The Barrel
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 17, 2000
A Journey of Faith
Mark 8:27-38
The Rev. John H. Pavelko
When he first heard about Jesus, the fisherman might have thought that the man from Nazareth was just another religious charlatan. They entertained people with magical tricks, told the people to be more holy, and filled their own bellies on the gracious hospitality of the gullible. Not much different than the Romans who use swords and spears to ravage the land. The results were the same. Both the soldiers and the religious charlatans, eat the food of other people's labors. His brother, Andrew, was convinced that the carpenter's son was a holy man sent from God. His brother also thought the John the Baptist was a prophet, but all that the Baptist's preaching accomplished was a prison sentence. The fisherman remained unconvinced until he first heard Jesus preach. Something was different about him.

He may have been apprehensive when his friends, James and John, brought Jesus to his house but his mother-in-law was sick in bed with a fever. She was an old woman but he did not want her to die. His wife loved her mother and she was part of his household. He had heard that Jesus had healed the sick maybe he could help her. When Jesus did not ask the fisherman's permission. After walking into the house, he took her by the hand and the fever left her. All that night people from the village and surrounding areas brought the sick and the demon possessed. He healed them all. The fisherman from Capernaum was stunned.

When Jesus invited him to join the company of men and women that were with him, the fisherman left his nets and followed. He walked from village to village with the man from Nazereth. Each day Jesus told them stories about the Kingdom of God. Each day he healed people. One day it was a blind man, the next a paralytic and another day a man with leprosy. They never knew what to expect. The fisherman was not certain what to make of it all. Who was this man? God must be with him but how and why? Was he a prophet? Was he Elijah or Moses who had returned?

Jesus never talked about himself. He just kept telling these stories about how people should act toward the Kingdom of God. They were difficult to understand. One talked about a farmer who sowed his seed across a field. Another described a lamp on a stand and still another compared the Kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed. 

Everyone was confused enough by what he said but the night on the lake when he calmed the storm brought everyone quaking to their knees. They had all been out in storms. Some were worse than others. The fisherman had learned how to survive by just holding on and riding them out. But that one was different. It was more powerful than anything he had every encountered. Things looked really bad until they woke Jesus up. How he could sleep during such a storm was a mystery itself but than he startled everyone when he spoke to the wind and waves, "Quiet! Be still!" and they were. All the men were scared. They had never witnessed anything like this. An ordinary man would not have the power to calm a storm. What could it all mean?

His brothers and friends were still confused when Jesus paired them up and sent out twelve men to preach and heal the sick. They were apprehensive at first. Jesus did not allow them to take any extra food or clothes. They all went out in different directions, to different villages but each one returned with the same results. People heard their message and believed. The sick were healed and demons were cast out at their command. How could an ordinary fisherman have such power? How could an ordinary man teach people about the kingdom of God?

The crowds kept getting larger. Jesus would always ask the sick not to tell anyone that they had been healed but no one listened. The crowds got so large that it looked like they were going to start a riot the day they were out in the countryside. The crowds did not bring any food with them. They were hunger and tired. The carpenter took a few loaves of bread and a few fish and feed them all. Everyone wanted to make him king but he just walked away from them. How could any man resists the offer of power?

For almost two years, Peter had been on an almost breathless journey trying to understand it, trying to make sense of what he was seeing and experiencing. Then one night they finally got alone with him. The crowds had returned to their own homes. An unfamiliar silence surrounded them. Jesus began to ask them questions. "Who do men say that I am?" That one was easy. Peter had heard the people talking. Many of them kept asking him and then offering their own opinion. "Some say Elijah," "Others say one of the prophets who has returned from the dead." Jesus thought about their words for a moment and then looked at them with a penetrating gaze and asked, "Who do you say that I am?" Suddenly it all made sense to Peter. He could not explain how he knew, but he knew that he knew. "You are the Christ the son of the living God."

Peter had traveled a long journey before he arrived at that destination of faith. He had walked down many roads, and visited many villages, and seen many people healed. It took a long time and that many miracles before God become more than just a name to the fisherman from Capernaum. Earl Palmer the pastor of the University Presbyterian Church, in Seattle WA says that conversion consists of a thousand little steps. God prepares us for that point in time in which everything comes together. The moment when are the things that people have been saying to us and our live experiences finally make sense and we can affirm the central message of the Christian faith.

I can appreciate Peter's journey. I alos walked down many roads and listened to many sermons and SS lessons before it all began to make sense. I grew up in a Christian home. We would occasionally read the Bible. We lived in Cleveland OH and attended a Methodist church. My mother taught SS. Then we moved to the suburbs. My mother discovered that the Presbyterian Church started 1/2 hour later and was 15 minutes closer than the Methodist church. She decided that God had predestined her to exercise her free will and sleep 45 minutes longer on Sunday morning so we joined the Presbyterian Church.

The church became the central focus of my social and religious life. Several of my classmates attended SS. I joined the Boy Scout troop and there developed strong friendships that carried through high school. However, I tried everyway I could to avoid going on Sunday morning. For me, church was a place for little old ladies and little children. Real men, like my dad, just did not attend. Then came adolescence and the 60's. I began to question the stories from Genesis. A six day creation and the story of Adam and Eve just did not seem to make sense to a questioning mind. While watching the news reports of the march to Selma I kept asking myself how could a person call themselves a Christian and do treat other people with such contempt and hatred. I decided that Christianity did not have anything to offer me. If God would leave me alone, I would be happy to leave him alone. I solidified my decision one Sunday morning during communion.

At first, I took a small piece of bread as I had always done. I started to hand the plate to the person sitting next to me but then paused. I held the bread and the plate for a moment that seemed like an eternity. I thought about what I believed and did not believe. In that instance, I decided to separate myself from all the religious nonsense around me. I threw the piece of bread back in the plate to solidify in my own mind that I wanted nothing to do with the Christian faith.

Other than startling the person next to me, nothing much happened. After a rather turbulent ninth grade in which I seemed to develop a knack for getting into trouble, I settled down and began to enjoy high school. Our family was relatively peaceful. School was a great place for friends and activities. I joined the Drama Club and the golf team. When we needed some adventure, our Scout troop would plan a camping trip.

During those years, the protest movement against the Vietnam War was starting. I wondered how supposedly Christians could support such a war. Didn't Jesus talk about turning the other check and loving thy neighbor? Didn't the Ten Commandments prohibit kill other people? Religion seemed useless, irrelevant, and boring. 

We got new minister at Church who had a more evangelistic spirit than the previous one. He convinced my mom that I should go through confirmation class. I reluctantly attended. Not only was the class boring but it was also, embarrassing. The class started just after our Wednesday golf match. I had to have an upperclassman give me a ride to church. As the youngest member of the team, I had to endure their relentless teasing. One night I had missed a four-foot putt on the final hole to split the match. I was very upset. When I arrived at church, I discovered that my street shoes were in the coach's car. Frustrated and angry I walked into the building in my golf spikes, dropped my bag against the wall and sat down. The minister droned on in his usual manner. My mind was on that missed putt. Just before he concluded the session he paused and then asked us, "Can't you just feel the presence of God?" With a obnoxious and dramatic flare, I looked under the table, looked around the room, looked behind me and then said, "No, Rev. Witter, I can't feel or see God anywhere." Without any hesitation Rev. Witter said, "John, the first step toward God is honesty."

While the first step toward God may be honesty but, my next step was out the door. I never went back to that Confirmation Class. I focused my attention on my golf game and the Drama Club. By the fall of my senior year, things were going great. I was excited about going to college at USU. I wanted to get out into the mountains to backpack and ski. I was hoping that my golf game would improve enough to go to the state tournament. I was the stage manager for the musical, The Music Man and was dating the librarian. I also had a minor lead in the comedy, The Tea House of the August Moon. With so many friends and activities, who needed God? I never suspected that my thinking would take a drastic change.

While God had been pursuing me for several years, he appeared to mount a direct assault just before Christmas of my senior year. The SH SS teacher cancelled class and had us attend church. That day the minister's sermon explained that faith begins with spiritual rebirth and unless a person experiences a rebirth, they remain separate from God. He then asked people who wanted to either dedicate or rededicate their lives to Christ to come forward. While I sat in the pew, I felt God tugging on me. I wanted to go forward but did not understand why. The worship service ended and I took my mom and sister home. I then decided to return to church, attend the second service and go forward. Standing at the foot of the chancel steps, I was a confused young man. I did not know what was happening to me. I was not sure what I really believed but something was tugging on my soul.

Nothing much happened at first. I still was not sure if I was or was not a Christian. I kept going to SS and tired to listen but the lessons still did not make much sense. Then one day I heard a man share his testimony in church on how God had healed him of MS. I was surprised to hear someone who believed in a god who could actual do something. I decided to attend a Spiritual Healing Service that night to hear him speak again. After some singing and testimony on the power of God to heal, the minister asked people to come forward for prayer. I thought that I was safe this time. I was sitting in the pew with the star basketball player, a friend from the golf team and the minister's son. Surely they were not going to go forward. To my absolute shock, they all stood up and went forward. Not wanting to be left behind but not really knowing what I was doing I join them. 

I remember standing on the chancel steps once again confused when a young man approached me and asked for my prayer request. I told him that I did not have one. He then asked me why I came forward. I told him that I was not about to be left alone in the pew. He perceptively prayed that God would reveal himself to me. When I returned to the pew, God overwhelmed me with his presence. The minister's son saw that I was visible shock. He asked me if I would like to talk. I told him that I thought that I knew what had happened to me. That night I went home and knelt beside my bed. I thanked God for sending his Son to die on the Cross, forgiving my sins, and making his presences know to me. It was a rather crude prayer but it accomplished its purpose. Like Peter, I confessed that the man from Nazareth, the son of Mary was indeed the Christ, the Messiah, and my Savior.

Maybe you can recall that initial moment when God became more than just a name. Maybe you had a long journey like Peter in which you saw a lot of miracles or a lot of strange coincidence and you were perplexed and confused but then it all finally made sense. For those who have had a rather definitive or dramatic conversion you understand the joy of recalling that moment. Even if you have not had such an experience you can probably recall the time in which God's presence was very real-a hospital room, a particular worship service, in you living room when you were alone and faced with a sever crisis. Those are all moments when God becomes real.

Unfortunately, too many Christians languish in those first moments of faith. They are like babies who never leave the hospital nursery. They forget that God reveals his presence to send us out into the world to serve. The Christian faith is not just a series of ephemeral experiences. Whereas the Christian faith begins with the experience of rebirth, it then calls the believer to a life of action. After Peter's great confession of faith, Jesus had to remind him of the sacrifice that would be required of him. Once God has placed his mark on us we are not our own. We are not called just to a life of feel good experience but to a life of sacrifice and service. 

A few years ago, a representative from "Teach America" visited Duke University to recruit the nation's most talented college students to go into some of the nation's worst public schools. This is Teach America's method of transforming our schools into something better.

A woman stood up before a large group of students who had gathered to hear her presentation. She said to them, 

" I can tell by looking at you that I have probably come to the wrong place. Somebody told me this was a BMW campus and I can believe it looking at you. Just looking at you I can tell that all of you are a success. Why would you all be on this campus if you were not successful, if you were not going to successful careers on Madison Avenue or Wall Street?"

"And yet here I stand hoping to talk somebody into giving away your life in the toughest job you will ever have. I am looking for people to go into the hollows of West Virginia, into the ghettos of South LA and teach in some of the most difficult schools in the world. :Last year, two of our teachers were killed while on the job."

"And I can tell, just by looking at your, that none of you are interested in that. So go to law school, or whatever successful thing you are planning on doing. But if by chance, just some of you happen to be interested, I've have some brochures here for you to tell you about Teach America."1

With that, she ended the meeting. The whole group of college students got up and pushed their way into the aisles and responded to her call to serve.

Those students responded to a call to commitment. They were beginning to understand that their lives were not their own. They were beginning to realize that a single-minded pursuit of a career and material comforts would not bring them satisfaction and happiness. Jesus said "What good is it for a person to gain his whole world and lose his soul."

The Christian life begins in the experience of rebirth to bring us to the Cross of sacrifice and service. Where are you at in your journey? Are you still uncertain about what it all means? Are you still undecided about who is Jesus? Do you know what you believe and in whom you believe but are hesitant about picking up a Cross? You may have had too much pain already from a broken marriage, a bad family life. You do not want any more pain. You just want to enjoy life. You have a good job and things are finally started to go your way. Remember just said what good is it if a person gains the whole, and loses their soul.

1 William H. Willamon, "A Journey," Pulpit Resource, Vol. 28, No. 3, 50.

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