Sermons from St
Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, 13th August,
Living by faith is as natural as breathing, yet sometimes it’s like walking on water. Faith is an integral part of life whether we are Christian or not. An atheist goes to bed having faith that there will be a tomorrow; he plants mustard seeds trusting that mustard not apples will result; he conducts a scientific experiment believing that the universe is constant, that the same experiment done yesterday, today and tomorrow in the same conditions will produce the same results. All people live by faith, a settled attitude of trust. Of course, sometimes we are let down: there’s an accident or we discover the person we trusted lies or gossips.
Faith is God made known through Jesus is like the faith we have in ordinary daily happenings, that our kettle will boil, or close friends will recognise us. Faith, a settled attitude of trust in God, is easy - a child like matter, like when a child takes the hand of a parent without question or hesitation because that is the way things are. Such is our relation to God. And faith in God is sometimes difficult: we might stand out from the crowd, we might be beat en in argument and seem to make fools of ourselves, we might be let down, or we might be expected to give time, to do things or go places that are outside the normal run of life. The so – called strong winds that made Peter afraid are the experiences that test our faith. Easy or difficult, faith isn’t an invitation to close our minds, to act as though we have to deny our rational and mental faculties in order to believe. That, I suppose, is why many scholars are prepared to say that the story we heard from Matthew, in today’s Gospel, probably began as the Parable of Walking on Water which, long before it was written down, with much re-telling, gradually evolved until it became about actually walking on water. As in every other aspect of life, we should use our minds about having faith.
A crucial invitation to discipleship comes at the beginning of John’s Gospel when two of those who were to become disciples were following Jesus. Jesus’ invitation to them is not ‘believe’ but ‘come and see.’ The potential disciples had the privilege of being able to see for themselves, to weigh Jesus up as a man, to travel with him and see how he got on with people, to experience his friendship and his anger and observe his courage; in short, to make up their minds about Jesus. They had the freedom to walk away and, according to the Gospels, at various points in his ministry many did.
‘Come and see’: discover for yourselves. Of course that is more than a mental of intellectual process; it involves our emotions and spiritual sensitivity too, but the first followers of Jesus could use their minds and ask, is this man rational? Is this the man for me? Can we trust him with everything we have and are? Even when faith is childlike it can be enriched by our humbly bringing our knowledge and critical faculties to the text of the Bible, to the story of Jesus, to the affirmations of hymns and creeds. Indeed, it’s important that we do use our minds because when we commit ourselves, the way of discipleship is demanding.
To mix the metaphor, we start out on a ‘walking on the water’ road. The disciples soon discovered that having faith in Jesus was like walking on water, or worse, like sinking. Jesus sent them out to share their new-found faith in him and they found it difficult. They tried to heal and they found they couldn’t. They went with him to Gethsemane and found they couldn’t even stay awake. He was taken into custody and they fled.
It’s no easier for his followers now. There’s always going to be some tricky walking on water as we face the tasks and issues of discipleship. We might walk or we might sink.
Many Christians round the world – think of some in Pakistan or some Middle Eastern or Gulf countries – are explicitly or implicitly persecuted. They walk on water every day of their lives. Not long ago a doctor in Afghanistan was under sentence of death because he had converted from following Mohammed to following Christ. For us, the cost might be that of speaking up fo believing in Jesus to a neighbour or colleague, or our fear of being embarrassed or made fun of for doing so. We know the cost difficulty of arguing the case for belief in God made known in Jesus, not just to persuade people that material things in life are not enough, but to counter the propaganda of the people calling themselves the new atheists, who seem unable to understand that Christians need not choose between science and God: Christians choose both. We know the difficulty of assessing how far we can work with, and how far we must oppose, followers of extreme Islamic convictions – some of whom believe that establishing a Muslim state is fundamental to their faith.
The different food crises we hear about on the news raise in a new light the meaning of loving your neighbour. For some, a fear of dying or of death is the greatest test of faith. And still there are people who find Jesus’ command to love difficult when it involves thinking inclusively about black, poor, foreign, mentally ill or disabled people as well as those with a different sexual orientation, ir when it means accepting into positions of authority people who’ve not in the past been asked to be leaders.
All these – and there are many more – are walking-on-the-water tests of faith. They are merely examples of major issues we face as followers of Christ. There can be many circumstances in life when we find ourselves ready to cry out with Peter, ‘Lord save us!’ And many times when we might be fearful of hearing the echo in our consciences of Jesus’ sorrowful ‘O ye of little faith!’ Yet, deep down, faith in God is always a liberating, steadying and joyful experience.
When Jesus was stripped of everything and was naked and gasping for breath on a cross, and his initial ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ had given way to ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ Jesus knew he still had everything: himself, his integrity and his living God. In the midst of whatever tests or frightens or seems to be sinking us, having faith in God is a joyful and transforming experience, for we can hear Jesus saying, in the words of the Gospel, ‘Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.’