Fear and arrogance often go hand in hand. Arrogance can mask deep insecurity, the fear of losing, of not measuring up, of failure and shame. Fear can masquerade as bravado causing individuals, groups and even nations to rush headlong into unsafe situations and risky endeavors simply to avoid being called a coward, weak or afraid.
It’s the teenager with a gun, scared, insecure, bullied, ignored. Too often fear is masked and hidden behind a weapon that brings only violence, death and loss. It’s the nation shocked by an attack, whether Pearl Harbor or 9/11, who leaps into war and aggression in response to the terror of feeling unprotected and vulnerable. It’s a politician so fearful of losing that they lie and try to bluff their way into office.
We encounter fear and arrogance in the stories of our biblical ancestors. This week it’s Peter, a foundational figure for Christianity and the Church. After all, it is his basilica in Rome that counts itself as the rock upon which all of Christendom is built.
Peter’s arrogance comes from his desire to be the very best disciple of Jesus. He wants to be number one in terms of his place amongst Jesus’s followers. He is the first to name Jesus as the Messiah. He wants to be in on all the big moments, like the Transfiguration and the feeding miracles. His arrogance masks a deep need for approval and a fear of being left out.
This is how he finds himself in the middle of a lake, far from shore, in the wee hours of the morning, in the midst of a terrific storm, stepping out onto the water. It’s madness. It’s such a terrible risk for no other purpose than proving to himself and Jesus that he’s got what it takes, that he won’t give into fear, that he’s the best follower Jesus could ever ask for.
When Jesus tells them all to take heart, he does. He recognizes Jesus. He keeps his eyes fixed on him. He answers Jesus’s invitation to come out onto that scary, wild water and it holds him up. At least until he begins to be afraid and looks away from Jesus and at the magnitude of his situation. As he sinks, he loses all control, all pretense of independence, success and approval. He prays the most common prayer in all of history. “Help!” “Save me!” I’ve gone beyond my own ability and the situation is out of my control. I don’t know where to turn. Nothing I know or have done or can do will get me out of this. All pride and arrogance vanishes. All need to show off or show up the others is completely irrelevant.
I know what this feels like. In fact, I know it because of a trip in a boat over dangerous, wild water. As a young professional in Seattle in my 20’s, I signed up with a church group to go whitewater rafting on the Skykomish in May, just as the snow melt was filling the river. Our group was too large for one boat and someone needed to go into the boat with the 5 young guys on a corporate trip. Our church group was weak. Our eldest was in her late 50’s and very out of shape. Two of her children were morbidly obese. The guides really preferred to move one of them into the stronger boat.
But I didn’t want to be in the weak boat, the churchy boat, the boat with older, non-athletic types. And so I insisted and everyone gave into my arrogance and persuasiveness. I left my friends as soon as there was a chance to get a better situation.
Once we launched the boats the current took over immediately. We weren’t able to even complete the training drills laid out by our guides. It was chaotic. Water filled the boat. I started bailing only to have the guide scream for us all to paddle as hard as possible. Within 10-15 minutes our boat had breached on a rock. Those on the high side abandoned ship and climbed up on the rock. Three of us were swept away.
The water was frigid. Even with a wet suit and helmet, I was in trouble within minutes. I couldn’t catch my breath. I was surrounded by rapids and rocks. I was alone, no boat, no guide, nowhere to go but down the river. My hands were numb and my fingers felt like swollen sausages. I lost my grip on my paddle. Suddenly I found myself up against a rock, being pulled under. My arms were on top but my head was barely above the water and I had absolutely no strength to pull myself up. In minutes I had gone from cocky excitement to bare survival.
Another paddler has also landed on the rock, but he was able to climb up. He held onto me but didn’t have the strength to pull me up. Help me was all I could plead. Finally he recovered enough energy to inch me up until my chest was out of the water and I could breathe. We were clinging to a partially submerged rock in the middle of a raging river. The shore was too far and we couldn’t swim for it. If we left that spot we would be swept down beyond where anyone could save us.
That’s when we saw the other boat, the weak boat with the non-athletes and the older woman and the church people. They were all listening carefully to their guide and pulling for all they were worth. They perfectly executed his commands to eddy out and brought their boat along the shore. From there he was able to belay ropes out to us and while they held onto him, he came out and brought us to safety. We were bruised, freezing and exhausted but we were alive.
When I imagine the disciples in the wee hours of that horrible night out on the lake, I remember how I felt in the midst of the river. They were all exhausted, beyond their own strength and ability to make way. They could neither turn back nor forge ahead against the wind. When they see Jesus coming to them, they think they’ve seen a ghost or a hallucination. They’re over the edge.
But Peter. He sees an opportunity to prove himself. He leaves his friends in the boat and heads towards Jesus. I’m sure he was eager and excited. I don’t blame him. In fact, I think I understand his impetuousness, his youth, his confidence and his desire for a new adventure. But he’s in over his head. And when he loses sight of Jesus, fear, that emotion often masked by arrogance, takes over and he sinks.
The antidote to fear is faith. Not faith as an assent to various theological propositions, but faith as in focusing on God. Faith as trust. Faith as taking heart because Jesus is present. Faith as keeping ourselves centered in Christ.
It’s no secret that the mainline church is sinking. Our boat is far from shore in the middle of the storm and we are facing headwinds. We can keep trying to row harder. We can read the manuals and take courses to see if we can fix things or get the right formula to succeed, but the truth is that we’re in a tough spot. Some of it is of our own making. Some of it is circumstantial. But following Jesus was never meant to be full of ease and success. It shouldn’t surprise us that we face opposition and difficulty.
Too often the church takes its eyes off of Jesus and looks to programs or secular management models to right the ship. We turn our eyes off of Jesus when we look inwards at our own needs, desires, comfort and safety while ignoring the face of Christ in the stranger, the wounded, the poor and those on life’s margins.
We lose heart when we count attendance and the offering as the most important signs that we are following Jesus. Instead of proclaiming the risky, audacious act of following the crucified one out into the world, we take up schemes to get more people in the building and more money in the plate. Our hope is that a savior, in the form of a great, dynamic leader who attracts young people with families will rescue us from decline and irrelevance. This is our current danger as we prayerfully seek a new bishop for our diocese. Everyone’s eyes will turn towards them and we can only pray that they will have the wisdom and maturity to point us to Jesus instead.
The Church is afraid and the danger is that we will hide our fear behind arrogance. We may look back to other times and situations in which it seemed easier to be church. We may assume that everything will simply work out despite evidence to the contrary. But the real danger is that our fear and arrogance will prevent us from looking to Jesus. In the midst of life’s storms, Jesus calls us to take heart, to come to him, to fix our eyes upon him.
The only way through the storm is in the boat with Jesus. The way to cross over into a new way of being church is by keeping our focus on what really matters and being willing to let go of anything that isn’t of God. We’re only going to get there with the ragged crew of imperfect misfits that make up the Body of Christ. The church that is focused on its image of success is sure to sink. We’re in the boat that makes no distinctions for wealth, health or status. We’re with the ones who call out in our fear and anguish for God to deliver us.
As we prepare to set out in our little boat for a new shore, we are to fix our eyes upon the Savior. It is in his eyes that we will discover strength, forgiveness, compassion and humility for the journey ahead. We will at times cry, “Oh Lord, the sea is so great and my boat is so small,” but then we will find him walking towards us, holding out his hand, speaking words of comfort and encouragement, calling us to follow him to a new shore, a new way of life.