Rollins Chapel, 5/20/12
Matthew 14:22-32, Matthew 16:24-25, Acts 4:13
I am finding courage to be rather scary to talk about. When Kurt first asked if I might be interested in speaking in the chapel series on courage, my first thought was, “Courage?! I don’t know anything about courage -- I don’t actually think about courage that much -- it’s not a virtue I’ve found particularly captivating in the past, like love and truth and beauty -- and I definitely don’t feel like a particularly courageous person. What on earth could I say about courage?” But I decided to think about it a bit, and thinking about Jesus and the stories about him seemed like a good place to start, and as I looked through the gospels I began to notice that people seemed to do a lot of courageous things when they crossed paths with Jesus. And yet it seemed to me that something more than courage was the key to their brave actions. What do you suppose it was?
Think about it a moment as we look at a few of the stories. The one we just read is a big one, as getting out of a boat in the middle of a very windy lake clearly requires a great deal of courage. There’s also the woman who suffered from bleeding for twelve years – she crept up behind Jesus in a crowd and touched His cloak and was healed. That was an audacious thing to do, and she trembled with fear as she fell at His feet to confess what she’d done. But she had the courage to do it. Then there’s the disciple Matthew, another good example. He was sitting at his tax collector’s booth and Jesus saw him and said “Follow me,” and Matthew got up and followed him. What courage that must have taken, to get up from his livelihood – walk away from the familiar – and go after Jesus.
Undeniably these people had courage. But do you know what the “something more” is that I think gave rise to their courage?I think it was trust – that they trusted Jesus. Look back at the Peter story. Before he got out of the boat, he had to be certain that it was Jesus there, and that Jesus was telling him to do this thing. “Lord,” he said, “if it’s you tell me to come to you on the water.” Only when he was certain that the one he trusted was there and was calling him did he climb over the side. And when he stopped looking at Jesus and began to think of himself and the wind and saving his own life, and he began to sink, did Jesus rebuke him with, “You of little courage, why did you fear?” No. Instead it was, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” The key thing, the part Jesus seems to care about here, was not how courageous Peter was but that Peter trusted Jesus.
This seems to be the case in story after story. Several other people are like the woman who was healed of bleeding –audacious, persistent, and brave in begging Jesus to help them even when everyone else is telling them to shut up. Again and again Jesus says to these people, “Your faith [not your courage] has healed you.” (As a side note, let me say that I’m using the word “trust” rather than “faith” as the focus because I think in these cases – and indeed in most – they are virtually synonymous. And with the word trust we are more likely to hear its real meaning as opposed to hearing it as a synonym for religion.)
To return to the main idea, I doubt Matthew could have had the courage to walk away from his safe livelihood if the courage hadn’t been based somehow on trust in Jesus, conviction that following Him was going to be worth it. It’s the same with the disciples Jesus sent out to preach about His kingdom and heal in His name in towns throughout the area – he told them to set out on this journey without a staff or a bag, without extra clothes, without money. How many of us would have the courage to do that? But for them, the conviction that He wanted them to do it and He was trustworthy and so somehow they would be all right – this gave them the courage to set out, like lambs venturing into a pack of wolves.
It seems that what courage means when it comes to following Jesus is trusting Him enough to stake your life on His words. The life we are called to as followers of Jesus is definitely a scary one, a courage-requiring one. I am afraid to stop storing up treasures on earth – I am afraid to really follow the teaching to not defend myself but offer the other cheek to one who slaps me. I am afraid to make life decisions without my own happiness as the priority. And I am definitely afraid to let go of preserving my own life above most anything else. So instead, I live with safety nets. I’m in effect saying, If the Jesus stuff weren’t true, my life would still be worthwhile because I do these other things that are not directly dependent on Him. Or, okay, let me hang onto things enough that even if God providing for me isn’t a true thing, I’ll never be in need. But I don’t think that’s what we’re called to. In fact I think that people find God when they live in such a way that if he weren’t there and active they’d be dead and their lives would be a waste. This denying yourself, setting out to follow Him and not looking back, putting all your eggs in His basket, if you will – that seems to be what Jesus said to do. That’s what Peter and John were doing at the time of the third scripture on your bulletins, when people were amazed at their courage, realized they were ordinary men, and took note that they had been with Jesus. They had just been put in jail because they healed a crippled man and then kept “teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” They’re brought before the rulers, elders, and teachers of the law for questioning. I think many of us in this situation would consider it a time for being tactful – maybe saying the truth but not saying everything, not saying the more dangerous parts – a time for not being too inflammatory – a time for getting out alive. But that isn’t their response. They have thrown their lot in with Jesus body and soul and they will say nothing but that. They’re not looking at the wind and the waves; they’re looking at him, and though they are only ordinary men, their courage shows that they have been with Jesus.
This trusting-God-to-the-utmost-and-laying-down-your-life idea has to affect all facets of life, but one that has been on my mind a lot recently, especially as a recent graduate earning my own living for the first time is money. Money and stuff. When Matthew the tax collector trusted Jesus he courageously left his profession and therefore his financial security; when the early Christians trusted Jesus they courageously sold their possessions. I don’t want fearfully clinging to money and things to hold me back from a life of fully trusting God. The common Christian mindset, though, seems to be that aiming for financial security is normal, and saving money for the future is just common sense and being a “good steward.” Maybe that is right. Deciding that I didn’t believe in saving money would be very scary. But I’m not sure how the way most of us currently relate to money and possessions fits with the teachings to not store up treasures on earth and not worry about what you will eat tomorrow. No doubt there are relevant considerations that I don’t understand. Maybe it’s just that I’m young and foolish and have only nine months’ experience of working for my bread.
In any case, you can tell I have more questions than answers. I think I’m supposed to put all my eggs in Jesus’ basket, but I don’t think I know how. Partly this is because I am still ignorant and learning and don’t know what I’m doing. Partly it’s because this trusting God totally might look different for different people. Some followers of Jesus, I think I think, need to actually physically give up everything, leave everything behind, and risk their lives and not save for retirement. Some followers of Jesus, as author Shane Claiborne says, will stay tax collectors (or doctors or mail carriers) but will become a different kind of tax collector (or doctor or mail carrier). Either way, though, there is a daily dying to self and living for and with others and God. And in either case I believe we should hold our lives and possessions in open hands, not fearful of losing them but ready to lay them down to follow Jesus. Trusting Him that if we did lose those things, all would not be lost. It would not be the end. But you can only have the courage to lay down your life at His command if God is good for His word and you are convinced of that.
Imagine trusting Him enough to put all your eggs in His basket. What would it look like – what might a beginning look like in your life? Throwing in your lot completely with Him. Staking everything on his trustworthiness. Sacrificing everything. Putting everything you are and everything you have into this one thing. Committing yourself to Him -- rolling over onto Him, putting all your weight on Him. You walk away from your safe and profitable tax-collecting job -- you set out on a long journey without knowing how exactly you’re going to eat -- you step over the side of a boat into a windy lake at night. If the one who told you to do it isn’t reliable, you’re dead and that’s the end. But you’re convinced. So you do it. It’s courage, but even more than that, it’s trust.
I begin to conclude, then, that maybe, though we want to be courageous people, we shouldn’t focus on courage; we should focus on Jesus. Maybe we shouldn’t look for courage, but should look for God. It seems to me that it often works that way, in following Jesus. Whatever the virtue is, it isn’t the point – Jesus is the point. It’s like the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, kindness – all these things are to be fruit, blossoming out of having the spirit of God in you. The virtues are to be a side effect of the main point: God in you. Maybe we should approach courage like that. And when we know Him, we will trust Him, and when we truly trust Him we will have the courage to put all our eggs in His basket, to pour out our lives in love for God and neighbor. May the courage in our poured-out lives point to one conclusion: these people have been with Jesus.