Sunday, March 10, 2013
Footsteps of Jesus at the Sea (Matthew 5:1-11, Matthew 14:22-27, John 21:1-14)
Through our worship in this Lenten season, we are re-tracing the footsteps of Jesus. The backdrop for these sermons in this series is my recent trip to the Holy Land. From January 29 - February 7, I travelled with a group of young United Methodist clergy from around our conference, all of us age 35 or under, and our bishop, on a spiritual pilgrimage where we walked where Jesus walked. My hope for each of us is that we will step out with a holy boldness and courage to follow in the life-changing way of Jesus.
Last Sunday, we followed the footsteps of Jesus in the wilderness. We remembered that even when we walk through barren and difficult and dry places in our lives, Jesus has already been there, and indeed he still walks with us in those places.
Today, our attention moves about 100 miles north to the region around the Sea of Galilee. In just 100 miles, the landscape shifts from the dry and rocky desolation of the wilderness to the green and fertile lushness around the Sea of Galilee.
The majority of his adult life and earthly ministry took place in this region, and just as the land itself is fertile, so too was it fertile spiritual ground for Jesus. I invite you to join me in following the footsteps of our Master at the sea.
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. He sat down and his disciples came to him. He taught them, saying:
“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.
Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.
Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.
Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.
Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.
Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me.”
High above the northwestern edge of the lake is the Mount of Beatitudes. The site commemorates Jesus’ teaching in the 5th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel which was just read for us. This section of scripture is called “The Beatitudes,” because in Latin, each of these 8 teachings begins with the word beatus, meaning “blessed,” or “happy:” describing life and character traits of true followers of Jesus.
But there’s more to it than that. A more thorough understanding of what Jesus actually said would be, “You’re on the right track when.” “You’re on the right track when you’re hopeless, when you grieve, when you’re humble, when you hunger and thirst for righteousness. You’re on the right track when you show mercy, when your heart is pure, when you make peace. You’re on the right track when people harass you and insult you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you because of me” - folks, when you’re following Jesus, expect this kind of treatment. When someone is mean and nasty, when they harass you, when they insult you, you just look them in the eye, and you smile, and you say, “Thank you,” because that mean and grumpy person is helping you to realize that you’re on the right track.
The Beatitudes are a centerpiece of Jesus’ teaching. The top of the mountain has been developed into a beautiful garden with many places that overlook the Sea of Galilee. At the center of this beautiful garden is the Church of the Beatitudes; the building’s octagonal shape is a reminder of the eight beatitudes Jesus taught.
We hiked down a trail from the top of the mountain to the water’s edge. I couldn’t help but think, “I wonder if Jesus himself ever walked down this path?” We know that Jesus and his disciples were all over those mountains and hills that cradle the Sea of Galilee - could we be walking right where he had walked? Every rock we passed - was this a place where Jesus might have sat to rest or to teach?
As we walked down the mountain, talking with each other, sharing stories, sharing life, and taking in the beauty of the moment and time - I couldn’t help but wonder if we were experiencing something like what it was for Jesus and his disciples. Partway down the mountain, at a place where we could see almost the entire sea from one to the other, Bishop Goodpaster stopped our group, called us close, and we turned our attention to a story in Matthew 14:
Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone. Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land. Very early in the morning he came to his disciples, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.
Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
Storms on the Sea of Galilee are legendary. Geographically, the lake sits in a sort of bowl with mountains all around it. However, on the western side of the sea, there is a gap in the mountains that stretches all the way to the Mediterranean. And so, what happens is that the wind blows off the Mediterranean, through the gap in the mountains that acts like a wind tunnel, and then spills out into this bowl that contains the Sea of Galilee, and can whip it up into quite a frenzy in no time.
We stood at the overlook, picturing this story in our minds. It was afternoon, and Jesus sent the disciples to the other side of the lake, which you could see. He dismissed the crowds, and went up onto a mountain to pray - perhaps it was a place similar to the overlook where we were standing. Hours pass, evening comes, and still the disciples are out there rowing, straining against the wind. Then it says, “Early in the morning,” - think about that for a minute - let’s say it’s 6am - the disciples have been rowing against the wind since the previous afternoon, it might have been 15 hours that they’ve been rowing. Think about how exhausted they must have been. How discouraged. How ready to give up.
You ever felt like that? I have. You know, there are times in the life of faith where it feels like we’re rowing against the wind - straining, working, wearing ourselves out and just not getting anywhere. There are times when it feels like we’re going at it alone, and Jesus is far, far away.
What I want you to remember is that there are times when it’s difficult to sense the presence of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus has abandoned us. Even when we are straining at the oars of ministry against the headwinds of all that would blow us off course and feels like it might even drown us, Jesus is never far away. He always has us within sight, and he might just be praying for us in our struggle.
But, thanks be to God, there are also places where we experience the overwhelming presence of Jesus so clearly he may as well be in the boat with us. One of the highlights of any trip to the Holy Land is a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Next time I go to the Holy Land, I’ll be leading the trip, and I hope all of you can come along, and we will take a ride on the boat.
You may not realize this, but when pastors get together, we talk about church. We talk about budgets, we talk about attendance, we talk about worship, we talk about missions, we talk about challenges, we talk about leadership, we talk about headaches and problems - we talk about you, too!
It’s one of the things that is wearying about going to clergy meetings - because you never get away from the business of church. But on the boat that morning as we travelled across the Sea of Galilee, there was none of that. No complaining, no bragging, no jockeying for position about who was doing the best or whose situation was the worst. We talked about life, places we’ve travelled, experiences we’ve had, jokes we love even when we couldn’t re-tell them very well - There was a fellowship and a connection I experienced both with Jesus but also with the others on the boat, and I thought to myself, “This must be a foretaste of what the kingdom of God is like.”
Later in the trip, when we had an opportunity to express our thanks for some meaningful moment of the trip, I gave thanks for “friends in the boat.”
And here’s the thing - out on the boat, none of us were in charge. None of us were trying to drive. None of us knew where we were going. We did, however, know who we were going with, and that in and of itself was a great blessing and source of joy.
It is no coincidence that one of the early metaphors and images to describe the church was a boat. So here’s what I want you to consider this morning - are you blessed and joyful because of your time with others in the boat? Or, are you still complaining, still bragging, still trying to steer? Instead of being insistent on the boat going where you want it to, try being thankful for the people in the boat with you, and find in them a source of blessing and joy. If you do, the journey will be a lot more enjoyable for everyone, yourself included. Let Jesus be the captain, and live the life of faith that gives thanks for friends in the boat.
Another place I had one of those experiences was in Capernaum; a town on the northern shore of the sea of Galilee. In Jesus’ day, it was one of the busiest towns and the center of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. In fact, it is referred to as the Town of Jesus. This was his homebase during his ministry. We often think of Jesus as being “from Nazareth,” which is true in that it’s where his family lived and where he grew up. But Jesus was “from” Nazareth in the same way that I am “from” Buffalo - I don’t live there anymore. I’ve said that its a great place to be “from” - Nazareth is a great place to be “from,” as well!
If you remember, Jesus’ teaching didn’t go over so well in Nazareth. They didn’t care for his message - partway through his first sermon there, the good folk rose up and angrily drove him to the edge of the hill on which their town was built because they intended to kill him. Talk about a strong reaction to a sermon! All I get are blank stares, frowns, and the occasional shaking of an angry fist at the door!
And so, the scriptures tell us that Jesus withdrew from Nazareth and Capernaum is called “his own city,” he made it his new hometown (Matthew 4:12-17, 9:1). Capernaum was a crossroads city with people coming to it to trade from the east and west. The people of Nazareth had closed off their hearts to anything new, and as a result Jesus withdrew from them. But in Capernaum, they were open to the words of hope, healing, and reconciliation that Jesus taught.
The ruins at Capernaum are incredibly well-preserved. We went to the ruins of the synagogue. This was actually a synagogue built in the fourth century, but like so many things in the Holy Land, it’s built on the site of the previous synagogue, where Jesus would have gone to worship and teach, and give the people a glimpse of the abundant life of God’s kingdom like they had never seen it before
From several places in and around the ruins of the synagogue, you are overlooking the ruins of the rest of the town, and you can see the layout of the streets, the buildings, all of it. I looked over it, and I could see Jesus, coming in from the shore, walking through the streets, talking to people, laughing with them, buying things in the market. This was his town, and these were his neighbors. He knew this place, and this place knew him.
In Capernaum, Ashley just wandered away and went exploring on her own, because she said it was clear I was having a moment. I was lost in my own little world - Jesus’ world, actually - and she was going to let me hang out there as long as I wished.
Capernaum was also the town where Peter’s mother-in-law had a house. Her house was homebase for Jesus and his disciples. Can you imagine her cooking for and cleaning up after 13 men who had been traipsing around the countryside or were off fishing half the night?
Her house likely became the meeting place of one of the earliest churches in existence. The first churches were house churches, they just met in someone’s home rather than construct a building. Early Christians in Capernaum began to worship in the home of Peter’s mother-in-law, and they have continued to worship on the very same site for nearly 2000 years. Today, there is a church constructed right over the ruins of Peter’s mother-in-law’s house. This was one of our favorite churches of the trip - believe me, we were in and out of a lot of churches! - but the church at Capernaum was exceptional. An open, modern design, flooded with natural light, and at the center of the church was an open window to the ruins of the house below - connecting the worship of Christians today with those who met in the house Jesus likely called home, and you could see his footsteps everywhere in this little town by the sea.
Later, Jesus himself appeared again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberius. This is how it happened: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples were together. Simon Peter told them, “I’m going fishing.”
They said, “We’ll go with you.” They set out in a boat, but throughout the night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t realize it was Jesus.
Jesus called to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”
They answered him, “No.”
He said, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”
So they did, and there were so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked), and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they weren’t far from shore, only about one hundred yards.
When they landed, they saw a fire there, with on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you’ve just caught.” Simon Peter got up and pulled the net to shore. it was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them. Yet the net hadn’t torn, even with so many fish. Jesus said, “Come and have breakfast.” None of his disciples could bring themselves to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread, and gave it to them. He did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
The Sea of Tiberias, named for the large town on the western shore, is just another name for the Sea of Galilee. So, on that hike I was telling you about as we came down from the Mount of Beatitudes, we ended up at the Church of the Primacy of Peter on the shoreline.
This church commemorates the commission that Peter received from Jesus - “If you love me, feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). In that story, three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And each time Peter responds, “You know I do!” However, we only have one word in English for “love,” whereas the Greek had several, each denoting a different type and depth of love. Jesus is referencing agape love - that deep, abiding, sacrificial, perfect love. He says, “Peter, do you agape me?” and Peter says, “I phileo you” (brotherly love); Peter basically says, “Jesus, I think you’re neat.” The last time Jesus asks, he softens the word for love from agape to phileo, the same type of love Peter’s been talking about all along.
What does that mean? Jesus meets us where we are, and works with the best of our understanding.
For our part, we need to listen to Jesus. Sometimes we are so insistent on doing it our way that we are like the disciples who have been fishing all night, are worn out, and haven’t caught anything. Jesus says, “Cast your nets on the other side of the boat” and they do, and they catch the biggest haul of fish you can imagine. The disciples could have ignored Jesus, but my guess is they’d still be out there in that boat, and they’d still be hauling in empty nets.
So here’s what I want you think about: are the nets of your life full, or do you keep pulling them in empty? Can you hear Jesus asking if you’re worn out yet, and if he told you to, are you willing to change what you’re doing, and put your nets down somewhere else?
As dusk settled and our surroundings took on beautiful purples and golds, we gathered along the shore, some standing, some sitting, some kneeling, some wading, and we considered these challenges from Jesus - to feed his sheep, to cast our nets where the fish are. It’s not something we can do on our own, but must fully rely on the grace of God to accomplish what he wants - for us to love him fully, to feed his sheep, to let down our nets and bring more fish - more friends - into the boat.
The sun may be setting, but it’ll be back up in the morning. His call on us is the same as it’s always been, and it’s always a good time for following, feeding, and fishing.