After a Bible study about one of Jesus’ sea crossings, one of our members asked for a sermon about “the other side.” This is what I came up with for our congregation’s homecoming service on September 25. This sermon focuses on the call to go. Something needing ongoing prayerful thought and creativity: what are some alternate routes to reach the other side?
A Rough Ride to the Other Side
A Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33, Matthew 8:23-9:1 and Romans 10: 12-15
When Jesus insisted that his disciples get in the boat and head for the other side, they didn’t put up any argument. They knew where he was coming from. They knew the need that waited on the other side. They didn’t know exactly what they would find, but it would be some form of what they had seen already: perhaps another hungry crowd like the one they had just left. Definitely they would see lots of sick people, and they might even see a really fearful situation like what they had seen in Gerasa: demon-possessed people living in the place of the dead—the cemetery.
The disciples also didn’t argue about setting out because Jesus had sent them out before with a commission. In Matthew 10 he told them:
• Go and proclaim the good news
• Cure the sick
• Raise the dead
• Cleanse the lepers
• Cast out demons.
They could hear the urgency in Jesus’ voice, the same urgency that Paul expressed later in this way: How can people call on Jesus if they haven’t put their trust in him? And how can they put their trust in him if they haven’t heard of him? And how can they hear unless somebody goes and tells them?
No, the disciples didn’t put up an argument.
But deep in the night, far from the shore, I am sure they wished they had. Because of the topography at the Sea of Galilee, windstorms can quickly come up with little or no warning. It happens because the Sea itself is down in a bottom, 700 feet below sea level, while the hills around the sea soar up to 1200 feet above sea level. Air cools off quickly at the top and rushes down to take the place of warmer air rising up off the sea. The disciples didn’t have a barometer to detect the subtle changes in air pressure that might have warned them that a storm was forming.
They were hit without warning, and this was a bad one. Even the most seasoned sailors among them didn’t have the stomach for this churning sea. In the Greek Matthew says that the waves tortured the boat.
And being just as human as anyone else, the disciples probably “lost it” as they struggled to hang on. I can imagine them shouting at each other over the noise of the storm. We should have rested in port when the crowd dispersed! Andrew, James and John, you’re the professionals in this bunch. How come you didn’t notice that the wind was changing? Peter, how come you didn’t speak up? I knew I didn’t like the looks of those clouds I saw on the horizon! But the wind carried their voices away.
No wonder the early church told and retold the stories of the disciples sailing through storms. Early on, a boat became a symbol for the church, and what’s more, a storm really is a great way to picture a struggle. Reading on in the book of Acts and the letters, again and again we see the church going out somewhere in mission. Teams of disciples crossed over to the other side on the Mediterranean, or from Troas to Macedonia, from one province to another.
Storms of different kinds came up when the church obeyed Jesus and went out to try to do what he said: Cross over where people are waiting for the good news. There were storms of persecution, sometimes from civil authorities, sometimes from neighbors that just wanted them to go away.
Sometimes the storms came up inside the church. One example is what happened as the church crossed over to Gentile territory: They struggled with the question of how people of Jewish background and people of Gentile, non-Jewish background, could be one church of Jesus Christ together. Jewish Christians cherished the old traditions and believed God called them to continue to practice them, and many believed that Gentiles should follow suit. But most Gentiles did not sense a call to do this. The people of Jesus Christ struggled with one another over the question, and they didn’t always struggle well or graciously. There were times when they wounded each other.
Paul himself survived many a storm—literal storms at sea, plus the fearsome storms of persecution, plus painful storms inside the church. Here and there he describes what he experienced, times when he was afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. He wrote letters from prison. Somewhere in all this I am sure there were times when Paul found himself wishing he hadn’t left the dock.
Knowing, though, that there were so many souls waiting on the other side so many needing the good news of the Kingdom of Jesus, so many needing the healing of Christ—remembering this—kept Paul going.
We can’t forget all the souls that are waiting on the other side for Jesus’ disciples now: people who have messed up, people whose lives are messed up, people wandering through this life and many squandering the opportunity life offers. People that are hungry and poor, the sick and the dying. People that have absolutely no idea of the tenderness in Jesus’ eyes when he looks at them, and no idea of the hope he offers. They’re all out there, waiting. How can they hear unless somebody goes to them? How can they come to know and trust Jesus unless his disciples go and show them?
Anticipating a rough crossing can tempt the church to stay tied up at the dock, parked at the home pier. There are definitely some winds out there that blow against the church. Our fellowship Sunday School reflected on this some earlier this year in a study called When Christians Get It Wrong. Our video instructor Adam Hamilton guided us through the results of a long and extensive study of how young people ages 16-29 perceive the church. The study found that though many young people are interested in Jesus, they are turned off of the church. Some have had bad experiences with the churches and the Christians they have known. Again and again the researchers heard negative perceptions like this: the church doesn’t practice what it preaches. The church is a place where people focus on other people’s faults. You have to leave your brain at home when you become a Christian. Christians get too cozy with particular politicians and particular political parties and particular political views.
Yes, some people want to run the other way when they see Christians coming. But others just shrug their shoulders. The church is irrelevant. You know how restaurants post their menus outside so that passersby can see what is on offer? You can go in and try what they have, or not. Many folks walk right past the church’s menu. Maybe it looks unappetizing. Maybe it’s in a language that they don’t “get.”
That’s some of what’s out there when disciples set sail for the other side. Just contemplating the overwhelming and heartbreaking need out there makes it hard to get started. The need is hard to bear, and it’s also hard to bear that one person and one congregation can’t address it all.
And then there’s this question: how do we reach out to people on the other side while simultaneously caring for the many among us who are in our boat’s sick bay—in the infirmary. They can’t do the heavy labor right now like they used to. They are wondering how they can contribute to the mission effort in a way that really matters. What’s their role while others are at the helm?
And then there are these scary questions: what if we try something and fail. Or perhaps even scarier, what if there’s trouble internally, on board the boat?
As I thought about this, I thought about our history and how, a century ago, we who are now known as Morton Church were on the other side. To reach us, Dr. Morton and the Home Mission League of the First Presbyterian Church physically came out here. They went out into the countryside in different directions, seeking to form fellowships for Bible study. Now in those days, First Presbyterian was not a wealthy church. It had its own struggles, including financial struggles. When Dr. Morton and the rest described their call to head in this direction, and when they requested the resources needed, I can imagine somebody saying, “We need that money at home. Dr. Morton, we called you to take care of us. We need to take care of our people and our problems at home first. Then we can think about going out there somewhere. Then we can begin thinking about mission.”
If they did hear that sort of thing, I’m glad it didn’t stop them. Failure didn’t stop them either. Some of the fellowships they planted didn’t survive. Some survived and died later. But Bethlehem and Morton Churches are still here. I’m thankful somebody answered the call to come out here, when we were the ones on the other side.
When disciples sense God urging them to take a different route to get to the other side, it’s not unusual for others to criticize them. And there will be people who don’t understand it. “The way things are suits us. It satisfies us,” they’ll say. “Why do we need to think about trying new things? People out there can see what we offer and take it or leave it.” This is the risk of trying to reach the other side.
But here comes Jesus again insisting that his disciples head for the other side. Don’t sit at home and wait. Get in the boat and go. Jesus is emphatic about it. The Greek in our scripture lesson is emphatic. Jesus MADE them get in the boat and head for the other side.
And they did that, and now look at this terrible storm! Who could blame them if they were tempted to lose heart? The first time they were in a predicament like this, Jesus was with them, asleep in the stern. They cried out and woke him up. “Save us! We’re perishing.” But this time they didn’t call out to him. He wasn’t with them.
Or was he….
Jesus was perfectly aware of what was happening with his disciples, and he did something about it. In the darkest time of the night, the time when it’s hardest to hang on to hope, Jesus moved in to help his disciples. The churning sea didn’t stop him. The chaos didn’t stop him. This is the great “I am” here. He is the great I am. This is the one who makes a path through the sea. Jesus walked right through the chaos to the place where they needed him so desperately.
They couldn’t believe their eyes. Is this a ghost? They later wondered the same thing when they first glimpsed the risen Lord on Easter evening. That time he came to them through locked doors. No, it wasn’t a ghost. It was the living Lord who loves them. “Take heart,” Jesus said. “I am. Don’t be afraid.” The Greek reads “ego eimi”—“I am.”
No wonder Peter was eager to go to Jesus’ side. “Come!” Jesus invited. And then when the turmoil distracted Peter and stirred up his fear again, Jesus was right there when he cried out. Just when Peter thought this time he was going down for sure, Jesus reached out and caught him. There was Jesus’ strong arm.
Jesus is urging us to go forward. He is calling us to go to the other side where many souls that need him are waiting. How can they come to know him if we don’t try?
How can we not try, remembering the great and painful crossing Jesus made for us, a journey that even led through death and resurrection for our sake?
How can we not try, remembering all the saints who crossed over and braved all the struggle for our sake, because they knew we needed the Lord?
We have to try. We have to seek fresh routes to the other side. The question isn’t will there be a storm. There will be some kind of storm. Jesus doesn’t promise that we won’t have to struggle. But he does promise that we won’t have to struggle alone. Over the churning waves he will come to us with a mighty and outstretched arm. He loves us!
Be strong and of good courage, because the Lord our God is with us wherever we go. In their heart of hearts, the people on the other side are longing for the Lord. Body and soul, they are waiting for Jesus. Who will go to them if we don’t?