August 13, 2017 – The 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
How long has it been since a preacher asked you where you would wake up if you died tonight? For me, it’s been a while—not long enough, but a good while. What if you don’t know the answer to that question? What if you’re not sure? Does that mean that you’re definitely going to hell? How sure do you have to be in order to get into heaven? How much faith does it take? And do you have to believe everything with that much confidence or just the really big things? For example, if you’re 100% committed to the resurrection but only 85% committed to the virgin birth, can you still squeak by? And what about the even less important things like whether there really were 5,000 men plus woman and children who were fed by Jesus with five loaves and two fish that day? And who gets to decide which things are the important ones and which ones are not so important? And is there any way for us to know before it’s too late?
I think it’s funny—as in actually chuckle-worthy—that preachers who are obsessed about heaven and hell seem to talk a lot about faith but not so much about grace. In fact, there aren’t a lot of preachers anywhere who talk a lot about grace. Grace is tricky—a lot trickier than faith. Faith is easier to understand because it feels like faith is something that comes from within us—something that we’re responsible for, something we choose. That makes faith something that preachers can weaponized as they climb up into their pulpits, saying, “If you don’t have enough of it, then you’re in trouble.” Grace, on the other hand, doesn’t lend itself to fiery sermons because grace, by definition, is something that we don’t make happen. It’s a complete gift—unearned, undeserved. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that fire and brimstone preachers don’t talk a lot about grace. After all, how do you convince people to come down for an altar call if you start by telling them that God already loves them just the way they are?
Even in our tradition, where we talk a lot about unconditional love, grace can be hard thing to wrap our minds around. Jack Charlton was a saintly man who knew as well as anyone what it meant to love his neighbor, but he still had a hard time with grace. Before he died, he used to tell me that he didn’t understand it. And sometimes I’d tell him that I don’t understand it either, that I know it’s a good thing, and that I’m sure we need it, but that wasn’t the answer he was looking for. The truth is that it’s a lot easier to believe in a God who gives people what they deserve—that people who reject God and his ways go to hell and people who choose God and his ways go to heaven. But that’s not grace. That’s just a nicer way of saying that you’d better be sure where you’d wake up if you died tonight. Believing in grace, on the other hand, means believing that none of it depends on us—which might be why it’s so hard to understand. But this week, as I read this gospel lesson, I encountered not an explanation of grace but an experience of it, and it made me wish that I had thought of it back when I still had the chance to talk about it with Jack.
It was before dark when the disciples got into their boat and set sail for the other side of the sea. By the time Jesus walked out toward them upon the water, they had been struggling against the wind for hours. Matthew tells us that they were still a long way from shore and seemed to be making no headway. The sky was starting to lighten when Jesus caught up with them, and the sight of him, rather than reassuring the disciples, terrified them. “It is a ghost!” they said to one another because to them a ghost seemed more likely than the truth. After Jesus identified himself and told them not to worry, Peter took the opportunity to test this apparition to see if it really was his master. “If it is you,” he said, “command me to come out to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come,” and Peter put his legs over the side and slipped down onto the surface of the water, and, instead of sinking beneath it, it held his weight.
Soon, however, Peter had stepped beyond the lee of the vessel, and he felt the full force of the wind. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” he thought to himself. Like weights upon his ankles, his doubts mounted, dragging him down below the waves. “Lord, save me!” he cried out. And immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter and said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” literally, “You little-faithed-one, why did you waiver?” Then, he led Peter back to the boat, and, as soon as they had climbed aboard, the wind ceased. And the disciples, recognizing the one who stood before them and the power that he had, fell down and worshipped him.
Perhaps the most important thing for us to note in this story is that Peter tests Jesus not the other way around. Peter didn’t have the faith that he needed in order to get to Jesus. He had enough to get himself started, but, when the force of the wind hit him in the face, he wasn’t so sure anymore. And what was Jesus’ reaction? He reached out his hand and caught him. Jesus didn’t have to do that, of course. Jesus could have yelled back at Peter, “What happened to your faith? You got yourself into this mess. Why don’t you believe your way out of it?” But that’s not what Jesus said because that’s not who Jesus is, and it’s not who God is, and that’s not how salvation works.
Grace is being caught by Jesus even when our faith fails us. Our faith isn’t what saves us. If our salvation depended upon our faith, we’d be as sunk as Peter was as soon as the first doubt crept in. We are saved by God’s grace. God does all the work. God is the one who reaches out and catches us even when we’ve forgotten that he can. So what does faith have to do with it? Faith is the recognition that God alone is the one who saves us. As the apostle Paul wrote, “By grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). Faith is the vehicle or lens through which we see that God is the one who saves us. It is the blindfold coming off, the look over our shoulder to see that it’s God who has been with us all along. Faith is the confidence we have that God is the one who has saved us and who will always save us. But even when that faith falls apart—even when we forget who it is that has promised never to leave us or forsake us—God’s salvation is still assured.
God doesn’t love you because you believe in him. God loves you because that’s who God is. God doesn’t save you because you’re 100% sure that what the preacher says is true. God saves you because that’s who God is. Grace is what our religion is built upon—not a life well lived or a conviction thoroughly held. God doesn’t care whether you believe in him or not. He loves you just the same either way. But doesn’t knowing that and seeing that and believing that make life so much fuller and richer? Isn’t it a blessing to go through life knowing that you are not alone—that there’s nothing you can do to cut yourself off from God’s love? You don’t have to be sure of that in order to be saved by God, but being sure of that—having faith like that—gives us the comfort and confidence that come only when we recognize that we belong to God.