Experiencing Faith with Elijah, Peter, and Paul

Mike Brown

August 20, 2017

Texts:
     1 Kings 3:5-12
     Psalm 85:8-13
     Matt 14:22-33
     Rom 10: 5-15

Welcome to the Dog Days of summer.  These days are historically connected with heat, drought, sudden thunderstorms, lethargy, fever, mad dogs, and bad luck.  These days are taken to be the hottest, most uncomfortable part of summer in the Northern Hemisphere.  The church year also has seasons.  Presently, we are in the Ordinary Time.  Ordinary Time are times in the Church Year that are not related the major feasts of Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost.  We are presently half way between Pentecost and Christmas. 

The readings for today’s are for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time.  The Hebrew Scriptures are from 1st Kings and Psalms; and the Christian Scriptures readings are from Matthew and Romans.

Let’s start with a prayer that may be relevant to our post-modern world which is adapted from one of John O’Donohue poems:

Lord, we are in time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld.
The path we took to get here has washed out.
The way forward is still concealed from us.
The old is not old enough to have died away
The new is still too young to be born.”

Lord Save Us.  (Last line added)

Themes

A theme central to all these readings is "Lord Save Us."

a.  In 1st Kings, Elijah is high-tailing it into the wilderness to escape the wrath of Jezebel while being aided by God with food and challenged by God’s questions: What are you doing here, Elijah?

b.  In Psalm 85, Salvation is central to this reading with its promise of the ….coming of peace in which Mercy and Truth have met together; Justice and Peace has kissed.   It is important to notice that  the four words of mercy, truth, and justice and peace are the key elements of restorative practices for victim, offender, and community which are gaining momentum especially in the juvenile justice system. 

c..  In Matt 14, the Gospel passage focuses on Jesus and Peter walking on the water.  Peter challenges God and is saved anyway. 

d.  In Romans 10, Paul gives his views of faith and salvation.  He refers to faith as proclaiming that Jesus is Lord; proclaiming that Christ is risen; and accepting that salvation will come to those who believe   

Spiritual Formation

Faith and salvation are central to these texts as well as our own spiritual formation.  Spiritual maturation is sometimes viewed as a four stage process (aka the four states of maturing love by Bernard of Clairvaux).   This process is not linear but a circular process that circles around itself but over time gradually spirals toward a union with God.  Each of us each day spends some time in each of the stages, but over time, we tend to spend more and more of our time in the latter stages. 

Stage 1: Love self for you own sake.

Stage 2: Love God for your own sake

Stage 3: Love God for God’s sake

Stage 4: Love yourself for God’s sake.

This spiritual movement seems deceptively right, but it also has its limitations.  One of those limitations is that it does not appear to foster a very personal relationship to God and does not incorporate Others in our lives and in the world.   It seems to not fully address the two commands of scriptural exhortations: Love God with you whole heart and soul… & Love your neighbors as yourself. 

Also, these do not give much understanding of who/what God is and what Love is.  For a starting point, let’s consider God to be something like the ground in which we live, move, and have our being (Acts 7:28) and love to be something like nurturing growth and life (Peck, Different Drummer).  Love seems to makes our ground come alive and nurtures the force that feeds/energizes our soul.    

People who dwell more in the last stage seem to have more of an inner compass that gives direction, meaning, and purpose to life.  They seem to be able to be present to the here and now with others and situations.  They seem to have the right amount of trust and doubt that grows and nurtures their faith.   You might notice that as you move along this four-stages process that your ego moves from being center-stage of the ground of your being to being less dominant.  The ego is not repressed and remains important, but it mutes its wanting to dominate and tends to inform rather than to drive your choices and life.

Stage 3.  Love God for God’s sake is the most puzzling and problematic stage in the process of maturing faith, aka life.  This state can be a fearful place.  Some people in this stage experience "The Dark Night of the Soul."  You sit in mostly darkness and feel like you have been sucked into a black hole and will never return.  Your senses are sometimes muted, you experience much of the world through the “half empty” glass of life (aka "Dark Night of the Senses"), and your zest for life is often greatly diminished and your life has lost most of its purpose/meaning (aka "Dark Night of the Spirit").  This is a stage fertile ground for depression and/or anxiousness.  You seem lost to God, to your life, and to your world.

Stage 4.  Love yourself for God’s sake is more of place of freedom to commitment.  It is place where joy, fear, anger, and sadness coexist all at the same time and a deeper part of your self that finds ground to move forward is born (maybe a "born again" experience).  Your ego is present but it does not rule but now has matured into a more of a companion that informs to nurture both your freedom and commitment.  Your life has more depth and breath.  Your sadness and maybe despair has not gone away but are balanced by the natural abundance of life on earth.  You are more awake to both the goodness and evilness of the world.  But you're more able to move through the narrow gate to know that that goodness/God is a force more powerful.  And you are more able to see and experience the joy of our natural abundance of heaven on earth while you are experiencing pain and suffering.  The quote that "we must lose ourselves to find ourselves" seems appropriate for this final stage

This is journey/process is very difficult for most of us and probably impossible without God.   This impossibility seems especially true for people of privilege since their (our?) egos constrain most of them to the first two stages of life.  People of privilege with their culture of self-importance especially this i-phone, i-pad culture, me-generation, etc, seems to obscure their experiencing the really real of life.   A Paul-like falling-off-your-horse experience is needed to force most of them (us?) even to consider the higher stages.

Elijah

Elijah’s story slowly spirals through the stages of formation with much meandering and recirculation toward his encounter with God. 

a. Elijah is high tailing it out of Jerusalem into the wilderness to save his skin from Jezebel’s pursuing soldiers.
b. He is about to give up but God’s angel provides help with food, water, and encouragement.
c. He is able to go further into the wilderness to be safer and to hear God better.
d. He asked to die in despair.
e. All along this journey, God keeps saving him and keeps asking him the seminal question What are you doing here, Elijah?
f. He does not hear the question well while he is busy saving his skin and while he is being saved by God from soldiers, the rigors of the wilderness, and his own despair.
g. Elijah when he is safe in the wilderness to attempts to hear God in the wind, earthquake, and fire.
h. Elijah only hears God in the sheer silence.
i. In that silence, Elijah responds with freedom and commitment to respond to God’s call for him to resume his prophetic work with and through Elisha.

Peter

So how does Peter’s Lord-Save-Us experience of walking on the water nurture his faith?   The narrative of Matthew’s story is as follows:

a. Jesus sends his apostles in a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee while he stays and prays;
b. A storm comes up in the night while crossing and the apostles are terrified.
c. Jesus approaches them in the darkest part of the night walking on the water and the apostles are even more terrified.
d. Jesus says "Do not fear."
e. Peter gets out of the boat and approaches Jesus but starts to sink and says “Lord, Save Me.”
f. Jesus catches him and says, “Faint-heart what got into you” and
g. Both return to the boat

In biblical times, the sea itself was viewed as representing the forces of chaos.  These forces were always held at bay by the creative act of God.  Water represents all the anxieties and dark powers that threaten the goodness of creative order initiated at creation.  The modern mind might think of Peter’s water walking as defying the laws of gravity while the biblical mind would view it as overcoming the chaos and power of darkness.  In was common place in the ancient world to hold that many of the deities could walk on water.   Jesus’s-walking-on-water and Peter’s attempting-and-slowly-sinking can be seen as God acting through them to experience the darkness and chaos of life and overcoming it with and through God’s assistance.  (The New Interpreters Bible).

Peter is a little less fearful than the other disciples with the appearance of Jesus walking to them amidst the storm.  Peter would like to trust that the ghost-like figure is Jesus; but he has his doubts.  Peter decides to hedge his bets and test Jesus’s authenticity by saying, "Lord if it is you, command me to come."  Jesus calls and Peter goes.  Peter at first has enough trust to walk above the chaos/darkness; however, as he walks further, his fear/doubt increases so that his faith is severely challenged and he starts to sink into the darkness.  Peter does not sink like a rock; rather, he has time to call out for help.  Peter is not skeptical in his faith, but he is vacillating.  He tested Jesus’ in order to lessen his doubt and build his trust.  Challenging God in scripture has always been tough row to hoe, for example, Job arguing with God in his misfortune.  Jesus saves Peter despite his low level of faith in Jesus to walk above the darkness, but Jesus admonishes Peter with the words, “Faint-heart, what got into you?”

Peter and the other disciples in this Gospel reading are in Stage 1 and Stage 2 of spiritual formation.  Their hearts and minds are striving toward God’s but they are weighed down by their focus on self.  Peter is working his faith to get a little freer, to get closer to God by walking above the darkness and chaos, aka salvation.  Jesus helps Peter to recover when his trust in God falters and starts to slip into the darkness.  Some people might call Jesus’s part of this recovery “grace" (i.e. unmerited gift); and some might call Peter’s part of his recovery a momentary suspension of his ego to allow doubt to lessen and trust increase.  Peter is moving courageously through and not getting stuck in Stage 3, Loving God for God sake.  Peter’s faith is not static but is dynamic, growing stronger with an unfolding the mixture of trusting and his doubting.  This mystical dance of trust and doubt evolving is vital for developing our faith to energize our soul force in our lives. 

The apostles become stronger in their faith (aka strong-hearted people) only after coming to terms with their faint-heartedness.  The apostles are in terror in the darkest part of the night with only a fragile craft preserving them from a sea of chaos.  Jesus appears and tells them not to fear and gives them the grace they need to move into Stage 3 - Love God for God sake - and prepare them for Stage 4 - Love ourselves for God’s sake. 

This walking-on-water and above-the-darkness-and-chaos can be viewed as more than just applicable for an individual or small group.  It can be viewed on the corporate level.  Some people see this teaching applicable to the Christian Church after the risen Christ.  The Christian Church as represented by the apostles in the fragile boat beset by darkness and chaos sent by Jesus to the other shore (i.e. baptize all nations).  Jesus after the resurrection is no longer in the flesh but still present in his resurrected self to the apostles and church.  The church is a fragile craft left alone to negotiate how to live move and have its being in the world.  In other words, how to live corporately, how to be the world on earth as it is in heaven while being affected by the winds of the world as conflict, persecution, change, and other challenges. 

Paul

Paul has a few pithy words about faith and salvation.  In Romans, he says, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  These words seem abstract and not very useful in the terror of the chaotic sea of life with all of its darkness.  However, recall that Paul in his falling-off-the-horse experience on the Damascus Road has already gone through and come to a spiritual maturity in his Stage 3 Experience of Loving-God-for-God-Sake.  Paul also seems well experienced in the Stage 4 Loving-Oneself-for-God-Sake.  For Paul, the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead is enough to carry him from the other side over the chaos and darkness to a salvation as seen as to live into a “heaven on earth.”

The Call of Church and State

A potential powerful application of this view of today’s scriptures is how can we accept the gift of becoming strong-hearted people and pass on this gift to helping to build mature strong-hearted organizations.   At the local level, this organization may be the Eighth Day Faith Community; at a national level, it may be a strong-hearted country.  As organizations become more diverse and larger, the internal dynamics become more complex and challenging.  Spiritual discernment becomes more and more needed and central to maturation as a process of spiritual organizational being. 

Psalm 85 offers an excellent format for organizational discernment in which Mercy and Truth have met together; Justice and Peace have kissed.   Groups sitting with these four words over time can best discern how to engage a larger world to remain resilient, vibrant, strong-hearted organizations.   These four words are the core of Restorative Justice as well as other Restorative practices.  The Church of the Saviour with its Outward and Inward Spirituality has helped to nurture and mature people into being strong-hearted people who develop strong-hearted organizations that are often able to create and follow a communal call to make a way out of no way.  They are to find and nurture a force powerful to make change happen in our culture.  This has been especially true with Church of the Saviour in the Adams-Morgan area.  Organizations like the Potter’s House, Jubilee Housing, Columbia Road Heath Services, Jubilee Jobs, as well as Eight Day have strived to walk above the waters of chaos and darkness. 

 Working with these four words—Mercy, Truth, Justice, Peace—is also useful for the spiritual development of national and international organizations.  Many of the values and goals that we have internalized as Americans and which have become basic to our national moral compass have been ignored lately in our political discourse and decision making.  Many of us are feeling like frogs in water that is becoming warmer by the day.  We are confused by the seemly sudden change.  We do not know whether to jump out of the water or stay in the hope for a change.  The recent election with is demonizing the opposition and ridiculing them mostly for who they are and not what they do has unleashed some evil force that centers on the materialism and greed.  These forces have always been in the American social and cultural fabric as its dark shadow.  But now it seems to be invited out as political correctness and celebrated as the appropriate norm for all Americans.  The most pressing questions challenging the American spirit is: Will America walk above this darkness and chaos or will it be sucked into the abyss where doubt will overcome the trust in the American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; where doubt and mistrust will overcome our ability to form a more perfect union, establish justice, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty on ourselves and our prosperity?  The growing lack of faith as seen in America’s downward spiral of trust and its upward spiral of doubt signals the loss of the American Dream for ourselves and our world.  God’s question to Elijah is also a relevant question to our present lives: What are you doing here, America?

In closing, today’s reflections on Elijah running and turning; Peter’s waking, sinking, and rising on the water; and Paul’s certainty that  salvation comes through faith are important to us as individuals, as the Eight Day Faith Community and as Americans.  God’s question to Elijah can be extended and is thundering in our ears for a response.

What are you doing here, Eighth Day?

What are you doing here, America?

Bernard of Clairvaux’s four-stage process of spiritual formation helps us understand where we are with God in our organizational spiritual journey.

  1. Love 8-Day/America for 8-Day/America’s sake
  2. Love God for 8-Day/America’s sake.
  3. Love God for God’s sake.
  4. Love 8-Day/America for God’s sake.

The Psalmist helps us to discern each stage to live fully with the darkness and chaos by pondering how the words Mercy, Truth, Justice, and Peace come together.    

Let’s end with the same prayer about making a way in the darkness and chaos with John O’Donohue:'s prayer:

Lord, we are in time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld.
The path we took to get here has washed out.
The way forward is still concealed from us.
The old is not old enough to have died away
The new is still too young to be born.”

Lord Save us.