When Lori and I came and met with you for the first time, I shared the story of some things I discovered before I became Disciples of Christ minister. I had the opportunity to travel the United States while helping a friend start a small business. While I was on the road, I talked with a lot of people about church, more specifically, why they no longer attended church. Here is what I discovered:
You can go to any city or town in this great country of ours and ask people: “Say the first thing that comes to your mind when I say, “’nurse.’”
People will respond: “compassionate,” “caring,” “called,” “selfless,” and “sacrificial.”
Then you can ask: “Now, say the first thing that comes to your mind when I say ‘school teacher’.”
You might hear: “crazy.” But then you will hear words like “selfless,” “sacrificial,” “compassionate,” and “caring.”
Then ask: “Now, say the first word that comes to your mind when I say ‘church goers’.”
You know what’s coming, don’t you?
People will respond: “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “arrogant,” “self-righteous, fake.” You may even hear the word, “old.”
Now, here is the interesting part. You might assume that people today have low view of the church simply because the world is becoming increasingly depraved and anti-Christ. However, if you ask the same people to say the first word that comes to their minds when they hear the word “Jesus,” the same people will respond: “loving,” “compassionate,” “caring,” “forgiving,” “accepting,” “selfless,” “sacrificial” “a role model.”
Here’s what I think this means- Although church attendance is in decline, I believe people in this world still love Jesus. The problem is that people do not see Jesus in the church. In fact, school teachers and nurses have done a better job imitating Jesus than some church people!
I wonder if the reason that the church doesn’t look like Jesus has anything to do with the fact that many church people would have difficulty recognizing Jesus if Jesus actually showed up? For how can we look like Jesus if we don’t know what Jesus looks like?
Now, I know it’s hard to believe that we would not recognize Jesus if he came to us, but this morning, we read where Peter, one of Jesus’ most prominent disciples doesn’t seem to recognize him when he comes to him and the other disciples in the middle of a raging storm.
“Lord, if it is you…”
Strange, isn’t it?
“Lord, if it is you…”
It’s strange because we would like to think that if we were in that boat, we would have certainly recognized him, especially if he came walking out to us on some angry waves.
Because that is exactly how we like to picture Jesus. He is the one who comes to us during the storm. He is the one who comes to us when our world turns dark, when the winds of life are against us, when the waves of life are crashing down upon us.
His is the presence that calms our fears, quiets our anxiety, dispels our despair, soothes our souls.
Jesus speaks familiar, comforting words to Peter and the disciples, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.”
We know the sound of that voice. We recognize those words. And as a pastor who has the blessed opportunity to walk with people in the storms of life, I cannot begin to count the times I have heard that voice. The voice of the good shepherd coming to rescue his flock from danger.
But, here’s where the story really gets strange. Even after Jesus speaks those familiar, assuring words, Peter still doesn’t seem convinced that it is Jesus.
“Lord, if it is you…”
So, how will how Peter know? How will he recognize that it is Jesus standing before him and not some made-up ghost of his imagination?
Are you ready?
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
“If it is you, command me to come to you on the water?” Is Peter serious?
I wonder why Peter didn’t say, “If it is you, calm this storm.” “If it is you, climb up in this boat with us and hold us, protect us, and take care of us.” “If it is you, give us some peace.” “If it is you, comfort us and assure us that everything’s gonna be alright.”
After all, isn’t this how we recognize Jesus? “Jesus, come into our church and hold our hands.” “Jesus, come and tell us that the storm will be soon be over.” Jesus, come and assure us that somehow, someway, some day everything’s gonna be alright.”
That’s how we recognize Jesus.
But that’s not how Peter recognizes Jesus.
Peter says, “Jesus, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
“Jesus, if it is you, command me to risk my life. Jesus, if it is you, command me to get up and get out of this boat and venture into a dark world.”
“Lord, if it is you, command me to put it all on the line. Lord if it is you, command me to walk into the storm, face the waves, brave the wind, take on the night.”
It as if Peter cannot recognize Jesus unless this voice commands him to literally throw caution into the wind and risk everything. Peter cannot recognize Jesus unless Jesus calls him to do something dangerous, something selfless, something sacrificial, something foolish.
“Lord it is you, call out to me like you did that day when I heard your voice for the very first time. You know that day I was minding my own business. That day I was there standing in my own little world by the lake with my brother Andrew with a fishing net in my hand. Command me like you did on that day to drop my net, drop everything, leave my family, leave my job and all forms of security behind to venture forth with you on a risky journey called discipleship.”
“Call out me like you did that day when you sent me out into the world to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of heaven has come near. That day you commanded me to do risky, demanding, world-changing things like curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers and casting out demons.”
“Lord, if it is you, warn me again about certain persecution if I follow you. Tell me again about the trials I will face, the great tribulation I will endure. Lord if it is you, command me to love all people although doing so will certainly upset the racists and bigots of the world. Command me to stand up, name and condemn racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Command me to pray for the enemies of the diversity of humanity that is created in the image of God, even when they are carrying guns and torches and are running over us with their automoblies and killing us. Command me to confront violence with love and light, knowing that only love can drive out hate, and only light can overcome the darkness.
“Jesus if it is you, say something that will remind me that if I follow your voice, not only will there be great risk involved, there will be a cross involved. Lord, it it is you, command me to get out of this pew, (I mean this boat) and walk courageously into the darkness. And then, Jesus, and only then, will I recognize you.”
“Oh, I’ll still be scared. Walking with you like this will not be something that comes naturally for me. It is my nature to avoid conflict. So, I’ll have my doubts. I may even have moments when I will take my eyes off of you and think only about saving myself. I will make mistakes.”
“But Lord, I do trust in your grace. As you taught me to always love the sinner, I know your grace will never forsake me.”
Several chapters later in Matthew, we read Jesus reminding Peter and the rest of his disciples: Do you want to see me? Do you want to recognize me? Do you want to encounter me? Do you want to know me? Then feed the hungry, and it will be like you are feeding me.
Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Visit those who are imprisoned and you will be doing it to me.
This is how how you will recognize me:
When you do it to the least of these; when you deny yourself; when you empty yourself; when you throw caution into the wind; when you give yourself away, when you do something that your friends and family consider to be unnatural; when you truly love your neighbor as yourself; when you forgive seventy times seven; when you stand up for the dignity, the worth and the rights of the those who are marginalized by the majority of people, even by some of your friends, even your so-called Christian friends; when you make it clear, to even members of your own family, that your faith will no longer allow you to tolerate racism and bigotry; when you make a commitment to live modestly so you can give generously in a world that worships wealth; when you pray and work for peace in a world that only responds to threats of fire and fury; when you do these things… there I will be.
My fear is that the church has watered down the gospel for its own comfort. And by diluting who the Christ commands us to be, by making him up to be some ghost of our own imagination, when people come to church looking for Jesus, he’s nowhere to be found.
I am afraid we have traded the authentic good news to proclaim to the poor for some fake news to appease the privileged.
We have made church more about security and salvation and less about self-denial and sacrifice; more about receiving a blessing and less about being a blessing; more about what is culturally acceptable and less about what is biblically mandated; more about keeping account of the sins of our neighbors and less about loving our neighbors; more about ignoring evil and less about confronting evil, calling evil by name, exorcising evil; more about worshiping Jesus and less about following Jesus; more about dying and going to heaven one day and less about living for Jesus and going to those places Jesus calls us to go today, places we may not want to go, dark, dangerous, dreadful places.
Do you want to see him? Do you want to recognize his voice? Perhaps, more importantly, do you want others to see Jesus in our church? Then let us embrace the authentic good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, in all of it’s fullness, its delight and its demand.
For the storms are raging. The rain is falling. The winds of hate have been bolstered. Waves of violence have been emboldened. Each day, our world seems to grow darker.
And he’s coming toward us. Do you see him? Do you recognize his voice? He calls out to us with words that both comfort and challenge, words that calm and command.
 This point inspired by a sermon by William Willimon, How Will You Know If It Is Jesus? August 2005.
 Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.
 This line is from the writings of Henri J. M. Nouwen