The trust test - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

The trust test

Matthew 14: 22-33

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22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[b] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Reflecting on this morning's Gospel reading I found myself identifying very strongly with Peter's predicament.

I've worked in public health for about twenty years now and over that time I can recall various exercises concerned with emergency planning. Anything concerning pandemics followed a similar path leaving us recognising how dreadful the impacts could be and daunted at the prospect. That is why pandemics have been at the top of national risk registers for decades.

As Covid 19 hit and the scale of its likely impacts became more clear I was rather daunted by what might lie ahead but also had some sense that this would be a crisis where public health would be called to step forward.

Peter's words bring back that period in my mind: 'Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.'

Well here we are some months on and Peter's subsequent experience resonates rather more strongly that it has ever done before - when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, 'Lord, save me!'

The metaphor feels very apt, perhaps reflecting the talk of waves of infection, of rising tides of cases. For some weeks already work has provoked a fear of a kind of drowning, in guidance to read, queries to respond to, e-mails to answer. I'm trying my best to keep my head above water.

I am what the church refers to a minster in secular employment, in that the primary setting in which I minister is the secular, and now virtual, workplace. As I reflect on these present challenges I am reminded of the words of the ordinal, the liturgy used at the ordination service-

You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God.

Recognition of the limitations of our own powers reminds us that Christian life has its foundation in prayer and during this period the significant of beginning each day with the morning office has been confirmed for me. Trying to fit some urgent matter in before, even if it's something that has kept me awake, is a very bad idea because I then struggle to stop and create the space for prayer and so find that the time becomes snatched and distracted. Someone once offered me very wise advice - pray at least 20 minutes a day and if you haven't got time for that, at least an hour! It is crucial to remind ourselves of Christ's presence. Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter, saying to him, 'You of little faith, why did you doubt?".

Often in the church, rather more time and energy can be devoted to concerns about orthodoxy - what we believe, than matters of orthopraxy - how we live.

Our epistle today is a useful passage to explore the roots of this bias.

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

It's a passage that will be familiar to many but it's one whose emphasis, in our translation, has been shaped by the reformation and in particular Martin Luther. Luther understood the corrupting effect of the sale of indulgences on the church and his critique drew attention to that sham. He returned the Church to the Pauline argument against the doomed idea that we can ever merit salvation via our good works, emphasising instead the good news that faith is the key to our salvation.

Luther understood that being accepted by God is the result of God's undeserved grace but as the Baptist minister and author Steve Chalke notes, having made this huge contribution he misunderstood the nature of faith so that salvation for Luther boiled down to our ability to believe; to have the right thoughts.

Luther's interpretation was so influential, it is reflected in our translation of that passage - If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

The consensus amongst modern scholars points to a different translation - If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and are faithful in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Luther's teaching reduced faithfulness solely to a matter of belief, to orthodoxy and so robs it of its ethical value and implications. My own faith journey has led me to recognise the limitations of this understanding. Equating faithfulness solely with belief can give rise to what you might call the fundamentalist appeal, to the most literal understandings of scripture held with complete conviction.

I'm comfortable to acknowledge there are alternative readings of these texts but interestingly I think, the Orthodox churches, as we call them, have always retained the fuller understanding of faith.

As Steve Chalke puts it - faithfulness is a risky commitment to a way of being and behaving, in the face of endless natural fears and uncertainties. Faithfulness embraces doubt as part of the journey. Indeed facing our doubts can itself be seen as an act of faith, a stepping out onto waters of uncertainty.

There is another implication of reformation theology for our understanding of salvation that I would like to recognise. It has led us to an emphasis on 'faith in Christ' rather the 'faith of Christ'. We are called to live faithfully to the way, the truth and the life that is Jesus Christ but we are saved not though our own faithfulness to him but rather through his faithfulness to us.

As we face the challenges of these days we might notice the strong wind and fear that we begin to sink. Let us confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and be faithful in our hearts to him who is ever faithful.

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