Monday, June 18, 2018

Jumping out of the boat

Maybe it's because I've been spending a fair amount of time in boats lately. Or maybe it's because I've been working hard to bring some of the ecclesiological insights of the last year and a half to bear on the church I'm currently working in. Or maybe it's the Holy Spirit creating that sensitivity that only he can bring.

Whatever the reason, I was so struck by Oswald Chambers' reflections this morning on the story of Peter getting out of the boat and walking on water from Matthew's gospel. If you're a little rusty about the story (or maybe haven't ever paid attention to it) take a minute and read it from Matthew 14:22-33.

Please understand, a lot of my percolating on this story today has been wrapped around the metaphor that was so common in the early church, that a boat or a ship was so often used as a symbol of the church. Picking one thread out of a whole day's ruminations, let's play with that symbolism for a bit. There are a few provocative points if we grant the metaphor:

  1. Jesus is outside the boat precisely because he has been seeking God. 
  2. Jesus, coming from outside the boat through the storm, declares himself to be God -- that is the implication of his words, the same words from Exodus (in the Greek version of Exodus, anyway) that God speaks to name himself when talking to Moses at the burning bush. Jesus in effect says, "Take heart -- I am. Do not be afraid." Because that sounds awkward in English, most translations make it "It is I." That's linguistically okay, but we miss the Exodus associations. 
  3. Peter takes the initiative in what comes next. This is huge. Jesus honors Peter's initiative. This is also huge. 
  4. Peter's desire is to come to Jesus. To do so, he has to leave the boat. In Jewish understanding, large bodies of water represented chaos. Think of Jonah. So Peter is in effect saying (within our metaphor), "Lord, call me out of the safety of the church and into chaos so that I might come to you."
  5. Jesus, responding to Peter's request, tells Peter to come to him, outside the boat. 
  6. Peter, contrary to all common sense (this is where Chambers was so good today) steps out of the boat in radical obedience to Jesus. 
  7. Many people have made the point that it is when Peter's attention shifts from Jesus to the waves, but in fact the text says that Peter "saw the wind" (ESV) -- an interesting statement! Wind, in both the Hebrew and Greek languages, is identical to the word "breath" or "spirit." Obviously the literal sense here is that Peter observed the storm -- but play with the metaphors. What might it mean, metaphorically, that Peter sees the Spirit at work outside the church? Is it possible that churches are sometimes a refuge from the chaos of the Spirit's activity, and we get afraid and huddle together someplace where we can protect ourselves from the storm? And jumping ahead a bit, notice that when they get back into the boat the wind (spirit?) stops. What's with that? Is there more being said here than just Jesus calming a physical storm?
  8. It is the risk of being overwhelmed by the storm -- the wind and the water -- that prompts Peter to call out, "Lord, save me!" Maybe there's something about Peter being at risk out in the chaotic storm that puts him right where Jesus wants him. 
  9. Jesus never criticizes Peter for getting out of the boat, for sinking, for crying out. Rather, Jesus seems to focus on the fact that Peter's focus shifted to the storm, and his trust faltered. The Greek word for faith has gotten watered down in English to mean something like "cognitive assent" -- in Greek it has a lot more oomph, and has a lot in common with our words "trust" and "loyalty." 
  10. It is the sign that happens outside the boat -- outside the church, in our metaphor -- that causes those inside the church to worship Jesus and proclaim his identity. 

The above thoughts are especially pertinent to me these days because I've taken a lot of flak over the years -- especially in the last couple years -- for decisions I've made that have put me decidedly out of the good graces of the church, at least in some circles. (I am currently deeply involved in a church that is both biblical and gracious, focused strongly on Jesus and welcoming to broken people. So I'm not outside The Church, just certain expressions of it.) Trouble is, all along the way I was seeking God passionately, yearning to be obedient to him. Not that I followed his guidance perfectly by any means, and not that I haven't made mistakes. Huge ones.

But I believe all along the way, I heard God's Spirit speaking. I still trust God for the promises he spoke to me in those days. And some of the directions I chose to go put me in tension with those who have positioned themselves as the guardians of public church structures, or public morality. It stirred me fiercely this morning to read Chambers:
Never begin to say — “Well, I wonder if He did speak?” Be reckless immediately, fling it all out on Him. You do not know when His voice will come, but whenever the realisation of God comes in the faintest way imaginable, recklessly abandon.
The church in its public expressions will rarely if ever be comfortable with those who are "reckless immediately" in response to the call of God. Those who recklessly abandon in response to God's call make those who oversee pension plans and committee structures uncomfortable.

I believe with all my heart that God is astir in the world, that he is up to great things all around. When church structures become the "old wineskins" Jesus talked about that cannot hold the new wine he brings, he will find other ways to get his people to jump out in obedience -- even if it means (as it so often does) jumping out of the boat into a storm. Jesus is there already, and he is faithful to take your hand in the chaos. I've experienced that, too.

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