[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]
Not many days before I walked into the hospital for a visit, I’d spoken with a parishioner dealing with a number of health and personal issues. In that conversation, I'd asked, “Could I pray with you?” “No,” he answered, “no need for that. I’ve got things worked out.”
Now, at the hospital, a man I’d never met saw me. “Sir,” he said. “Are you a priest or a pastor or something?” “Yes,” I answered. He told me, “I’ve never been one for church. A few times when I was a kid. But my wife is really sick. They don’t know if she’s going to make it. Could you pray for her?”
I suggested that we pray right then and there. And we did.
I don’t know what happened to the non-churchgoing man’s wife. But I do know this: In the space of a few days, I’d witnessed the faith of someone who lived outside the fellowship of the Church and an apparent lack of faith in someone who was in worship every single Sunday.
It’s essential for us to be part of Christ’s Church, of course. As we will be reminded in our upcoming series, I Am a Church Member, being a member of a church isn’t anything like belonging to Costco, nothing like belonging to an investment club or even a service club, nothing like joining a country club. In each of those cases, members speak of what they get out of belonging. But, like our Savior Jesus, you and I are part of Christ’s Church not to be served, but to serve. As a Columbus friend told us over dinner on Friday night, “Church isn’t about what you get out of it, but what you put into it.”
To use Saint Paul’s imagery, you and I are members of the Church in the same way that our feet and eyes and brains and ears are parts of our bodies. Each person has his and her own indispensable role to play if the Church is to be all that it’s meant to be.
And we Christians need the Church. The preacher in Hebrews says: “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord [the day of Jesus’ return to make all things right] is coming nearer.” (Hebrews 10:25, Good News Translation)
According to Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession, one of our Lutheran movement’s basic explanations of Christian faith, the Church exists wherever the gospel--the good news of new life for all who repent and believe in the crucified and risen Jesus--is rightly proclaimed and the Sacraments--Holy Baptism and Holy Communion--are rightly administered. Where that happens, where Church happens, there is life with God in Christ.
But as the parishioner who refused to pray on the grounds that he had everything taken care of already shows, not everyone who occupies a place on church membership rolls is a member of Christ’s Church. Not every person who claims to be a Christian is a Christian. As Corrie ten-Boom’s father explained after their pastor refused to help Jews escape Nazi-occupied Netherlands, “Just because the mouse is in the cookie jar doesn’t make him a cookie.”
And truth be told, all of us who do believe in Jesus Christ and seek to live out our membership in Christ’s body with faithfulness struggle to be faithful in the face of life’s challenges.
We see that in today’s gospel lesson, Mark 6:45-56. In it, we see that the group of disciples we know as apostles, God’s sent ones who would be charged after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven with leading the Church in spreading the gospel, had trouble believing in, trusting in, Jesus. Meanwhile, others found it easy, at least at some level, to believe in Him.
Take a look at our lesson, please. It begins: “Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.”
Jesus has just fed the 5000, probably, as we talked about last Sunday, upwards of 10,000, from a few fish and scraps of bread. Jesus had accomplished the impossible. But that moment is over and Jesus is now sending the crowds and the disciples away so that He can spend time with God. Listen: If you think that you’re going to accomplish anything of significance in your life--with your family, your work, without God, you would be foolish.
Jesus was God in the flesh. Yet He knew that if He was going to complete his mission on earth, He needed to go to His Father first. That’s no less true for you and me. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” Jesus tells we members of His Church, individually and corporately. “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Back to our gospel lesson verse 47: “Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost.”
Long before the apostles thought about Jesus, before they considered crying out for His help, He observed their struggles. So, why didn’t He do something as soon as He saw them struggling? Why doesn’t Jesus just go ahead and fix the bad stuff He sees happening in our lives?
The complete answers to those questions are way above my pay grade. But I do know this: Jesus goes to those who are open to Him.
That same Columbus friend told us over dinner on Friday of reading about a Muslim who had been asked by a Christian friend on four different occasions to come to church with him and refused, more sternly with each invitation. But after the fifth invitation was made, the Muslim said, “Yes.”
What had changed? It turns out that each night after his Christian friend invited him to church, the Muslim man had a vivid dream in which he was pointed to strange words. He’d come to know the words by heart, but had no idea what they meant. The dream seemed to have a connection to the invitation.
When the Muslim recited the words from the dream to his Christian friend, it turned out to be a passage from the Gospel of John. His friend explained the meaning of the words and soon, the Muslim became a disciple of Jesus.
Because that Muslim man was open to Jesus. Jesus goes to those open to Him.
Despite witnessing Jesus do what only God had ever done before--feeding a hungry mass of people in the wilderness with what seemed like nothing, as God had done with manna for ancient Israel, the apostles couldn’t imagine that it was Jesus was God or that He was actually walking next to their floundering boat.
They preferred a superstitious explanation--that this was a glost--to the explanation that made the most sense. Their miracle-working Teacher was God and was offering Himself to them, if only they would be open to Him.
How many things do we unnecessarily struggle with in life because we can’t imagine that Jesus is walking beside us?
How many circumstances fill us with fear because we refuse to believe that Jesus means it when He says, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20)?
How often do we fail to believe the promise of Scripture that, “...all things [All things? Yes, all things; even the bad things. All things that happen in this fallen, imperfect world...] God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
As I age, as I struggle with situations in my life, even when I die, if I will keep loving the Savior Who loved me first, I believe that God will bring good things about...even if I personally, in this life, never experience it. Even if my faithful pursuit of Jesus only does good for people I will never meet this side of heaven, like the people who can be touched by the ministry of this congregation if we remain faithful in following Jesus!
Verse 49b: “...They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified [not comforted, not encouraged, not hopeful, but terrified]. Immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’ Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down [Just as in Genesis, the storms of primordial chaos died at the touch of God the Holy Spirit].” (Mark 6:49-51)
Then these incredible words. Read them carefully, please: “They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.” (Mark 6:51-52)
The apostles were amazed. But, when you think about it, they shouldn’t have been! In the loaves and the fishes they had seen that Jesus is God. Jesus can take control of the chaos in our world, take control of the elements of our lives. Jesus can do the impossible. He tells us, “...nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37, English Standard Version) The apostles should have known this by now. Amazed by Jesus' grace, yes. Amazed by His love for them, His patience with them, of course. But amazed that He could walk on a stormy sea right beside them? Not if they'd been paying attention!
Believers in Jesus are called to lay aside their skepticism, their fears, their limited imaginations and stop being amazed by the fact that Jesus is not just a man, but also God, and start believing in Him. Going where He leads. Doing what He calls us to do.
The Lord Who conquered sin and death tells us, “Take courage! It is I. [I’m here.] Don’t be afraid.” Once they crossed over the lake and landed at Gennesarat, the apostles were once more shown Who Jesus is: The God of all creation Who can bring healing and help, even when all seems hopeless.
Every day, the risen, living Jesus offers Himself to us.
When Christ called me to faith, I resisted. I had my own ideas.
When He called me to pastoral ministry, I resisted. I had my own plans.
When I interviewed with the call committee of Living Water, I told Ann, “There’s no way they’re going to call me to be their pastor.”
But when you let Jesus into your life, when you dare to get close to Him each day, He accomplishes the impossible. If he saved a wretch like me, you know that's true!
Whatever storm, challenge, or growing season our Savior Jesus calls us to go through, with Him we will go through it.
Whatever impossible thing He sets out to do through us, He will do.
Jesus tells all the disciples in His Church, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Revelation 3:20)
Every single moment, in all things, let Jesus into your life, your decision-making, your church, your nation, your world; that’s when His will is done and His kingdom comes. When we trustingly ask Jesus into anyplace, the impossible becomes inevitable. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]