New Wine – Evening Celebration Matthew 14: 22-36
Good evening – it’s great to be with you and to share in this conference – thank you for the invitation.
I guess many of you will be familiar with this book by John Ortberg – even if you haven’t read it – it came out in 2001 and it has become a bit of a classic. The title is:
“If you want to walk on the water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.”
It’s a great book – one we used many years ago for a series of sermons in my last parish – and I thoroughly recommend it.
The title of course comes from the passage we read from Matthew’s Gospel a few minutes ago – where Peter (as so often) is both the first disciple to speak and the one who messes up – it happens time and again with Peter and it’s why I love him – and I think it’s why Jesus chose him – because he was willing to take risks – he was willing to stick his neck out and have a go – and that was why Jesus could use him.
And this is the theme I want to talk about this evening – “If you want to walk on the water, you’ve got to get out of the boat” – and I am not thinking just about us as individuals, I am thinking about our churches and also the whole New Wine movement.
We were away for a few days in the Lake District last week, partly to help look after our new grand-daughter while our three grown-up children were all helping lead a Christian camp, which goes under the name of “Christian Adventure Holidays”. They have all gone on the camp pretty well every year since they were twelve, and it’s been hugely significant in their lives – not least in that our daughter met her husband through camp.
There are lots of things that are great about that camp – there’s good worship and teaching, good food and lots of fun, but the word “adventure” in the name is not incidental. Through the week the young people on the camp – whether or not they have done any of these things before – will do sailing and kayaking, fell walking, mountain biking and gill scrambling, amongst other things. They will get pushed outside their comfort zone and at one time or another they will probably get a little scared – if not absolutely terrified.
When Hattie first went aged twelve, Toni got a text from her at the end of the day saying “I’ve just been up Helvellyn via Striding Edge” – which Toni rashly then looked up on the internet and nearly died of fright! If you Google “Striding Edge” one of the suggestions that comes up is the cheery entry “Striding Edge deaths 2016”! Now I have to say that the leaders who take the young people on these walks – and on all the activities – are highly qualified – and the ratio of leaders to campers is very high – but the fact is that the activities push those taking part outside their comfort zone – and that is a huge part of why the camp is so successful and goes on drawing people back year after year – and then often sees them coming back as leaders, giving up their holidays to do this as volunteers, who often actually pay towards the cost of being there as leaders!
You see there is something really powerful about learning to take risks – and about being pushed outside our comfort zone. With the right help and support around us – and someone there to catch us when we fall – then we can end up growing enormously as people as a result of these experiences. And that growth isn’t just physical, it’s to do with confidence and courage and it also impacts on us spiritually, especially when it’s combined with good worship and teaching at the end of the day.
Now, this is not an advertisement for Christian Adventure Holidays – though I would thoroughly recommend parents and families to look into something like this for their children for all sorts of reasons! No, what I am talking about here is a spiritual principle that we see in the ministry of Jesus, including in the Bible passage we heard a few minutes ago. If you’ve got it to hand, just turn for a moment to verse 22 at the start of the passage:
“Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.”
Did you notice that? Matthew says Jesus made the disciples get into the boat. In other words, he didn’t give them a choice. He told them to get into the boat and told them to set off to the other side. Now some of the disciples were of course experienced sailors – they were fishermen right there on Lake Galilee – but the rest weren’t, they were landlubbers, townies, softies, including a pen-pushing tax collector! And in fact the fishermen were probably every bit as scared of the sea as the rest of them – because they knew the way storms could blow up on the Sea of Galilee at a moment’s notice – and being out on the Lake in the middle of the night could be far more scary than a trip on a cross channel ferry in a force eight gale – which is probably the nearest most of us will get to something like that!
But the real question I want to ask is why he did it. Why did Jesus make the disciples get into the boat at all? Think back for a moment to the beginning of Chapter 14. John the Baptist has just been beheaded by Herod. His disciples come and tell Jesus what has happened – and, clearly troubled, Jesus wants to go off into the mountains to have some time by himself to meet with his Father alone and to work out what all this means for him and his future.
But he can’t go – because there are crowds of people who need him – and he has compassion for them and he heals their sick. At the end of the day, everyone is exhausted and the disciples come to him and say, “Can’t you tell them to push off and get something to eat?” And what does Jesus say to them? “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
Jesus does this on more than one occasion in the Gospels – or else the Gospel writers all make the same point at one time or another. He puts the onus back on the disciples. He pushes them to take responsibility for the situation and for doing something about it. They clearly aren’t up to the job at present, but this is all part of preparing them for the time
when they will have to take responsibility for things – because Jesus himself will no longer be physically with them to do it for them!
And this is all part of Jesus’ stretching them, pushing them outside their comfort zone and getting them to think outside the box. This is all preparation for ministry in the kingdom, for which he is apprenticing them. This time he does it – he breaks the bread and feeds the crowds – but he is sowing seeds in their minds – both about who he is and about what is possible in the life of the kingdom of God.
So how does that fit with the business about the boat on the lake and the walking on the water? Well, there are two things going on here. The first is that Jesus needs a break. He needs time alone, and especially with his Father. The death of John the Baptist is a crucial watershed for Jesus. It points towards his own death in Jerusalem and it means he must now begin to focus on the journey towards his final destination: this is a Kairos moment and even Jesus needs time to come to terms with what that means and to prepare himself for the next stage of his journey. Sometimes we all need to take time out to be with God by ourselves and to work out what is going on.
The second thing is that Jesus also wants to stretch the disciples. He wants to push them a little bit further, to increase both their trust in him and their courage and willingness to try new things. He could have said to them – “Pop into the next village and find a barn where you can get a bit of sleep, and I’ll see you in the morning.” That would have been logical and perfectly reasonable, while he slipped off to pray. But Jesus doesn’t do that. Instead he sends them out on the Lake, knowing that in all likelihood a storm is going to blow up and leave them struggling against the wind, making little headway and in danger of being swamped by the waves. Jesus knows what he is doing – just like experienced instructors on an expedition in the Lake District hills.
On another occasion you will remember, Jesus is lying fast asleep in the back of the boat when the storm blows up. Then the disciples have to shake him awake in order to get him to do something. And there he calms the wind and the waves with a word – and everything is suddenly still – and the disciples ask themselves – “Who is this man, that the wind and the waves obey him?”
Here on the other hand, Jesus is not with them in the boat. He is alone on the mountainside and then he is walking towards them on the lake sometime between three and six in the morning (the fourth watch of the night) just as it is getting light. The disciples have been on the water for at least nine or ten hours already – they are several miles off shore but going nowhere fast because of the wind and the wave. They are at the very least exhausted and fed up – and probably wondering if they are ever going to make it to shore – when one of them sees a figure coming towards them across the waves.
We don’t know who spotted it first, but my money would be on John because he was the youngest and would have had the sharpest eyes – but in a moment they are all terrified, thinking it’s a ghost. Well, that sounds fair enough to me – what else were they to think?
Except of course it wasn’t. It was Jesus, yet again stretching their understanding and enlarging their perception. As we said earlier, it was Peter who spoke up first (as usual): “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” And so Jesus calls him and Peter steps out of the boat and begins to walk across the waves. He’s fine for a moment, but then he feels the wind (which is still blowing a hoolie!) and he becomes fearful, begins to doubt, and starts to sink. He shouts, “Lord, save me!” and immediately Jesus reaches out and catches him – and the next thing, they’re in the boat and the wind dies down. And then the disciples worship him – recognising in a new way and at a new depth that Jesus truly is the Son of God.
All this is about preparation. It’s about getting the disciples ready for what lies ahead and for what they will be called to do once Jesus is no longer with them. And even at that moment, the work carried on. As they land at Gennesaret, Jesus is soon recognised and the work of healing and teaching carries on – because the work of the kingdom still carries on. And that’s the way it will always be, until Jesus returns and his kingdom comes fully on earth as it is in heaven.
So what does all this mean for you and me and for the Church in today’s world?
Well, I think the first thing we need to realise is that Jesus is always working with us, as he was with the disciples, training us on the job and preparing us for the work he wants us to do, just as he did with them. Nothing that happens to us is meant to be wasted – which is not the same as saying that God sends everything to us: sometimes stuff just happens. We need to be aware of what is happening to us, to the Church and to the world around us – and we need to recognise that God can use what is happening both to shape who we are and to equip us to respond as faithful followers of Jesus and citizens of the Kingdom, rather than as fearful children of this world.
Let me illustrate what I mean. How many of you think we are living in a pretty scary world at the moment? There are all sorts of things going on that might well leave us feeling anxious and scared. There is Donald Trump and what might happen between the USA and North Korea. There is all the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the future of our relationship with the EU. There is the state of the world economy and the possibility that a major shift away from the West is underway which could undermine our future prosperity and that of our children and grandchildren. And that’s not even to mention Islamist extremism, climate change, super-bugs and the huge cost of health and social care for an ageing population! It’s enough to make you hide away in a darkened room and hope it’s all just a bad dream!
And then of course there is the state of the Church – and I don’t just mean the Church of England! Let’s be honest, the congregations in most of the churches in this country are ageing and diminishing in number. In many of them, children, young people and families are as rare as hens’ teeth – and anyway they would not be seen dead in church on a Sunday morning! Hopefully that is not true for many of the churches represented here – but with
the best will in the world, the overall numerical strength of evangelical and charismatic churches is still a drop in the ocean compared to the population of this country as a whole.
And don’t get me started on the way in which so much time is taken up by disputes about issues of sexuality of one sort or another. The Church of England – along with several other denominations – is in danger of tearing itself apart, as a huge amount of energy is expended on crew members fighting each other rather than trying to sail the ship safely to shore!
All in all, right now it looks like a pretty scary world in which we live. It can feel like we are in little boat tossed on the ways – and we are not sure if we will make it back to land or not. And fear has played a big part in the life of our world over the last year or two; fear and a desire to get some kind of control over what is going on.
Now I am well aware that there will be all sort of views in this room about the whole business of Brexit – as well as about other events around the world, including what’s been happening lately with Donald Trump in the USA. In what I am saying I am trying not to take sides in this, but wherever you are coming from, I think it’s pretty clear that a combination of anxiety about what has been happening in our world and a desire to assert some kind of control over our destiny has played a part in both the EU referendum and the recent election results in the UK and the USA.
Since the Great Crash in 2008, there is little doubt that many people across the Western world have felt that the tide is going against them and that the future will not be as good as the past. Those in government do not seem to have been able to turn things round in the way we have grown to expect, and many people have lost what little trust they did have in the power and ability of politicians to deliver what we hope for. And increasingly we also feel that they neither feel nor understand what ordinary people are thinking or going through: trust has broken down in much of our politics and national life.
For that reason – and much of it is completely understandable – people have rejected the advice of those in power and have opted for alternatives, whether that is leaving the EU or voting for Donald Trump in the USA and to some extent also for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party and in the General Election. These choices represent a desire for change, a desire to be heard, and a longing for some kind of hope in the face of despair.
And it is into that context, at whatever point on the political spectrum we find ourselves, that we as Christians have a duty and an opportunity to speak the good news of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ. Can you see the connection? It feels at times as though we are in a small and fragile boat bobbing around on a storm-swept sea. It’s been going on for a long time and we are not sure if we will ever make safely back to dry land in order to be able to carry on with life as it was before. We are tired and we are scared – and we are looking for someone or something that will rescue us.
But that someone or something will not be Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May; it won’t be Donald Trump and it won’t be Brexit either (any more than remaining in the EU would have saved us either by the way). Nations that have been in a mess have trusted themselves to strong leaders before – as Germany did in the 1930s – but political messiahs have feet of clay and also have a record of leaving devastation in their wake.
No, the only one who can still the storm and who can really save us is of course Jesus Christ himself. He is the true hope of the nations and it is to him we must look for the answer to our deepest needs as human beings and as human societies. Except of course he is not here in person to do these things for us. He has returned to be with his Father – and now he has passed on the task to us his followers and to the community we call the Church, commissioned by him and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
This is the challenge facing us – to bring the hope of Jesus Christ to the people among whomweliveandtothecommunitiesandnationsinwhichwelive. Weliveinscarytimes – it feels like we are being tossed to and fro in the face of all sorts of storms – but through all this Jesus is stretching us and pushing us outside our comfort zone, preparing us for the work he has given us to do. And that work is now, right here today in our families and churches and places of work and in the towns and villages and nations in which we live.
Yes, we are storm-tossed and a little fearful, but Jesus is coming to us across the waves – and he is calling us to step out of the boat and to walk towards him. He is calling us to take risks for him, to try new things for him – above all to get out of the safety of our own little boat in order to respond to his call for the sake of his kingdom.
So what might that look like for you and me and for the family of New Wine?
Well, some of us of course may not recognise ourselves in this picture. We are doing alright, life is pretty good and we don’t feel particularly storm-tossed at all. Our church is doing OK, numbers are good, we have a good mix of families and young people and
children and we are growing quite nicely, thank you very much. I think that may well not be true for many of us here in the North, because churches here are generally smaller and really large churches are pretty few and far between – but it may apply to some of us here today, and I suspect it may apply to churches in other parts of the country where shortages of people and finance just don’t seem to be the same as they for many in our part of the world.
If we are serious about the Church being the Body of Christ and that when one suffers, all suffer, then there are surely important issues for us to consider – whether in New Wine or intheChurchofEngland,orinwhateverotherchurchorgroupingwefindourselves. We need to recognise that we are part of something bigger – part of the wider Body of Christ – and that we have a responsibility to look beyond our own situation and to the needs of the Church outside our community and outside our comfort zone. In what way is Jesus maybe calling us to get out of the boat for the sake of his kingdom? Or are we a little too comfortable – or complacent – to be willing to hear what he is saying?
And at the same time, I am profoundly aware of many churches which are small and struggling and are feeling distinctly wind-tossed. They are trying to keep the roof on with a diminishing number of elderly people; they say they would love to welcome new and especially younger people, but they have no idea how to go about it, and anyway would be very reluctant to change the way they do things, because they have never known anything else.
Part of my job as a bishop is to help churches like that to consider the possibility of embracing change and to help them find the tools to give new things a try. But they simply can’t do it on their own; they need help; they need new blood and help with leadership – and some great things have happened with church plants and church grafts from larger churches in some areas – often supported by people connected with the New Wine family.
But there is still a long way to go and a lot more to be done. We need Christians – including clergy and other leaders – who are willing to take the risk of stepping outside their own comfort zone and of getting stuck into churches and communities that desperately need help to turn things around and bring the boat to shore.
And when they do that, amazing things can happen. Many of you will have heard the story of what God has been doing at the Saturday Gathering in Halifax – which Linda Maslen is involved in leading. I get to go there every few months to share in the celebration, often to baptise and confirm another group of people whom most of our churches (including New Wine churches) would never get near. And in the same town, just down the road at St Augustine’s, there is great work going on among refugees and asylum seekers – as there is in many parts of the North of England. I went there a few weeks ago to confirm another sixteen Iraqis and Iranians. New Wine has invested generously in the work in Halifax and I’m trying to find ways to redirect resources and funding to make sure these ministries can carry on flourishing in the long term. This is all about people stepping out of the boat because they have responded to Jesus’ invitation to take risks.
And this isn’t and mustn’t be only about people coming into the Church. The kingdom of God is not just about the Church growing– though of course that matters because this is where people discover more of the love of God and are prepared for Christ’s service. The kingdom of God is about yeast leavening the lump and about people’s lives and communities being transformed by the love of God and by the hope and meaning that come through Jesus Christ.
So we need to grow Christians and churches that are fired with a vision of what Jesus has done and is doing for the whole of creation – with a vision for justice and for healing and for an end to poverty and a rediscovery of dignity. People who are prepared to stand up and speak out prophetically about the kind of world God wants to bring into being – especially at a time when fear and hate between different races and faiths is being stoked across Europe and the United States and beyond. And in a time of austerity, we need Christians who are willing to be generous even what that is hard, and churches who are willing to fill
some of the spaces vacated in the public sphere by government and local authorities as a result of cuts in funding and services. There are opportunities and challenges here to get involved in the public square in a way that has not happened since the creation of the Welfare State after the Second World War.
We also need Christians and churches who are fired with a vision of the way that marriage as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman is God’s primary way of ensuring human flourishing across and down the generations – but maybe just maybe we also need Christians and churches who are willing to risk getting out of the boat and reaching out to those whose experience and reading of the Scriptures has led them to a different conclusion about God’s call on their lives and how they express that call in their relationships with those with whom they share their lives. We may not agree with one another – we may always disagree profoundly with one another – but we also need to be willing to take the risk of getting to know each other and of embracing each other as brothers and sisters within the family of Jesus Christ. We need to show the world a better way of handling our differences that demonstrates how the love of Christ can shape a new way of living that offers hope to a divided and hurting world.
I realise that some of this is very challenging for many if not all of us. I confess to feeling more than a little storm-tossed at times – and the challenge of trying to lead the Church forward in mission and to hold it together in both truth and love is huge. But what drives me above all is the love of Christ and the hope he alone can bring to the people of this nation and of the world; and it is that love and hope which he wants us to take out from our churches – out from the safety of our own little boats – to every single person in this land.
In the midst of the fear and anxiety that so many people feel, in the face of the desire to regain some kind of control over our storm-tossed lives, the one thing that can bring people hopeandpeaceistodiscoverJesusandhispurposeforourlivesandforourworld. We need to kindle the flame of the hope in our hearts, in our churches and in our communities. The sea is stormy, but hope and not fear should shape the way we think and the way we act. God has a purpose and a plan – to draw us into relationship with him through Jesus Christ and to equip us to serve him in the world, bringing the transforming love and power of Jesus to every human being and every nation on this earth.
God is calling us to walk on water – to take risks and do amazing new things for him – but in order for that to happen, we need to be ready to get out of the boat. What would that mean for you – in your own life, in your church and in your community? And are you ready to respond to his call? Let’s be still for a moment, and then let’s pray.
Jonathan Gibbs 20th August 2017