the preaching of the gospel of Christ and Him crucified to call His elect to saving faith.  As verse 17 puts it, "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ."

    Sometimes we think, "Oh, if I could just see one of Jesus' miracles in my own life, then I could really believe."  But do you not see what a great miracle you are living right now?  Jesus found you, a lost, rebellious, hell-bound sinner, without hope and without God in this world.  And someplace, at some time, the word of Christ's death and resurrection was preached to you, and the Holy Spirit opened up your heart to believe the good news.  Faith was born in you and you responded by saying, "Jesus, Lord, I believe."  The Son of God who brought you from darkness to life is capable of bringing you through every storm and struggle of your life.  You know He is trustworthy: Simply walk and live in that trust, no matter what the winds and waves may do.  Your faith is not in yourself or your feelings, it is not even in your faith: Your faith is in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Trust in Him and you will never, ever, be put to shame.  Amen.

No comments: