Failure, Perhaps

Matthew 14:22-33 (NIV)

22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

29 “Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

I have some serious fears that I deal with every day. I suffer from a fear of giants. It’s call Fefiphboia. I also am afraid of towers, but this is a newer development. I’ve only been afraid of towers since Eiffel off one.

What is your greatest fear? Many people name public speaking as one of their greatest fears. Even as a professional public speaker, I too would name public speaking as a fear. Rats? Snakes? Bears? Oh, my! On a bit of a side note, one of our faithful congregants is working this summer on the Appalachian Trail and is keeping a running count of how many bears and snakes she has seen. I think she is close to double digits for each species. I’m pretty sure my total would have stopped at 1, because after the first bear sighting, I would be looking for another job.

Some of our fears are rational, like the fear of heights and bears. These kinds of fear are likely a biological response intended to keep us alive. If you didn’t have any fear of heights or bears, you might put yourself in unnecessary danger. Other fears are irrational. Some people fear the number 13. I was in a hotel this summer that had over 12 floors. But when you got into the elevator, there was no 13th floor to select. They went from 12th to 14th floor. Some people are even scared of clowns. I think some clowns are creepy, but scary? That doesn’t seem rational.

We all know that fear can be absolutely crippling. We fear rejection. We fear failure. Fear keeps us from asking for a promotion at work. Fear keeps us from asking that cute girl in the second row for a date. Fear keeps us from even trying something new, because we might not like finding out that we cannot do it.

Scientists sometimes refer to the three different responses to fear: fight, flight, or freeze. On our last trip to Ohio, Sonya and I went for a little jog around the block. Out in the country, where my family lives, pets are not kept indoors, tethered to a doghouse, or even in a fenced-in backyard. They roam free. This is helpful for protection, as some dogs can be very territorial.

As Sonya and I ran past a neighbor’s farm we were met by two dogs who were not too happy to see us. I’m also sure that they were either Rottweilers or Dobermans. Okay, maybe not, but they weren’t Yorkies, either. The dogs barked, showed their teeth, and chased after us. Fear would be an appropriate word to describe what we felt.

Let’s assess the three different options. We could have stopped, formed fists, and defended ourselves from these dogs. That is the “fight” option. We could have played possum, hoping that the dogs would leave us alone. That is the “freeze” option. Or we could realize that a faster pace was possible, in spite of how tired we thought we were, and flee. We went with “flee.”

These options are not always considered consciously. We never considered whether we should fight back against the dogs and playing possum didn’t even cross my mind. But sometimes these things happen without thinking about it. There are times when you just freeze up and can’t move, or kick at that dog barking at your heels. However, for us, in this moment, we just knew we had to get the heck out of there.

In Matthew’s 14th chapter we find a series of interesting events. Jesus receives the discouraging news that his friend, colleague in ministry, and cousin, John the Baptist, has just been executed. And if you believe that Jesus was fully human, like I do, then you can safely assume that this news was difficult to receive. So Jesus has been trying to get away from the crowds for a little while, seeking an opportunity to grieve, pray, and find some rest.

Jesus was along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee at this time, and the Sea of Galilee really isn’t that big. So Jesus tries to find some peace and quiet by setting sail from one side of the sea to the other, but the people continue to follow him along the shore. When they catch up to him, this tired, mourning Jesus does what Jesus does: he ministers to the people. He cured the sick, taught them, and fed them – all 5,000 men – from five loaves of bread and two fish.

But evening was upon them and Jesus saw his opportunity for some alone time. As the crowds returned home for the day, Jesus instructed the disciples get into a boat and cross the sea while he went up to the mountain alone to pray. This isn’t abnormal; Jesus often sent the disciple off without him. So they began what would normally be a peaceful and short ride across the sea.

But as we know, this would not be the peaceful, short ride the disciples expected. Storms pop up quickly and without warning in this part of the world, and the disciples soon found themselves battered by the wind and the waves, far from land. They had been out there all night, not able to make any progress during the storm.

After battling this storm all night, the disciples see something that they hadn’t seen before. They saw a person walking on the water. And to make it even more scary, that person was walking toward them. Matthew tells us that the disciples were terrified, and I would be, too. They had never experienced anything like this before. Sure, they’ve seen some miracles in their time with Jesus, but he had never done anything like this. So they blurt out the only logical conclusion to come to their mind, “It is a ghost!”

Jesus, knowing that they were afraid, spoke these words of comfort to his disciples in verse 27: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

That little phrase, “Don’t be afraid,” is one that I am finding much comfort in these days. I was reminded recently that this is not a suggestion, it is a commandment. Fear is not a Christian attribute. It is not one of the Fruit of the Spirit.

We find the phrase “Don’t be afraid,” or “Do not fear,” over and over again in the Bible. In fact, some form of this phrase is repeated about 100 times in our scriptures. The first occurrence is in Genesis 15 when God calls Abram to leave all that he knows behind for a land that God will show him. In the middle of all of that, God tells Abram, “Do not fear.”

Often times when an angel appears to a human being, like Mary and Joseph, the angel appropriately begins with the command, “Fear not,” like when the angel appears to the shepherds in the birth narrative and say, “Fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10). Some of the first words of the resurrected Jesus on that first Easter Sunday were the commandment to fear not. Even in the final book of the Bible, Revelation 2:10, we find Jesus’ instructions to the churches facing persecution. These words don’t say that everything will be great, the sun will shine, and it will never rain on your picnic. No, Jesus says that in the middle of persecution the church need not be afraid.

The reason this is such a strong and reoccurring theme in the Bible is because fear is a normal response when we are challenged physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And we are going to be challenged in these ways as Christians. But if we allow ourselves to give in to fear, we will fall into one of those three responses that I mentioned above: fight, flight, or freeze. I believe that in the midst of trials and challenges, none of those three are acceptable. That is why we are commanded to have no fear.

As the disciples see Jesus walking on water, fearing that he is a ghost, he commands them to have no fear. But the crashing waves, blowing winds, and tossing of the boat surely didn’t help matters.

Peter decides to test his bravery and in verse 28 says, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Of course Jesus simply said, “Come.”

And Peter does just that. He takes that first step out on the water. Then a second, maybe even a third. The text tells us that Peter was doing well until he saw the wind, and he became frightened once again. His fear, his lack of faith, caused him to sink.

Often when we talk about this story from the Bible we discuss Peter’s lack of faith and his sinking. But what about the things that were going through Peter’s mind before he got out of the boat? Do you think Peter was sure that he would be able to walk on water? 100%, without doubt, didn’t-even-bring-a-dry-set-of-clothes kind of certain? No, I doubt it. He had more faith than he had doubt at that moment, and that is what led him to take that first step.

But Peter surely knew that there was a chance that he would sink. I imagine Peter getting ready to step over the edge of the boat and one of the other disciples calling out, “Do you think you can do it, Peter?”

In my mind Peter gives a simple, one-word response: “Perhaps.” However, there is also a flip-side to this response. I’m sure Peter knew that perhaps he could sink as well. But Peter is able to overcome the fear of “perhaps” and he takes that first step.

That word is one that I think we could all stand to include in our daily conversations a little bit more. And to some, the use of the word “perhaps” when we talk about things like faith and theology will sound weak, like we don’t have strong convictions or beliefs. I get that, but I think that going the extreme other direction leads to something even worse: idolatry.

I recently started reading a book by a scholar by the name of John Caputo. The book is a collection of essays titled The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. I don’t necessarily endorse everything that Caputo says, but I think he is correct in his articulation of what it means to include the word “perhaps” in our theological lexicons.

Caputo is critiquing the way theologians have attempted to define God and do theology with an iron fist. We cast our beliefs in molten steel, never to be revisited again.

I can’t get into all of the ways that Caputo develops this “Theology of Perhaps” – he uses 300 pages to do so, and I only have 30 minutes – but know that it is not meant to be a copout, or an excuse to be wishy-washy. He writes, “‘Perhaps’ is not the safety of indecision but a radical risk, for nothing guarantees that things will turn out well, that what is coming will not be a disaster.”

Peter faced a “perhaps” kind of moment when he stood at the side of the boat as he considered taking that first step. Perhaps he would sink; perhaps he would walk on water.

Perhaps is a scary place to be. We want assurance, we want to know all that can be known, and we want to believe that the things we believe cannot be questioned. But in the middle of these “perhaps” situations, Jesus tells us, no, he commands us, “Do not fear.” Because if we fear in the middle of these “perhaps” situations, we will resort to the three options: to fight, flight, or freeze. But we are not called to fear. We are not called to fight, flight, or freeze. No, we are called to a different “f” word. We are called to have faith.

I’ve been drawn to a theology of “perhaps” because I see so much turmoil in the Mennonite Church these days. A couple of weeks ago our conference delegate body met in Charlottesville for our annual summer assembly. We gathered to worship, pray, learn, and do the business of the church. But there was a bit of a dark cloud that hovered over the entire weekend. During the delegate session we had to take official action to release three congregations from our conference, at their request. Two of these churches had been a part of Virginia Mennonite Conference for over 90 years, one of them for over 100 years. The issues named by these congregations for their desire to break fellowship with our conference and denomination were numerous, but all three noted human sexuality as reasons for their withdrawal. These brothers and sisters tend to be on the more conservative end of the theological spectrum, and unfortunately they may just be the first wave of departures from our conference.

Interestingly enough, I sat with a group of leaders that same weekend who are on the more progressive end of the theological spectrum who said they are also considering leaving our conference. So we have churches leaving because the conference isn’t conservative enough, and some leaving because we are too conservative.

I’ll be honest, there is a lot of fear in our conference right now. And I have as much reason for concern as anyone else. I’ve got a lot invested in Virginia Mennonite Conference. I hold leadership positions and have a strong relationship with conference and denominational leaders. I don’t know what the future holds for our denomination, conference, and for our churches. And the potentially scary thing is that I am highly trained to do the job that I am doing and not much else. I don’t think that I am the best pastor in the world, but I also don’t think that I am the worst. However, with the decline we see in church attendance as well as conference and denominational involvement, I can’t be certain if I will ever have a full-time job in ministry.

Will the church as we know it come to an end? Will our denomination and conference continue to splinter? I wish I could give a confident “no!” But I can’t. I am left with the option articulated by John Caputo: perhaps. And recognizing that provides the opportunity for fear.

Yet we serve a master who commands us to have no fear. Fear will cause us to fight, like we do see in some churches. Fear will cause us to flee, running away from others for self-preservation. Or fear will cause us to freeze, that is, to do nothing. No, in the midst of this “perhaps” moment, Jesus’ words ring loud and clear. “Do not fear.” Instead, have faith.

This is not a call to do nothing. In fact, I would say that these “perhaps” situations require the most action, and maybe the most difficult action. In the middle of that storm when Peter was faced with his own “perhaps” situation, Jesus didn’t say, “Just sit there and do nothing.” No, Jesus called Peter to enter into the storm, and to do so without fear. And that’s when he walked on water.

I refuse to lead a congregation out of fear. As uncomfortable as it might seem, I will lead out of “perhaps.” I will lead out of faith.

I’ll close with one more quote from Caputo, which seems so appropriate for today: “The impossible just might be possible, perhaps. Is that not our constant prayer? Is that not why we pray? Is there any other reason to pray?”

**I took some liberties with Caputo’s Theology of Perhaps. He focuses more on the “perhaps” of doing theology, what I might call a “hermeneutic of humility.”

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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