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Proper 14A 2nd Reading

Romans 10:5-15

Joe Cunningham

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist tradition, set-off for America in the fall of 1735 to preach the gospel and to win souls. Three months into their journey, they encountered severe conditions. The experience terrified him to the core. Wesley describes the events in his journal from Sunday, January 25, 1735:

At noon our third storm began. At four it was more violent than any before. Now indeed we could say, “The waves of the sea were mighty and raged horribly.” They “rose up to the heavens above and clave down to hell beneath”. The winds roared round about us and…whistled as distinctly as if it had been a human voice. The ship not only rocked to and fro with the upmost violence, but shook and jarred with so unequal, [and] grating a motion, that one could not but with great difficulty keep one’s hold of anything, nor stand a moment without it. Every ten minutes came a shock against the stern or side of the ship, which one would think should dash the planks in pieces… At seven I went to the Germans. I had long before observed the great seriousness of their behavior… In the midst of the Psalm wherewith the service began the sea broke over, split the main sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up… (Works [BE], 18:142-143)

The epistle lesson from Romans speaks of deep belief—the kind of belief that’s fibrous—not like a fleeting thought or mental exercise, but something that clings to our limbs when we’re flailing for life. Incidentally, the kind of belief Paul has in mind in Romans chapter 10 is reflected in the challenge Jesus puts to Peter in the gospel lesson from Matthew 14.

After multiplying fishes and loaves of bread so that there was more than enough food to feed all the hungry people who had come to hear Jesus teach, Jesus instructs his disciples to proceed across the Sea of Galilee. He would stay behind and go up the mountain to pray alone while they traveled on. Afterward, he would meet them on the other side of the sea. Out on the water, a massive storm hit. Wind and waves pounded against the boat. All of a sudden, in the distance they saw a ghostly apparition. Then they heard a familiar voice.

In the midst of their desperation, Peter and the others discovered just who Jesus truly was. The glory of God the Son was made evident before them, when the light of Christ moved toward them through the darkness and they heard his voice:

“It is I. Do not be afraid.”

Often when we read this story (in light of the lesson from Romans 10) we focus on Peter and his insufficient faith; he steps out of the boat and then begins to sink as the waves swirl around him… If only he had been more faithful. If his faith was stronger, then he never would have had to cry out to Jesus: “Save me, Lord!” nor would he have started to sink in the first place. Don’t be like Peter, oh “ye of little faith.” After all isn’t this what Paul has in mind in Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, then you will be saved…”?

Peter gets a bad rap.

However, whatever faith he seems to lack, the church must remember how his trust in God had led him to this terrifying place. Peter chose to climb into the boat. He chose the open water where things can go from bad to worse in the blink of an eye.

Will Willimon, former dean of the chapel at Duke University, reflects on the experience of Peter this way, and it’s a fitting description of the faith Paul has in mind in Romans 10:

“If Peter had not ventured forth, had not obeyed the call to walk on the water, then Peter would never have had this great opportunity for recognition of Jesus and rescue by Jesus. I wonder if too many of us are merely splashing about in the safe shallows and therefore have too few opportunities to test and deepen our faith. The story today implies if you want to be close to Jesus, you have to venture forth out on the sea, you have to prove his promises through risk and venture.”

Faith isn’t a mental exercise. Nor is it reducible to an emotional experience. And it certainly isn’t the same thing as confessing your belief with your mouth. “Confessing Christ with our mouth,” Paul tell us in verse 10:9, is one part of it. More than lip-service, deep belief is the spiritual stuff that clings to our limbs when we’re flailing for life in the pounding waves.

Like Peter (and Paul) do we prove his promises through risk and venture for the sake of his kingdom? Do we find ourselves in moments where we’ve no alternative but to cry out to the Lord, our stronghold and hope, to save us, as we seek his kingdom? Do we follow Jesus into the deep waters, believing with our gut and with our bones and with every molecule of strength we can summon that Christ is raised from the dead? Or are we content to boast of Jesus with our mouth, while wading knee deep next to the shoreline?

What if Peter and the disciples chose instead to play it safe and stay on the shore? What if Paul had done the same thing, instead of following the risen Christ to places of risk and adventure? Their lives would have been easier. Their faith might have seemed stronger. But the way of salvation is not the easy way.

Paul says in Romans chapter 10 verse 13: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” On the one hand, it’s a categorical statement regarding inclusion within the new covenant. Grace is grace for all. And yet, it’s also a reminder for the church to follow Peter’s lead. It’s in the storms of life – not the shallows – where deep-belief emerges. It’s there that Christ meets us, saying, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” Are we willing to venture into the sea where promises are proved by disciples who take risks for the sake of the gospel? Is ours the stuff of “deep-belief” that clings to bones when limbs are flailing for life? Or are we merely splashing in the shallows?

Joe Cunningham

About the Contributor

Minister, First Free Methodist Church of Saginaw; Lecturer in Philosophy and Religious Studies, Saginaw Valley State University