The Foothold of Faith

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on June 11th, 2017

Sermon audio

Hobby wind-surfer, Adam Cowles, realized he was way off-course when he spotted a cargo ship. He was windsurfing the Swansea Bay, not too far from his house, but after a few hours of delightful distraction, Adam found himself in strange territory. He had unwittingly made his way into the Bristol Channel, 140 miles away from home.

The water that day was freezing cold. If he fell in, he’d be in serious trouble. If there came a lull in the wind, Adam could have found himself stranded. Opposite the cargo ship, Adam could see land, so he surfed his way to shore and walked into a nearby bar, soaking wet.

The locals must have seen sights like him before, because even though he was still dripping wet when he walked into that pub, the patrons thought and said nothing of it. They even bought him a beer.

Adam began to tell them his story.

They told him how far away from home he was. 140 miles. He was astonished. And then he was embarrassed when he had to call his wife, asking her to make the 280-mile round trip to pick him up. She was not happy.

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Wind is so prevalent inside of scripture that one could easily call it a character. A living force rather than an object or an atmospheric phenomenon.

God shows up in the beginning of the opening act, in the very first lines of our story in Genesis 1, as wind. This is the form in which the Spirit of God makes way into creation, and then helps creation take its shape out of what was before simply chaos and nonsense. The second verse in all of scripture says it this way:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

This is how God shows up. In a breeze. And that happens over and over again throughout God’s story—our story, too.

Consider the moment of the Exodus, when the Hebrew people, enslaved for two centuries in Egypt, make their way across the Red Sea and to the other side, outrunning Pharaoh and his army and into freedom. The Sea was split in two that day by a strong eastward wind.

And then there’s Jonah, the stubborn prophet, who tried his best to outrun God after God asked him to do something that made no sense to him. Throughout the Book of Jonah, he’s stopped, over and over again, to the point where it gets comedic, by wind and sea, by whale and wave.

We try our best but there’s no escaping the Spirit of God.

There’s at least two stories in each of the four Gospels, where fisherman disciples are out on a boat on the Galilee Sea. Terrified by brewing storms and rising waters, Jesus comes to calm the waves and the rain and brings them through. These are messages for us about how when we are caught in the scary seas of our own lives, when the water rises too high all around us, Jesus comes to us and subsides our fears and says to us the same thing he said to His disciples in those moments:

Peace be with you.

Last and certainly not least is the story we have in the Book of Acts where Luke gives us a glimpse of Paul’s travelogue. To get to the churches he has planted, Paul and his own team of disciples, servants, doctors, and scribes cross the Mediterranean Sea and sail up the Aegean between present-dayPaul Turkey and Greece, and north into the Sea of Marmara. Some of these voyages brought disaster. Pirates, shipwreck. Loss of cargo and loss of life. Throughout scripture, water and wind give life but they also take it away.

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dSo when Paul writes from a prison in Rome to the young believers in Ephesus—and by extension, to us—he has been wind-tossed, beat up, lost at sea, and then found again. Paul knows a thing or two about what it is to be blown about by wind. And he warns us, right at the get-go, here at the very beginning of Chapter 2,

Do not be blown about by the wind. Once you lived your entire lives wandering off-course in this perverse world….You were the offspring of the prince of the power of the air. He once owned you and controlled you.

I don’t know what kind of devil you believe in. We talk so little about evil and its personifications. Certainly, the personification of evil into some being with the proper name, Satan, is not as much a creature found in scripture as it is one that has been imagined in the tales of subsequent works of fiction: Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. We need to keep our stories straight.

We’ll talk more about this when we reach Chapter 4 of Ephesians, but for now, suffice it to say, here Paul describes some sort of evil or persuasive power, but he doesn’t give it a name or a form. It’s as if Paul is describing that thing mentioned in the first two verses of Genesis 1, a sort of earthly chaos, life and creation without shape, or meaning, or form. Life without God. That is a sort of evil in and of itself.

Paul is warning us against living in a way that’s uncritical, where we get swept up by the power of the air, picked up by every breeze that comes our way. Life lived empty and persuadable, easily manipulated by anything and everything around us. We can get picked up and pushed around wherever the breeze takes us, like that empty plastic bag at the beginning of the movie American Beauty. This is the prince of the power of the air. This is an opportunistic presence that will sweep us off our feet any chance it gets.

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We live in a culture full of wind-blown people. Too often, we get caught up in the prevailing winds of our day, and before we know it we’re like that empty plastic bag that gets knocked around by forces both visible and invisible. We get taken anywhere it pushes us.

What Paul is inviting all of us to see is a new way to live and move. Paul’s words here are a sort of prelude to the important and biblical idea of living in but not of the world. We cannot be blown about. Persuadable. Pushed about. We must find our footing. We must be discerning, keen, wise, sharp, perceptive, insightful, critical. You’ve heard the phrase,

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for everything.

This is God’s way of saying a similar thing. Find your footing.

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Paul knew something about wind. He was a tentmaker.

These days, if a person calls him- or herself a tentmaker, there’s a good chance they’re a Pastor who specializes in creating new churches. Paul did that, but before he ever entered into the ministry he actually made tents. This is how he made a living, even while he sailed the seas, planting churches.

So, Paul knew a thing of two about wind. How to shelter oneself against it. How to build a structure that can withstand it. Build them strong, resilient, and with a big footprint so they hold up to the power of the air and the elements. Everything thrown at it.

As we mature in our faith, as we walk forward slowly in the Way of Jesus, following in His footsteps, we too become strong against the breezes that try to blow us off course.

It is with rope and ground pegs, poles and stakes that a tent becomes secure even in the most chaotic of climates. It’s the power of God’s grace that does the same thing for our minds, our hearts, our spirits. God’s grace pins us to solid ground, can keep us from being blown off course. Grace is the foothold of our faith.

I mentioned a few weeks ago when we began our look into Ephesians, that God’s grace given to us is not an end in itself. Grace is not the end of any conversation, as in, “but for the grace of God go I.” Grace is always the beginning of the conversation. Grace was in the wind that blew the disciples out of their tiny house on Pentecost, and it’s the power we have been given by God to walk out of here and do God’s work—in and for the world.

Grace is the fuel, the power source God gives us to start something—to go out from here, or wherever else we are, as agents of God’s love, as keepers of God’s Message, as sharers of God’s mercy. Grace is designed and given to us by God to take us places. It is first unmerited benefit, yes; but it’s also Divine enablement. Grace is given to us to get us going!

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Through grace, we gain a foothold in our faith, stand up tall in Christ, and then become agents of grace—taking it and using it. Paul writes,

For it is by grace you have been saved. You have received it through faith. It was not our plan or effort, it’s God’s gift. Pure and simple. You didn’t earn it.

That’s verse 8. It’s one of the most beloved in all of scripture, but I’m afraid it’s too often misunderstood. People use it to convince themselves that works—doing stuff with and because our faith—isn’t important. But what Paul says is, Take God’s gift of grace, freely given to you—yes, it’s never earned, it’s always a gift—but then do something with it. Use it. Pay it forward. Grace is never the end of the conversation; it’s always the beginning of one. God’s grace is given to us in order to be put to work through us. Grace is God’s enabling power for growth.

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If you feel like you’re trudging through life right now under your own power, if you’ve lost your footing, if you’ve exhausted yourself that way, let me re-introduce you to grace. Author Anne Lamott says,

When you’re out of good ideas, what you’re left with is God.

She describes grace as spiritual WD-40 or water wings, if that works better. And all you have to do to find grace is to say “Help,” preferably out loud. Shout it into the heavens if you have to. The heavens will hear you. “But watch out!” Anne Lamott says. The moment you say that word, “Help!”, the moment you find grace, buckle up! Because, powered by the Holy Wind of God as it always is, God’s grace will take you places you never intended to go!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Conversations By Firelight

A sermon based on Psalm 30 and John 21:1-25 preached on April 10th, 2016

Sermon audio

There was a light in the distance, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Peter and the rest of the disciples had spent the pre-dawn hours just 100 yards from the shoreline. That’s when the fish are biting—very early morning—with dark still cast above the surface of the water. Their nets had been dragging beside the boat for a few hours now and to their surprise, they were catching nothing. Not one thing. At least nothing worth keeping.

It was still Easter. The disciples had seen the resurrected Jesus appear to them over and over again. The first time was in the upper room, all bolted up and shut tight around them. The second time, Jesus came again to the empty room, this time to quell Thomas’ doubt. But the questions still remained: What do you do when you’ve lost your leader? How do you start something all on your own when all you’ve done for the last three years is follow? Well, what you do is you return to something familiar, and for the disciples, what was familiar was fishing. But for some reason, not even that was working out all that well. By this time in the morning, they’re usually dragging in loads and loads of fish, but that morning, all they had to show for it were empty nets. Something wasn’t right. Even the most familiar things didn’t feel the same anymore.

Peter was the deck captain. It was his job to make sure that before they set off from the shore the nets were mended, that they had enough bait, and the boat was in working order. But Peter’s mind wasn’t in the game. He seemed distant, almost like he was caught in some kind of net himself—unable to find his way out of it. It was near the end of this terrible, no good morning when they saw a flickering light against the shoreline—a small campfire, maybe. There was a man standing next to it, some dark figure moving along the beach. Then a voice:

Children, have you caught anything yet?

No,

they replied to this mysterious figure.

The man standing along the shore yelled back,

Try the other side of the boat!

Whoever he was, he must know his stuff, because his fishing tip worked out. Once the disciples hauled their net to the other side, they were glad they took the time to mend their net before setting off. It was so full, there was no way for them to bring it back up into the boat. They had to drag it to shore. And as they got closer, it was the unnamed, beloved disciple who recognizes that this mysterious man along the shoreline is Jesus. He says so to Peter, and at once, Peter leaps out of the boat and into the water (Peter, it seems, is prone to jumping off the sides of boats!), and he swims toward Jesus.

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The last time Peter had seen a charcoal fire was on the night Jesus was arrested. Peter gathered around it for warmth, bundled up, hoping that no one would recognize him or figure out his accent. Peter’s shame for what he did that night had been an anchor around his neck ever since. That night, Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus even knew he would before it ever happened. For days and days, Peter’s shame was unbearable, and seeing the flicker and spark of another charcoal fire sent shivers up his spine, the smell of it deepened his shame.

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In his gospel, John refers to every appearance of the resurrected Jesus as a sign. Signs point the way. When we’re lost, they can help us find out where we are in relation to things. They grab our attention, turn our heads, help us get unlost, point us in the right direction. But lots of times, we don’t have eyes to see them.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus was a sign-maker. He created signs for all to see. He existed to show us the way to God. He pointed all who met him in the right direction, but most who encountered Jesus couldn’t decipher His signs. They couldn’t recognize them.

This time, though, the resurrected Jesus shows up along the shoreline to help Peter find his way again—to lead him out of his haze, out of his lostness and despair—to give him new purpose and direction.

A fish breakfast sizzled over the charcoal fire along the beach that morning. Peter was soaked from diving off the boat, so he huddled around the fire for warmth, sitting next to Jesus. Another fire. Another cold shiver. Another conversation by firelight…

Peter, do you love me?

Jesus asked.

The question must have caught Peter by surprise, but that Jesus asked it of Peter three times must have offended him.

‘Peter do you love me?’ ‘Peter, do you love me?’ ‘Peter, do you love me?’

Yes, Yes, Yes,

Peter answers.

It wouldn’t be ‘til later, that Peter would recognize what Jesus was doing. With each question, Jesus was giving Peter a chance to redeem himself, to undo each of his three denials. Jesus visited Peter in the early dawn of the morning to turn those old No No No’s into new Yes Yes Yes’. Jesus has returned to take that anchor off from around his neck. To free him from his guilt and shame. To rehabilitate Peter. To make him whole again. That morning, during a conversation by firelight in the dim dawn of that early morning, Peter was lifted out of his fog. But not only that! See, when the risen Jesus appears, He not only forgives and unbinds us, He calls us to something—gives us purpose and direction! This isn’t just another Easter resurrection Jesus sighting; this is a call story for both Peter and those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see. After each time we tell Jesus we love Him, He says prove it.

‘Jesus, I love you!’ ‘Then feed my lambs.’

‘Jesus, I love you!’ ‘Then take care of my sheep.”’

‘Since you love me, feed my sheep!’

That is love’s fruit. If we love Jesus, then we will feed his people, because love isn’t just something we feel. Love needs purpose. And if the love we love with doesn’t compel us to action and call us to feed and care for others around us, then we’re not being faithful to Jesus, and the call and voice we hear is not the call and voice of the Gospel but some lesser call. This is Jesus saying to Peter and each and every one of us,

Don’t just sit here with your love for me! I need you out there! Enact your love for me! Don’t do this ‘follow me’ thing with lips only. Do it with your lives!

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When my Aunt Peggy was a teenager, my grandfather took her fishing out on Kueka Lake in upstate New York. My grandfather had some property there that he retreated to often, and he thought Peggy was old enough and experienced enough to fish with him without being too much of a bother. So, they cast out onto the lake with their fishing rods, bait, and candy bars for snacks, and sunk their hooks underneath the surface.

My aunt Peggy was in the front of the boat; my grandfather in the back. And at some point that morning, Peggy threw her rod around her shoulder to cast her line out, and she hooked my grandfather clear through the nose, and before she realized she had done that, she pulled on it. Now, Jordan noses are pretty big, but my Aunt Peggy couldn’t have done what she did twice!

The line didn’t yank my grandfather out of the boat, but I bet a fishing hook through the nose rattled him for a time. I’m sure it took my grandfather a few minutes to get the thing out of his nose, but once they got it out, he just kept on fishing. I’m not sure if my aunt Peggy reeled in anything other than my grandfather’s nose that day, but they did catch some fish.

To add insult to injury, that night they made their own shoreline campfire, and as he cooked the fish they caught, my grandfather spilled boiling water on his bare feet. But he kept on cooking!

I wonder what the conversation around the firelight was like that night!

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Seeing Jesus upon the shore, yanked Peter out of the boat. It dragged him to the shoreline, and together they sat as the fish popped and crackled over a charcoal fire.

The firelight warmed their faces as they shared in conversation with each other. In a sense, it was a signal fire. The smoke from it was an offering that rose into the sky above them, as Jesus, with His words, gave Peter a new sign, a new purpose and calling, signaling a new vocation for Him, not as a deck captain to a ragtag bunch of fishermen, but as lead disciple, and the Rock upon which Christ’s church was to be built. It served as a signal that even our worse words and actions can’t yank us out of relationship with Jesus.

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The Good News for us, friends, is that this world is full of shore-side charcoal fires! There’s signal fires and burning bushes everywhere we turn. We just have to have Easter eyes to see their spark and flame, and ears to hear their crackle and snap. But the message of the Gospel is that we have to want to see those signs! See, most us completely overlook God-sightings. We don’t recognize them as we should. We suffer from a lack of attentiveness. Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes, defines love as paying attention to the other person and opening oneself to attention. And discipleship means jumping out of the boat to be closer to Jesus. To risk something of ourselves to follow Him, to take up the vocation to love Jesus by feeding and caring for His sheep. Pastor Mike Foster says that we who are Christ’s church need to risk more of ourselves. He writes,

Our guardian angels are bored. We’re not taking chances with our faith.

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As we know, Peter would grow into his calling and purpose. He would indeed become a rock—a strong presence for an emerging church. He and his fellow disciples would eventually become unafraid and bold in their proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But it would take them growing braver and walking into the world with it. The Way of Jesus is not a point of view. It’s not a religious opinion. It’s not a political or moral position. It’s not a stance we take. It’s a walk. What pastor and author Leonard Sweet calls “a world walk.” And it all started with a conversation around firelight.

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Do you love me?

That’s the question Jesus asked of Peter—of all of his disciples. It’s the question Jesus asks of each one of us.

If you love me, then follow and feed.

Jesus has the same words of purpose and vocation and challenge for us:

Forget about fishing on water. Start looking in different places. Start fishing in different ways. Risk more. Cast your faith out into deeper waters! We’ve got some hungry people to feed and some lost people to care for. Walk the Gospel Way…and follow me!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Faithing

A sermon based on Psalm 105:1-6 and Matthew 14:22-33 preached on September 7th, 2014.

Sermon audio

This story is iconic. Whether you’ve ever opened a bible or heard a sermon preached on it, been in a bible study or Sunday school lesson about it—this story is a familiar one.

The phrase “walking on water” has made its way into our culture’s common vernacular. The phrase is used for the kind of people who we look up to—who do the miraculous and make it look easy—who regularly and effortlessly accomplish the impossible. Our mothers walk on water, social workers walk on water, so do nurses, and teachers—or at least the best of them.

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I’ve mentioned before that Mythbusters is one of my favorite TV shows. The Mythbusters are a bunch of scientists and special effects artists who try to recreate the stuff that happens in movies to see if they’re possible in real life. They also take common phrases like this one and test them out too.

In one episode, the Mythbusters tested out whether in any circumstance walking on water was scientifically possible. They strapped floatation devices to their feet and stepped out onto the surface of a pool—and they toppled over.

They went to a lake and thought that maybe if they got a running start, they would hit the water so fast they’d be able to glide across the surface like a skipping stone. When that didn’t work, they got a track and field Olympic medal winner to try it—and she sank into the lake just as fast as they did.

The myth was busted, they declared. It doesn’t matter what clever tricks you have up your sleeve, despite our best efforts, no one can walk on water. It’s scientifically impossible. Quite a surprise, huh?

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We miss the point of this story when we focus on what’s possible about it and what isn’t. “How did Jesus walk on water?” is not the question we should be asking ourselves as we read this story —his ability to walk on water is not the point.

The question we should ask starts with a “What” instead: “What does this story have to teach us about living out our faith in Jesus?”

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A common image the early church used to describe itself was as a boat—a boat out at sea. Many of the original disciples were fisherman. They knew boats well—they lived their lives on boats—spent their days on them, both before and after Jesus.

The image of a sailboat full of your fellow believers, blown by the wind of the Holy Spirit, was very commonly used to describe the early church. The very early church was a boat. So, those in Matthew’s congregation, this story’s first hearers, knew right away that is was more than a nautical tale involving 12 disciples and Jesus.

This was Matthew’s way of sending his congregation a bigger message and telling them a more significant story. A story about them. Matthew’s church was a persecuted people. Matthew wrote his gospel to a church in the throws of martyrdom. Followers of Jesus hid out, they needed to keep quiet about their faith because those who didn’t stay quiet were fed to lions in Roman stadiums—one of only a multitude of ways early followers of Jesus were being persecuted. If the 1st Century church was a boat, it was one caught in the middle of a storm, surrounded by threats.

In verse 24, our text says the boat was being battered by the waves and a strong headwind. The Greek word there is much stronger than “battered”—a better translation would be “persecuted.” The early Church was a boatful of believers caught in the chaos of martyrdom. On ever side, their lives were in danger. In over their heads and afraid, these early Christians wondered where Jesus was in the midst of their suffering.

This is a story about how Jesus comes to all of his disciples—the original 12 as well as the billions around the world today, in the middle of threatening seas, to speak words of peace and strength:

Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid!

No matter where we are or what we’re facing, Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, and he comes speaking words of assurance and peace.

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Notice, though, what doesn’t happen in this story. Nowhere in this passage does Jesus calm the wind and waves.

There’s another story very similar to this one in chapter 8 were Jesus was already in a boat with the disciples. He falls asleep, and the disciples wake him up because there was a storm and it was too much them. There, Jesus orders the wind and waves to die down.

But in this story, there is no word from Jesus that calms the wind and the waves. Jesus does not deliver the disciples from the battering sea. He doesn’t come promising to stop their persecution. Jesus does not still any storms here.

All that Jesus offers is his presence, and all the disciples get is Jesus’ encouragement. It’s the promise of Jesus’ presence that gives the disciples hope even though the wind and the waves continue battering their boat.

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Throughout the Gospels, Peter comes off as a blockhead. He puts the “duh” in “disciple”. Peter’s the one who acts before he thinks. He’s the giddy one who blurts out everything that crosses his mind. He never holds back a thing. But in this story, Peter’s eagerness leads to one of the most memorable moments in the whole bible. Peter steps out of the boat. He may even take a few steps on the water. A strong headwind comes along and we all know what happens. It’s the same thing that happened on Mythbusters. He starts to sink.

“What was Peter thinking?” we say to ourselves. Did he really think he could walk on water? Maybe he should have just stayed in the boat. This is Peter being a blowhard, again!

But when all the other disciples, with all the torment of the wind and persecution of the waves building up all around them, stayed in the safety of the boat, it was Peter who stood up and walked into the chaos, to be closer to Jesus. It was Peter who stepped outside of the comfort of that boat and risked his life, putting all of his trust into the hands of Jesus, summoning up the courage to take the first step outside. Risk, courage, trust—Peter shows us that these things are the stuff of true faith. What Peter shows us is that faith is a verb.

This isn’t Peter being an idiot. This is Peter being a disciple. This is Peter turning faith into action.

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See, we’re comfortable keeping faith a noun. Faith is something we have rather than something we do. We think of faith as believing certain things. It’s something we carry around with us as we would a possession. Faith, we think, is something we have. It stays inside of us, in the safety of the boat. Away from the waves.

But, what if faith is also a verb? What if it’s not only something we have but it’s something do?

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This story is full of action. Jesus sending the disciples away. The boat fighting a strong headwind, being battered by waves, Jesus walking toward the disciples, Peter getting out of the boat and walking toward Jesus. In this story, Peter’s faith is another verb. Peter doesn’t so much have faith as much as he faiths.

In spite of everything he knows about what’s outside of the boat, the chaos of the water, the wind throwing the boat wherever it wants to, Peter steps out and risks his life to walk with Jesus. Peter doesn’t simply have faith, he practices faith. He turns all that he thinks and believes into a verb and acts on in. And for a moment—just a split second—in the midst of all the wind and waves battering the boat—Peter walks. And, yeah, he starts sinking immediately and needs his Lord to reach out his hand to rescue him, but at least he took the risk to step out in the first place.

So, when Jesus says to Peter,

You of weak faith,

he’s not telling Peter that he his faith is too small, but that he didn’t faith enough.

Peter, next time, faith more, Jesus is saying.

While all the rest of the disciples were just fine staying in the boat—safe, away from all that threatened them out there—not faithing at all, at least Peter took the chance. At least Peter took his faith and turned it into a verb and did something with it—stepping out and putting it all in Jesus’ hands.

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There’s a book out there—it’s become a very popular one, called, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be Christian? Really? Is this the approach to take? A faith that just eeks by? Does Jesus ask us to play it safe? To put only parts of ourself into this venture called discipleship.

Maybe I’ll just dip my toes into the water and test out how things feel.

No. That’s not faithing. That’s staying in the boat with our life vests on. Both Peter and Jesus would scoff at the idea. Following Jesus is never safe, never halfway, never measuring out our devotion to God.

True discipleship knows nothing about moderation. Following Jesus is an all-in, full plunge into deep waters. Taking strides out onto the waves, just like Peter did, trusting that Jesus is there if we start sinking.

The question of discipleship is this: Am I willing to move outside of myself and trust Jesus—even if it means stepping out into uncertain and chaotic waters?

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Was Peter crazy? Yeah, he was to think he could walk on water. Maybe we should all be the same kind of crazy. Maybe we should take the same risk he did and step out, confident that Jesus is out there and doesn’t want us to stay inside the safety zone of our little boat.

Peter walked toward Jesus, like every disciple should do—stepping out in faith, risking our own safety—even our own lives, to be closer to Jesus, knowing that even if we fail at faithing and begin to sink, Jesus is right there reaching out for us and will pull us right back up again.

Possessing faith is just fine. Lots of people have faith, but they never use it outside their little boats. The real work of the Gospel happens we when we take the faith we have and turn it into a verb.

Let’s step out and start faithing.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.