Do We Really Want Jesus to Captain the Boat?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/25/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture reading for this sermon was: John 6:1-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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I’m imagining us together on the boat, on the Sea of Galilee. Headed toward the far shore. Rowing against the wind. Struggling in the dark.

I’m remembering all the powerful works of God we have seen together. We know that God is real. We trust in Jesus to teach us. We’ve seen him feed us among the five thousand. 

But right now, it feels like we are alone. How are we going to make it through this storm? What will keep this boat from capsizing?

It says that when they saw Jesus walking on the water, walking across the Sea of Galilee – at night, in the middle of a storm – the disciples were terrified. They could not believe what they were seeing. They had left Jesus praying on the mountainside. Who was this, walking towards them on the water?

But then they heard the voice of Jesus speaking to them from the storm. “It is I; do not be afraid.”And it says, “Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.”

Teleportation. I love that. For anyone who is a fan of Star Trek, I’ve got news for you: Captain Kirk did not invent the transporter. God did. Beam me up, Jesus. And in this particular case, Jesus seems to have transported the entire boat that the disciples were in.

You see teleportation in the Book of Acts, too, when Philip is whisked away by the Holy Spirit after baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch. Does this stuff really happen? It says, “…they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.”

It seems fantastic, but there’s a ring of truth to it. Because that’s how God works sometimes. He takes us from where we are at, to where we are meant to be in an instant. 

Have you ever seen that happen? Have you seen enemies become friends in a moment of understanding and grace? Have you seen intractable situations transformed by unexpected insight and wisdom? Have you seen a community at loggerheads come suddenly into agreement – finding a way forward that none of the parties to the dispute had previously considered?

I feel like I’ve seen this kind of teleportation. I’ve seen the presence of Jesus change realities on the ground. I’ve seen him move the boat forward, through the storm, despite the fact that all our efforts just don’t cut it.

This sounds familiar.

We’re in the boat now. We’re in the storm. We are struggling in the dark, rowing towards our destination. We know where God wants us to be, to be a community filled with love, life, and power. A church that lives and shares the gospel of Jesus. A boat that moves wherever the winds of the Holy Spirit blow us. But it feels like the wind is against us right now. It’s not clear how our rowing can possibly get us to the shore of God’s shalom.

The good news in this story is that our rowing is not the decisive factor. Our efforts are not going to overcome the wind and the waves. But there is a presence hovering over the waters. There is a friend walking toward us. We have a captain who is returning to the boat, who will steer us safely – and quickly – to shore.

The early Quakers knew this experience, too. They had been in a great boat of institutional Christianity, with lots of people rowing in all sorts of different directions. But some English men and women could sense that there was something missing, that none of the oarsmen were making any headway, despite all their learning and accomplishments. Worst of all, they didn’t want to invite Jesus into the boat.

There was a group of people called the Westmorland Seekers, many of whom later became Quakers, who concluded that the best thing they could do was to put down their oars and wait. Wait to hear the voice of Jesus. Wait to feel the desire to bring the Teacher on board the boat. Wait for his presence to immediately bring the boat to land.

Francis Howgill was among the Seekers and later became an important Quaker leader. He describes his community’s experience of being moved and transformed by the Spirit of Jesus in this way:

The Lord of Heaven and earth we found to be near at hand, and, as we waited upon him in pure silence, our minds out of all things, his heavenly presence appeared in our assemblies, when there was no language, tongue nor speech from any creature. The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. 

We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration, insomuch that we often said one unto another with great joy of heart: 

‘What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men? And will he take up his tabernacle among the sons of men, as he did of old? Shall we, that were reckoned as the outcasts of Israel, have this honour of glory communicated amongst us, which were but men of small parts and of little abilities, in respect of many others, as amongst men?’ 

And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God…

Francis Howgill was an old man by the time he heard George Fox preach and the Quaker movement really started to come together in 1652. Howgill was 34 years old by then! Most of the Quakers leaders were in their twenties, or even their teens. And you can hear it in Howgill’s words, can’t you? The passion. The fire. The sense of all things made new. Can you remember feeling that way? Do you remember when God gathered you up, as in a net, and drew you to land?

The young certainly don’t have a monopoly on such experiences of God’s power. After all, Moses was an old man when he stood before the Burning Bush of God’s presence for the first time. But there is something about being young, isn’t there? An openness, a sense of possibility – a holy desperation for what is real, and true, and solid. A hunger for the whole wheat bread of life, and a refusal to be tempted by the trinkets and baubles that the world offers us.

As we get older, it’s hard not to settle down, make compromises. To accept the ways of the world and learn how to get by in it. We might even feel that we have become successful. But as C.S. Lewis writes in his wonderful book The Screwtape Letters:

Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.”

Have we become prosperous?  Have we become satisfied? Have we allowed ourselves to become knit to the world? Have we become so enamored with the act of rowing, that we have forgotten that the whole point of our little boat is to get the ship and its passengers safely to shore?

Have we forgotten that our Lord is walking towards us on the water, calling out to us, “It is I; do not be afraid”?

Every passing moment is another chance to look out on the water and, in the words of John, to want to take Jesus into the boat. Do you want him here with us? Do you want him to lead us?

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Do not be afraid, little crew of this little boat – our Teacher is stronger than the storm.

We just have to look up from our rowing and see him. We must hear his voice over the hissing of the storm. We have to want to take him into the boat. And immediately, he will be with us to teach and guide us. Immediately, he will bring us to shore.