ver the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a variety of congregations going through the transition process. Some of them were excited about the new things that lay ahead of them. Some of them were trying to work through difficult circumstances and challenges. Some of them longed for their congregations to go back to being like they used to be. As unique as each of these congregations are, they all shared two things in common. They were all ready to be finished with the transition process. And they were all exhausted.
Because every congregation in transition, no matter how short and smooth of a process it is, faces a great deal of work. There are all-parish meetings. Interim clergy must be hired. A search committee gets formed. And if there are any problems that need attention, then the congregation must deal with those too, whether it is figuring out a sustainable budget, addressing conflict or old wounds, or reimagining a future for the congregation. All of that, of course, must happen on top of the week-to-week operation of the church—everything from running the Sunday school to keeping the church facilities clean and presentable.
By the time I meet these congregations, I can see the exhaustion written on their faces. They are so tired from trying to hold it all together. I could see it in their eyes, a readiness to simply snap if I or anyone else were to suggest even one more thing that they need to do, one more thing that they should do.
Oh, my friends, the disciples were tired that day. You could see it in their eyes. It seemed like ages ago that they had first started following Jesus. They remembered fondly those early days, at least they did when they actually had a moment to devote to such things as recollection and nostalgia. Most of the time they didn’t.
The crowds had started gathering early on their journey with Jesus. They had been smaller at first, people interested in listening to Jesus’ teachings alongside the disciples. But they had grown. As word spread of Jesus’ teachings, as word spread of Jesus healings, as word spread of the messiah, the crowds had grown. Wherever they went now, the crowds followed. Where the crowds could not follow, then new ones formed wherever Jesus and the disciples appeared.
Early on, the disciples had been able to devote much of their time to simply speaking with Jesus, simply learning from Jesus. Now, they spent most of their time doing crowd control. They spent most of their time assisting Jesus with healing the broken masses that crowded to him. They spent most of their time feeding the hungry people all around them. Even when they had no food to give, Jesus had them feed the people, miraculously turning a few loaves and fishes into enough for thousands of people. Which, of course, made the crowds grow even larger.
They were at their wits end. All they wanted was to rest. All they wanted was to be freed from their responsibilities. But that did not happen. Every day brought new crowds. The disciples still found moments to sit at Jesus’ feet as he taught, but they found it harder to listen. In their minds, instead of Jesus’ words, were thoughts about where they were going to go next, thoughts about the logistics of finding housing, thoughts of how far their money could stretch and how they were going to raise new money.
Sitting there at Jesus feet, all they could think about was who they were going to get to volunteer for Sunday school. All they could think about was the upcoming fall stewardship drive and how they were going to make their payment to the diocese this month. All they could think about was the upcoming vestry meeting, the one that they knew would be a contentious meeting because difficult things needed to be decided. When would it be enough? When would it be enough?
At last Jesus had sent the crowds home. But still the disciples could not rest, for he told them to get into a boat and row to the other side. Their feet ached, their bodies were sore, they were hungry, and they were exhausted. It was cold and they were cramped together on the boat. The darkness above them was matched by the inky waters below them. It was too much, if anything else were to happen now, surely, they would crack. That is, of course, exactly when the storm began.
And then, Peter had his moment of clarity.
Sitting in the boat, besieged by wind and wave, the disciples were overwhelmed and filled with despair. Suddenly, in the distance, they saw Jesus approaching them, walking across the surface of the waters. Though his fellow disciples were filled with terror at the apparition, when Peter saw Jesus, he suddenly realized that all he really wanted, the only thing he really wanted, was to be with Jesus. He cries out across the waters, “Master, call me to you!”
Many people have wondered at Peter’s motives. Why did he want Jesus to call him out upon the waters? Was it that he wanted to be like Jesus? Was it that he wanted to experience this miracle for himself? Did he think it would be safer standing directly upon the waves rather than riding them out in a boat? After all, what could he accomplish by this request?
Peter was asking to be called out into a dangerous place, an impossible place. He wanted to leave the relative safety of the boat, the relative comfort of familiar and friendly faces to walk alone across the tumultuous sea and the tempestuous wind. Out there on the sea, he would be helpless. Out there on the sea, he would be vulnerable?
And what could he accomplish? There were no mouths to feed out there upon the waves, no crowds to manage. There was no one out there who needed healing or saving. There were certainly no budgets or committee meetings happening out there in the waters. There was nothing that Peter could accomplish by taking that step toward Jesus. That was Peter’s moment of insight and clarity. When Peter set aside the precept of accomplishment, when he put away the need to do something, the need to achieve some goal, he realized that what was truly important, what he truly wanted, was simply to be with Christ.
My friends, I know that I have talked a lot about Christ calling us out into the world. If you are feeling tired and overwhelmed, if you feel stretched too thin and exhausted, that call can sound like one more thing that needs to be done. One more program, one more volunteer commitment, one more thing pulling us from the comfort of our own bed and the refuge of our own daily life.
The Good News of Peter’s sudden clarity is that Christ isn’t calling us out into the world to do one more thing, to accomplish one more thing. Christ is calling us out into the world so that we simply can be with Christ. It is enough simply to be with Christ.
So, Peter stepped out of the boat and onto the water. And Peter stood upon the water. He took a step. Then another. Peter walked amidst the waves and the blowing wind as he sought to be with Jesus. This too is the Good News. When we set aside our need to accomplish and our need to do, when we step out and pursue Christ into the unknown and uncertain places of our world, when we seek to be with Christ in the places of vulnerability and helplessness, then things will happen that are beyond our wildest dreams.
Though Peter wanted to be beside Jesus, though he wanted nothing else in that moment to be with Jesus, even this he could not do. Even in this simple endeavor, Peter was falling short of the mark, literally. To his horror, first his feet, and then his legs, and soon his waist began falling beneath the icy surface. After all, the danger around him was not imaginary nor was it overstated, and he had attempted to do the impossible and walk across the water.
Even this, my friends, is Good News. For as we pursue Christ in the world, the question is not whether we will fall short and fail, it is when we will fall short and fail. And when we are free from the fear that we might fail, then we are freed to seek Christ boldly and unabashedly. When we accept that we will ultimately fall short, then we are willing to take that first step out of the boat and onto the water.
As the waters came up to his neck, as Peter’s head began to slip beneath the waves, a hand reached out and grasped his own, and Jesus pulled him up again. And with Christ holding Peter up, the two of them walked back to the boat together.
And this, my friends, is the heart of the Gospel message this morning. It is the promise that when we seek Christ, Christ will find us. And it is the promise that when we do at last fall short in our endeavor, that is where Christ will meet us and that is where Christ will complete what we cannot.
So, come my friends. The world out there is uncertain and tumultuous, tempestuous forces threaten to overwhelm us, and we will find no refuge to shelter us. But Christ is calling us. Come, let us step out into the storm and see where the waves and wind will go. It is enough to want simply to be with Christ, and Christ is calling us.
Preached by Adam Yates