Updated: Aug 14
As many of you know, I recently attended a continuing education workshop called “The College of Congregational Development.” This is a two-year intensive certificate program designed to help congregations grow and thrive. Among the many tools that were introduced at the course was the Myers-Briggs, a personality measure that describes people based on the way they interact with the world. Personality descriptions are based on four pairs of opposing traits, which result in one of 16 potential personality “types.” The idea of learning the Myers-Briggs – and knowing your “type” - is to recognize that people have preferred ways of acting and that how each individual acts influences how we interact with one another.
People love the Meyers-Briggs. I am not such a fan; I worry that people will use it to diagnose themselves or to put other people into neat categories, which I think is never a good idea. People are complicated and each one of us is unique. Our responses to the world around us are complex. We are not simply one thing or another. To forget that is to forget what it means to be a child of God.
But seeing things in terms of opposites - as “either/or,” is a very common human behavior. Life is simpler if we know who is “good” and who is “bad,” what is “right” and what is “wrong,” what is “true” and what is “a lie.” This tendency is especially pronounced when we are worried or afraid.
St. Paul knew this. Throughout his letters his spoke in dualities- comparing the world of the flesh to that of the spirit; the old law versus the new; sin and righteousness; death and life. For Paul there are many opposites, but there is also a place where all things are of value, all things are needed, all things are joined. That place is the cross of Christ. “Now,” he says, “is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.” Now is when we turn ourselves over to Jesus – when we learn to have faith.
The problem is that, as human beings, we still want to put parameters around our faith, to define it as an “either/or” proposition: either you are a Christian or you are not, either you are saved or you are not, either you are in or you are out. But faith, like personality, can shift. The letter of Paul to the Corinthians that we just heard proves that. After developing a joyful and enthusiastic community of believers in Corinth, Paul left them to go on to other cities. In his absence, however, the people started listen to new preachers, “superapostles,” who followed Paul and denigrated him. These missionaries also probably offered the Corinthians a more attractive road to redemption- one without the hardships, afflictions, and calamities that Paul so readily accepted. It seems that these well-spoken and impressively dressed evangelists were convincing – and comforting. They apparently did not ask the people to suffer for their beliefs as Paul did. “From the false perspective of [their] world, the [true] apostles appear as imposters and nobodies who are dying, punished, sorrowful, poor, and possess nothing; but the apocalyptic light of the gospel reveals them in fact to be truthful and well-known, ones who are living, rejoicing, bestowing riches, and possessing everything.”
It’s a matter of knowing what is of true value. There is a scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where Indy must choose the authentic chalice of Jesus – the Holy Grail – from among hundreds of options. But before he can pick, Indy is pushed out of the way by a Nazi official, who chooses the most ornate of the cups, drinks from it – and dies. Having witnessed this, Indy promptly seizes the most unimposing of the available vessels with the words, “That’s the cup of a carpenter”- and is rewarded with life. This scene demonstrates a biblical lesson that continues to be forgotten by those who would equate Christian membership with wealth and power instead of sacrifice and humility. We must not forget that our God was rejected, scorned and bruised – that our God, as mighty and awesome as he is, died for the love of us. This is the primary paradox of Christianity -that our God is both the creator and ruler of all things and the lover of the no account species that we are. No wonder we are susceptible to the “superapostles” of our own time.
It was no easier for the first disciples. In today’s story we find them doing something that was incredibly mundane for them – riding in a boat. But suddenly the scene changes: a severe storm arises and they are in serious danger. Instinctively, they look to their beloved teacher to tell them what to do – and find him sound asleep! “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing”? they cry. Jesus, apparently cranky at being awakened from a good nap, cracks open an eye, tells the sea and the wind to cut it out, and then shakes his head with disappointment. “Have you no faith”? he asks his disciples. This is an astonishing story – not only because it fully and clearly demonstrates that the power of God resides in Jesus, but also because instead of comforting his disciples, as we might expect, Jesus reprimands them for being afraid.
That’s because fear is deadly. Fear is what drove the Corinthians away from Paul and his teachings. Fear is what drove Saul, the first king of the unified Israel, insane. If you remember, a few weeks ago we heard about how the Israelites asked God for a king, even after Samuel told them how they would suffer under his reign. But they were afraid. They wanted a protector. They wanted someone to tell them what was right and what was wrong. They wanted someone to tell them what to do and how to think. They just wanted to go about their lives in safety and peace. But that’s not the way things work, as David soon found out. Despite his faithful service to the king, despite his victory over the giant Goliath and many other foes, despite his musical talents, and despite the fact that Saul’s own son Jonathan loved David “as his own soul,” the king attacked David because he was jealous – and afraid.
Sabaa Tahir writes, “Love is joy coupled with misery, elation bound to despair. It is a fire that beckons…gently and then burns when [you] get too close. I hate love. I yearn for it. And it drives me mad.” Love – the desire for it and the loss of it – drive human beings to do terrible things simply because we do not understand it; we refuse to see what God has shown us love is meant to be. We think it is something consoling instead of challenging – something we can “have” rather than something that we must share.
It is the same with faith. We want our faith to be a shield against the world, when God intends it to be a guide for living fully in it. We allow our faith to separate us from others, rather than to bless us with unity. And all because, like the disciples, we are afraid. “Fear. The visceral response of Jesus’ terrified disciples in a frail storm-tossed boat resonates both in the individual lives of Christians and in [our] corporate life…We are afraid of the ‘wind and waves’ that assail our fragile vessels- our lives, our churches, our cities, and nations. We fear disapproval, rejection, failure, meaninglessness, illness, and, of course, we fear death.” Fear makes cowards of us. Fear makes persecutors of us. Fear makes us hate. It is fear – not doubt – that is the opposite of faith.
No wonder Jesus rebuked his disciples. To live without fear is a hard but necessary lesson for those who would follow him, and one the people on that boat needed to learn quickly- because they were not on their way home, but en route to the land of the Gentiles, to foreign shores where they would be unwanted immigrants with strange and unfamiliar beliefs. They had plenty to be afraid of.
Notice that Jesus never denies that. Jesus does not pull them into a warm embrace. Jesus does not rock them or soothe them. He never tells them there is nothing to fear. He tells them – and us – instead “that even though there are very real and fearsome things in this life, they need not paralyze us; they need not have dominion over us; they need not own us; because we are not alone in the boat.” Jesus is with us. Jesus is always with us – ready to show us what true love is – love that is redemptive, inclusive, and faithful: love that casts out fear. Be of good courage. Our God is an awesome God, a faithful God, a loving God, and we are all God’s children. AMEN.