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This week, a great number of American churches and pastors will preach about a familiar Bible story: the tale of Jesus walking on water.
If you're a faithful American churchgoer, or even just an occasional one -- or even if you just listen to Christian radio every once in awhile or attended a Christian college, well, you've probably heard a popular sermon and interpretation of this text.
The idea goes like this ...
The story of Jesus' walking on water focuses on an interaction Jesus has with the disciple Peter, who will go on after Jesus' death and resurrection to be known as the Apostle Peter and the first pope of the Catholic Church. It is Peter to whom Jesus gives the "keys," calling Peter a "rock on which the church will be built, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."
That passage comes just two chapters after Peter's interaction with Jesus walking on water.
Here's what happens. In the midst of a terrible storm on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus' disciples look outside the boat and notice that Jesus is walking towards them on top of the water. His disciples were terrified and imagined he was a ghost. But Jesus told them, in the same words God always replies when confronted with human fear in the face of an encounter with God: "Do not be afraid."
Peter boastfully suggests that if it's really Jesus, that Jesus should call him to come out on the water. Jesus does, and Peter walks toward Jesus briefly, only to sink under the waves when he notices the strong wind and stormy water. Peter grew afraid, and he sank.
It is only by grabbing Jesus' outstretched hand that Peter survives. Jesus chides Peter for his lack of faith, but when the two return to the boat, the wind has subsided, and all the disciples worship Jesus.
That's the Bible story. Here's the popular American Christian retelling, popularized in a similarly titled book by megachurch pastor and Willow Creek alumnus John Ortberg, If you want to walk on water, you've got to get out of the boat!"
Ortberg has been in the news recently. He stepped down as pastor of Silicon Valley megachurch Menlo Church on July 29, after news broke that he had allowed his son, John Ortberg III, to continue working with church youth despite a confessed attraction to minors.
This blog isn't about John Ortberg, but I share his connection to the popular American interpretation of this Bible story, because Ortberg was one of the foremost proponents of a sort of "do-it-yourself," American Evangelical salvation that especially appealed to middle-class and affluent suburban whites in the 90s and 2000s. He was an early colleague of Bill Hybels at Willow Creek and a contemporary of California megachurch pastor and author Rick Warren. None of this group of pastors was exceptionally socially conservative, and so their names often aren't included when speaking of American Evangelicals popular in the Trump Era. Yet I would argue that their effect on American culture was perhaps greater than pastors like Jerry Falwell, Jr., of recent Twitter photo ignominy, and even Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, who suggested the removal of Trump from office after his impeachment could ignite another American Civil War.
The effect of pastors like Ortberg is tougher to capture in a headline. These Evangelical leaders and authors often appeared with celebrities. They didn't condemn LGBTQ people explicitly or suggest that women should stay home and have babies, at least not explicitly. What these pastors did do, however, is undermine traditional Christian theology about God's role in salvation, and make it seem possible that salvation could be attained by human works and striving alone.
As many of these pastors have found themselves undergoing scandal and leaving longtime ministries in recent years, or even suffering family tragedy, I wonder not only about how their theological ideas impacted America in general, but how they impacted these pastors themselves. A theology reliant on human and not godly glory is not ultimately kind to any of its human adherents.
In the demystifying of American Christianity, popularized by churches in movie theaters led by bands (all of which I enjoy), what was lost was the mysterious and other-worldly power of a God who came to save the world, not just me and my buddies who look and think like me.
Too often, in the teaching of pastors like Ortberg, Warren, and Hybels (among others), God became a supporting actor in the tale of the white American man, evidenced by the popularity of groups like Promise Keepers, and the ascendancy of the hyper-masculine gospel preached by those like Mark Driscoll, or even the epidemic of pastoral depression and sometimes suicide, which followed at least partially as a result of young male pastors striving on their own to try to reach the promised heights of Hybels, Ortberg and Warren; only to find that the culture behind them had shifted, and they indeed needed God, and others in the church, more than they'd been taught they did.
Let's go back to the Bible story. Jesus walks on water. Peter asks Jesus to call him in. Jesus does. Peter walks on water. Peter gets scared. Jesus reaches out his hand and saves Peter. Jesus chides Peter for his lack of faith. They return safely to the boat. The wind stops. Everyone worships Jesus.
I want you to read the above again.
Here's where Ortberg focuses his interpretation: Peter asks Jesus to call him in.
This is the sermon or the story interpretation you've probably heard. Heck, I'm pretty sure I've preached a version of it.
Ortberg says: "You've gotta get out of the boat to walk on water."
He talks about getting uncomfortable as a Christian, about taking initiative, about putting yourself in the right places to follow Jesus.
None of this is bad advice, but notice the sole actor. It's you. You take initiative, you walk on water, you are the leader, you call to Jesus, you get out of the boat.
I bet this wasn't even Ortberg's stated intention, but nonetheless the listener is left to conclude that his actions and words are more important than Jesus' words and actions.
You get out first, then maybe you walk on water.
Reading this Bible text anew in 2020, I found myself remembering the popular adage: You've gotta get out of the boat. And I imagine preaching it to an American people weary at the hands of a pandemic, raging uncontrollably, a people unable to see the value of shared sacrifice and solidarity. A people galvanized by the call to racial justice after the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police, and a people - most of them white Christians - divided over what that call to racial justice says about the complicity of a white American church that once endorsed slavery.
We are not a people equipped to earn our own salvation. We are not a people called to get out of the boat on our own. We are wandering in the wilderness. The self-help Gospel of the popular American Christianity of the last few decades has little to say to us now, as married couples take their last shaky breaths next to each other on ventilators in overcrowded ICU units, as teachers purchase scrubs and personal protective equipment to walk into their classrooms, as people of color continue to suffer disproportionately, not only at the hands of the police but also from the global pandemic.
In this moment in America, a new interpretation is required.
Let's review the story again: Jesus walks on water. Peter asks Jesus to call him in. Jesus does. Peter walks on water. Peter gets scared. Jesus reaches out his hand and saves Peter. Jesus chides Peter for his lack of faith. They return safely to the boat. The wind stops. Everyone worships Jesus.
I want to suggest a new focus. Ortberg focused here: Peter asks Jesus to call him in.
Here's where I want to focus: Jesus walks on water. Jesus calls Peter in. Jesus reaches out his hand and saves Peter. The wind stops.
It's time to put the spotlight on the most important actor in the Bible. Not me, not Peter, not American Christians, but the brown-skinned Middle Eastern Jew who came to redeem not just me and my buddies who look and think like me but the world.
Notice how the story changes when we focus on Jesus' saving actions, not on what we need to do to save ourselves. Suddenly we see God for who God is: God is inviting, God is forgiving, God saves us. When Peter began to sink, Jesus didn't laugh at him. Jesus didn't say, "C'mon Peter, pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Why didn't you work harder?"
Instead, Jesus extends his hand when Peter is in need. Jesus saves Peter not because Peter is the ideal American man, a Promise Keeper or an elder or the middle class success story, but Jesus saves Peter because saving is what Jesus does.
This, my dear ones, is the word American Christians need to hear in August 2020. We need to hear less about ourselves, and more about Jesus. We don't need to learn to walk on water. We need to remember who does, and who invites us to join him, and who catches us when we fall, and who saves us no matter our worthiness of saving.