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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC


How You Will Know If It's Jesus?

Matthew 14:22-33

12th Sunday After Pentecost

August 07, 2005

A few years ago, quite a controversy erupted over whether a school could require students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag--the pledge containing the words, "one nation under God."

Was this an unfair or illegal imposition of religion into a secular, nonreligious America?

In the debate that was generated by this question, I heard more than one commentator defend the phrase "under God" by arguing that "the phrase 'under God' doesn't refer to a Christian God or a Jewish God or an Islamic God. It's a generic god. It's a god that you can make mean whatever you want it to mean. It's a recognition of a higher power--however you want to think of that higher power."

Well, I said, "Hey, why bother?"

In my opinion, what's wrong with much of our religion is that it's generic. We can make it mean whatever we want. For too many of us, "God" denotes a vague, nondescript, completely undemanding and unthreatening, but always at our selfish disposal, "higher power"-- however you want to think of that power. And if that's all God is, well, why bother?

Who is Jesus? What does he look like? If you met him on the street, would you know him?

When we have Holy Communion, we repeat the acclamation, "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again." We believe not only that Christ has come, but that, on some day, in some mysterious way, he shall return.

Here's my question: When Christ returns, would you know him? Would you be able to pass him on the street and say, "Yep, that's Jesus"?

How would you recognize him? Remember, we have no photographs of his physical appearance. There are no portraits. Our beloved "Head of Christ" by pop artist Warner Sallman is only a representation of how one painter thought Jesus might have looked. But who was he? How did he really look?

In our scripture, a group of Jesus' own disciples have difficulty recognizing Jesus. They don't know that the figure who walks along the roaring waves is none other than Jesus. The disciples are in a boat. "The wind was against them," driving them far out to sea. And at early dawn, just before light, they see a terrifying sight. A figure walking toward them on the sea! "It's a ghost!" they exclaim with one voice.

But then the figure speaks to them. "Take heart; it is I, don't be afraid." Presumably, even when Jesus spoke to them, they still weren't sure that it was Jesus. And it was then that Peter said something that, well, I find quite strange.

Peter says, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water."

Do you find that strange? "Lord, if it is you, command me to risk my life, to tempt death, to walk out across 6,000 fathoms of dark, swirling, threatening sea."

Lord, if it is you, command me to stick my hand into the fire. Lord, if it is you, order me to jump off a skyscraper. That is, if it's you.

Don't you find it strange that Peter was uncertain that the voice from the waves was the voice of Jesus until, unless, that voice commanded him, "Come on out, the water's fine"?

And that's how you will know Jesus. Jesus is the one who extravagantly, recklessly, commands you to leave the safety of the boat, to step into the sea, to test the waters, and show what your faith is made of. That's Jesus.

"Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me," goes an old gospel song. Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling you in today's scripture to risk your life, to throw caution to the wind, to step out the boat and defy death.

We began this gospel story, with Jesus calling a group of very ordinary people to drop their fishing nets, to leave their families to venture forth with him on a perilous sea called discipleship.

First, he said to us, "I'm going to teach you to catch people." And then as we go on the journey with him, he said, "Now, I'm going to teach you to carry a cross."

Why then should we find it strange for one of those people now to say, "Lord, if it is you, call me to get out of the boat and to walk on the waves"?

"Jesus calls us o'er the tumult of our life's wild, restless sea, in our joys and in our sorrows, 'Christian come and follow me.'" Isn't that how another old gospel hymn puts it?

But in today's Gospel, Jesus doesn't simply call us over the tumult. Jesus doesn't call us out of the tumult. No, in today's Gospel, Jesus calls Peter into the tumult. Jesus calls Peter out of the boat and on to the waves. And Peter, on the basis of all his past experience with Jesus, calls out, "Lord, if it is you, command me to walk on the waves."

I know a woman who runs a home for young mothers who have nowhere to go to have their children and no husbands and no family to step up and help them. The hours she works are long; the work is hard. There's never enough money. That woman's father is one of the most successful (I mean rich) men in our state. He left her comfortably fixed in life. Now why would she, at middle age, get mixed up in a ministry like this home for unwed mothers? Who would have commanded her to do such a thing?

I think you know.

And the good news is that when Peter ventured forth, even though the going was rough, even though he almost sank and perished, Jesus reached out his hand and he caught him, just at the right moment. He helped Peter back into the boat. He stilled the wind and the waves, and Peter was saved. But if Peter had not ventured forth, had not obeyed the call to walk on the water, then Peter would never have had this great opportunity for recognition of Jesus and rescue by Jesus.

I wonder if too many of us are merely splashing about in the safe shallows and therefore have too few opportunities to test and deepen our faith. The story today implies if you want to be close to Jesus, you have to venture forth out on the sea, you have to prove his promises through trusting his promises, through risk and venture.

After graduation from the university, he gave three years of his life to Teach America. And they put him, honor graduate of a great university, in one of the smallest and, certainly, one of the poorest little towns in the whole state of Mississippi. There he was paid just barely enough to live on. Now what made him do it? What force drove him to this countercultural posture of giving to others rather than taking all he could get for himself?

"Something, it's hard to say just what," he said, "made me think that this was what I ought to do. I felt a sense that I had a responsibility to give back to the community. So much had been given to me. I thought that I had a kind of obligation to reach out to the needs of others, to experience firsthand what it's like to be with the poor. Something just made me want to do this." That's what he told me.

I think it more accurate to say that someone made him want to do this. Someone, one whom he may not even know all that well, one for whom he may not even yet have a name-that one-had beckoned him to step out of the boat, to risk walking on water, to defy the forces of nature, to swim against the stream, to come closer to him, to venture out into the storm.

I think you know who.

The day after the horror of September 11, I saw this couple being interviewed on the news. They were standing on the street, before the wreckage of ground zero, obviously in great grief. Their beloved daughter had perished in the cataclysm. Through tears, they shared their grief with the reporter.

The reporter, stammering, said to them, "Well, I know that you will be able to go to your place of worship this weekend and there maybe you'll find some consolation in your faith…."

And the grieving mother replied, "No, we won't be going to our place of worship this weekend 'cause we're Christians, and we know what Jesus commands about forgiveness, and frankly, we're just not yet ready for that. It'll be some time before we'll want to be with Jesus."

Wow. There's a couple who knows, really knows, what Jesus looks like and what being his followers looks like.

So if in the dead of night, or maybe just before dawn, you should hear a voice, calling your name, a strange voice calling you to rise up, to sail forth, to risk the storm, to defy the waves, there is a good chance that voice could belong to none other than the one who is your very Lord and Savior. Who would dare to call an ordinary, not very spectacularly faithful person like you to such high adventure, to such risk and such struggle?

I think you know who.

Let us pray.

Lord, call us forth. Call us to that life of risk and high adventure, that life called discipleship with you. Amen.


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