That was the message delivered to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) by the Rev. James McDonald during the closing worship service of the fall meeting.
McDonald, president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, spoke from Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on the water as he addressed the PMAB Sept. 27 in Louisville, Ky., imploring them to suppress any fears and be willing to step out of the boat.
“Faith is something outside of us. It existed before we were born and will exist after we die,” McDonald said. “Theologizing (about faith) is about thinking and talking. But talking the talk is not enough. We have to walk the walk.”
Noting that faith is freedom at work within people, McDonald explained that it also is how we witness to the real presence of Christ in the 21st century. He admitted walking on water is a logical impossibility, but he advised that such an example should be taken more seriously than literally because of its implied meaning of faithfulness.
The storms of life
After reading verses 22-33 from the 14th chapter of Matthew, McDonald explained how Jesus sent the disciples out on the lake in a boat ahead of Him as He retreated to a mountainside to pray. When a storm blew up, Jesus went to the disciples, walking on the water to reach them. Thinking He was a ghost, they cried out in fear only to have Jesus say, “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
McDonald explained that the disciples were distraught when overtaken by the tumult of the storm. He described their experience as a metaphor for what happens to people in life, in their relationships. It’s what happens in the church.
“We’re tossed about, out of control, adrift in the storm, worried about what happens to us and what the future will hold,” McDonald said.
Stepping out of the boat
Examining the passage more fully, McDonald explained that Peter wanted to walk on the water, too, and made his way out of the boat when Jesus told him to come. But when the storm raged, Peter was afraid and started to sink. Crying out, he asked Jesus to save him, and his Lord did so, referring to his lack of faith and asking Peter why he doubted.
“It’s a dilemma we face in the church,” McDonald said. “We’re sinking as a denomination, as congregations, as seminaries. We’d rather stay in the boat and do what we know to do rather than step out on faith. It’s safe in the boat; it’s dangerous and idiotic to walk on water. Thank you, Jesus, but we’ll stay right here in the boat.”
“That’s not the lesson,” McDonald continued. “Faith isn’t faith unless it motivates us to do something. Why did Jesus walk on the water? It wasn’t to prove how great or unique He was but to close the gap, to heal, reconcile, to empower and to make whole.”
McDonald implored those gathered to do the same.
“We know where there are people hurting and suffering, those who are hungry, abused, those with broken hearts. We know where God wants us to walk on water and show that faith,” McDonald said. “But if we’re going to do that we have to step out of the boat.”
Buoyed by God
Faith means living as if something is possible and making it possible by moving forward, McDonald observed, a matter of acting in new ways to overcome faltering or experiencing those sinking feelings as Peter did.
“Success is not guaranteed. There is no assurance we will not experience unexpected difficulties, but we need to a have a willingness to trust in God’s steadfast love,” McDonald said. “Let’s walk the walk. Let’s walk on water. He will reach out to us through life’s storms. God will not let us sink.”