Imitators of Jesus

August 13, 2017
Pentecost 10A 
Matthew 14:22–33
Brookside Community Church

Dr. Cornel West leads a group of clergy and local activists through Charlottesville, VA.
Jesus Walks on the Water
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
—Matthew 14:22–33

To follow Jesus means to be imitators of Jesus. But we may get stuck trying to imitate things that hinder rather than help the initiation of the Reign of Heaven.

Is there anyone in your life who thinks you walk on water?

Is there anyone who looks at you as if to say, “Hey! I want to do that”?

In so many ways, my daughter Joey is like this with me. She loves to imitate me. It is flattering…and scary! In many ways, this is a great thing. I am able to help teach her sign language, how to put building block together, and even how to fold clothes and do chores around the house. But she also wants to imitate things that I’m not so sure I’m happy with. She’s always fighting to take my phone away. We took out the battery to one of the TV remotes so she can be next to me on the couch and point and click away! And now, I have to hide my coffee cup in the mornings; even if she has her own cup of plant-based milk, she wants to drink what Daddy is drinking.

I think it is the same thing with followers of Jesus. Being a follower of Jesus means being an imitator of Jesus. The early church leaders actually gave this exact advice in multiple letters to struggling congregations in the early church; we have examples all throughout our New Testament (1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Peter 2:21; Philippians 2:3–8; Ephesians 5:1). But, if we are not careful what we are doing, we may find ourselves trying to imitate things that we think are godlike, but actually make us nothing like God. Seeking to be godlike, we find ourselves striving for things that are of little consequence in our ultimate call to be initiators of the Reign of Heaven. If we get stuck trying to learn to walk on water, raise the dead, or gather a massive following, we may end up missing the things that matter the most. We may find ourselves wanting to imitate superhuman things, while neglecting the actual things that Jesus called us to do—like offering our hands in care for the life of the world around us.

Last week we shared together in a celebration of the “Kingdom Feast.” By joining in the feast together, we made the commitment to participate in the Reign of Heaven in opposition to the reign of the violent rulers of the world. We participated in the feast of Heaven’s Reign which began in Jesus. By imitating Jesus, we chose compassion over fear, inclusion over exclusion, abundance over scarcity, life over death. And just like in the text this morning, Jesus is calling us out of the space of comfort and into the chaos.

After John the Baptist was executed for speaking out against King Herod, Jesus went to be alone to pray. But moved with compassion for the hungry crowd that was following him, he taught his disciples what gifts they really had by pushing them to begin a feast when it seemed they had nothing really to start with. They fed 5,000 men—along with the women and children—only to find that there were baskets upon baskets of leftovers. Stuffed from the feast, you would think they would want to find somewhere to rest for the night. But Jesus calls them to get in the boat and cross over to the other side. Just like before, these professional fishermen seemed to have no idea how to manage a boat on stormy nights — and they find themselves full of fear and torment. (This happened once before, remember.)

Then, in the midst of this terribly stormy night, Peter sees Jesus walking on the water and calls out to him, “Hey Jesus, if that is you, call me to come out!” Here it is, that voice of the student trying desperately to imitate the teacher: “Hey! That looks cool! I want to do that!” So Jesus says, “Sure… What’s the harm?” And it almost worked. They got into the boat, the storm settled, and Jesus rebuked them: “Oh, you guys have such little faith!”

What did he mean? Was Jesus rebuking them because they were afraid of the storm? Was Jesus rebuking them because they couldn’t walk on water? Maybe. Maybe this story was included by Matthew to encourage the church to have faith in Jesus and not to be overwhelmed with fear in the midst of a violent and chaotic world… But I think there must be more.

How does this fit in the overall message of the Gospel of Matthew so far?

We have seen Jesus’ primary mode of action is that of healing people: blessing the outcast and marginalized, healing the sick, feeding the hungry. And at every stage, Jesus has empowered the disciples to have agency—not just to be spectators, but to be full participants in the in-breaking of the Reign of Heaven.

I think Jesus is rebuking them, not for being merely human, but for failing to be fully human. Like Peter, they are quick to get distracted and lose focus. If only Peter had been as eager to heal and restore broken people as he was to walk on water. And, mind you, the reason he couldn’t walk on water was because he was paying too much attention to other things rather than keeping his eyes on Jesus.

I think that historically, Christians have been like Peter. We have spent way too much time trying to learn to walk on water, pretending that we can be superhuman. All the while, we have failed to learn to be human in all of the ways Jesus was teaching us to be. We have tried so hard to walk on water, and spent too little time using our hands and our hearts to practice the things that Jesus has been teaching us.

Jesus walks on water and we say, “Hey! I want to do that!” But when Jesus heals the sick or feeds the hungry, we say, “Oh well…surely Jesus didn’t mean for us to do that!”

Who do we imitate?

Who would you say has been the most influential to your faith? Are there any people who when you saw them living out their faith, something deep inside you said: “Hey! I want to do that?”

Dorothy Day
One person like that for me was Dorothy Day. I first heard about her long before I ever called myself a Christian. She was one of those people that challenged me to rethink what it meant to be a Christian. I heard about her and thought, “If that’s what it means to be a Christian, I could get on board with that.” One of my favorite quotes of hers was, “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.”

In 1932, she cofounded the Catholic Worker Movement with Peter Maurin. This not only included starting the Catholic Worker newspaper, but they also began “a hospitality house” that served the Lower East Side and provided shelter—and often food and clothing—to those who needed it without charge, and without requiring religious practice or attendance at services. She claimed the Sermon on the Mount as her manifesto, which meant that she devoted her life to being a peacemaker. She endorsed nonviolence as a fundamental tenet of Catholic life and denounced nuclear arms, both their use in warfare and the “idea of arms being used as deterrents, to establish a balance of terror.”

Several times over the years I have found myself in Statin Island next to her graveside, praying to God for direction. She is one of the best examples I know of someone who really gave herself to imitate the teachings of Jesus. When I read her writings or hear her story, my heart jumps and says, “Hey! I want to do that!”

Dorothy Day didn’t try to follow Jesus by learning to walk on water, but by keeping her eyes on the Kingdom. Dorothy Day was one of those people who knew what it meant to be fully human!

Traci Blackmon, Cornell West, Lisa Sharon Harper, et al.
Well, when it comes to storms, we are in one! I’m sure you have all been watching the news. The United States is now in the thick of a contest of power with North Korea. The world watches to see whose words can be the most violent — in fear that acts of violence will soon come and cause a catastrophe. I have family in South Korea by the way. So this really hits close to home for me. And this weekend, a crowd of White Supremacists gathered at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue glorifying America’s racist history. It is in storms like these when we should keep our eyes out for Jesus — to see Christians not huddling in fear in their boats, or standing in pomp trying to walk on water, but really finding ways to be fully human, to follow Jesus.

A group of faith leaders gathered in Charlottesville on Friday night for a time of interfaith prayer to counter the violence and hatred of the White Nationalist protests that were beginning on the streets. Watching from the sidelines, I saw our own Rev. Traci Blackmon, the UCC’s Executive Minister of Justice & Witness Ministries, standing beside Cornell West and Lisa Sharon Harper and others. My heart was filled with sadness and hope, anxiety and courage. I saw them and said to myself: “Hey! I want to do that!”

How do we become a church for the world?

So my question this morning is this: How do we become a church for the world? How do we become a people who are not eager to be superhuman — walking on water, strutting our stuff, seeking to one-up each other — but are eager to offer ourselves to each other in ways that make us more fully human, more like Jesus?

What are some real, concrete ways, as a church, we can become a place of refuge where those who are in need in the midst of chaos can come to us and find hope, courage, and safety?

How do we become people with faith enough: not faith enough to walk on water, but faith enough to initiate the kingdom by using our gifts to bring peace and hope in places like Charlottesville? How do we become a people with enough faith to be present in the midst of the violence and hatred of the world and offer a light of peace and justice?

Can we follow Jesus and remain silent and inactive while the nations of the world ready weapons that might destroy us all? Can we follow Jesus and not be willing to speak out against bigotry, misogyny, racism, white nationalism?

I am convinced that the most important difference between us and Jesus is not that Jesus was God and we are not, but that Jesus knew what it meant to be human and most of us haven’t actually given it much thought. I don’t think Jesus’ rebuke of Peter and the disciples was because they were afraid of the storm, or because they couldn’t walk on water. I think it was because they lacked focus and urgency. They wanted to be godlike, but had little interest in being like God.

The truth is, we haven’t learned form Jesus how to use what gifts we already have to bring healing and hope to the world around us. We’ve been trying to walk on water, but Jesus cries out “I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink” (Mt. 25:42). What would it look like to follow Jesus in a way that could really transform the world? What if we offered ourselves to reach out to the sick, the marginalized, the hurting, and redraw the boundaries, turn brokenness in to wholeness, and address exclusion with inclusion?

May we become faithful imitators of Jesus, not Jesus the superhuman, but Jesus the Human One? 
—Amen