One day, well into adulthood I surprised my husband by coming home and telling him I wanted to run the next Pittsburgh marathon, which was just a year away. I had never been athletic at all and I’d certainly never been anything even remotely resembling a runner. I’d danced some in musical theater and liked to hike and sometimes ride my bike, but for the most part my favorite sport up until then was Uno. For some reason, though, I’d always thought it would be really cool to say that at some point in my life I’d run a full marathon.
Once he picked his jaw up off of the floor, my ever supportive husband said, “OK. We’ll start training tomorrow.” And we did. There were many things I had always thought would be hard about running a marathon. Some of the hardships I’d expected were exactly as hard as I’d figured. I was way out of shape, so being able to build up the lung capacity to run for even 5 minutes was pretty hard. And it hurt. There were plenty of Saturday afternoons I spent watching movies while icing just about every part of my body.
There were some things that were hard that I didn’t expect to come up against. For example, nutrition is everything. There is this thing runners and cyclists refer to as a “bonk.” That’s when your body suddenly decides it’s out of fuel and stops working right. You’ll be cruising along at what feels like a nice steady pace and suddenly realize that there are people walking past you. It’s usually because you forgot to eat breakfast or something, and it’s awful.
Perhaps one of the hardest aspects of this sport is how far in advance you have to start training. The shortest marathon training plans are 20 weeks long. That’s about 5 months. That’s a long time to get tired and frustrated with the training, or worse yet. . . to just get distracted. It’s hard to navigate the training runs, cross-training, nutrition, and questions from people who think you’ve lost your mind, for even a short amount of time, let alone for 5 full months. I’ve been running marathons for 5 years now and I still get distracted about 6-10 weeks into the training. There are always things that seem more appealing than training: donuts, sleeping in, French onion dip. But when I’m training for a race, these things can make me lose focus and there is nothing that will sink your training faster than losing focus on why you’re spending every Saturday getting up early to run 18 miles. There is a finish line to focus on and there is no feeling like crossing that finish line. Not even donuts can compete with it. Although, just for the record, there are usually donuts at the finish line. . .
We all have distractions. As Peter and the Romans exemplify, we will always find something new and shiny to give our attention to no matter how valiant or godly or important the cause we should be focused on. They weren’t distracted by donuts and sleeping in like I am, but the core problem here is a loss of focus on what really matters. And that’s exactly when we start sinking.
When Peter saw Jesus walking on the water, he wanted to go out on the water with him. He knew something wonderful was happening. I mean. . . it’s cool enough to stop and imagine what it was like to be one of the disciples, sitting at Jesus’ feet and hearing him speak, but to see him walk on the water? We know the story so well, that it doesn’t seem to come as much of a surprise for us that Jesus walked on water, but just pretend for a minute that you’ve never heard that story before. It’s mind-boggling!
It was so mind-boggling that the disciples were terrified. They thought they were seeing a ghost because surely no person could walk out to the boat from the shore. When Jesus says “Guys, it’s me!” Peter’s response at first seems like he still doesn’t believe it’s Jesus, but I’m not so sure, because as soon as Jesus says “Come” Peter’s hopping over the edge of the boat onto the water. And onto, not into, but onto the water he goes.
Whoa. I’ll bet that was weird! Do you ever wonder what it felt like under his feet? I think sometimes we give Peter a hard time for not keeping his eyes on Jesus, but as amazing as Peter knew Jesus was, I can kind of see how he got distracted. There’s a storm. The guy they just thought was a ghost was actually Jesus, and now. . . NOW Peter is WALKING ON THE WATER! He’s walking on the water in the storm with the wind howling and of course he got distracted! He was human! I would have been so distracted by fear of the storm and the weirdness of the whole situation, I don’t know that I’d have even gotten out of the boat in the first place!
The Romans are so preoccupied with the law that they aren’t keeping focus on Jesus. Paul is trying to get them back around to the point again.
The Roman church was also having issues with distraction. All through the book of Romans, we see evidence that the church in Rome was distracted by law – something that 1500 years later another letter writer, Martin Luther, would take the Roman church to task for. While Peter was clearly distracted by immediate fear of the storm and the waves, the Roman church’s fear was a little more subtle. They were afraid they weren’t doing everything just right. The situation was very different, but like Peter, they allowed their fear to distract them from the thing that really mattered: trust in Jesus.
We only have half the conversation when we read the book of Romans. We don’t know how exactly the church responded to the letter. But Matthew tells us what happened to Peter in his moment of distraction. When he started to go down, it didn’t take long for him to realize he was sinking. Immediately, he yelled out, “Lord save me!” We can only hope that the church in Rome also realized they’d lost sight and turned their trust back to Christ.
Sometimes, like Peter, we know we’re sinking. Sometimes, like the church in Rome, we don’t realize we’ve become preoccupied with something other than trust in Jesus. Sometimes the distractions are big and obvious dangers like wind and storms or war and chaos. Sometimes they are as subtle as a preoccupation with getting all the rules laid out just so or a desire for instant gratification. In any of these cases, the solution is laid out in these passages clearly: keep your eyes on Jesus.
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” We read in Romans. Not the ones who earned it by doing things just so, but the ones who look at Jesus and say, “Lord save me!”
We all get distracted. I can’t count the number of times I got sidetracked by my three kids, three cats, four chickens, one dog, and a husband. . . not to mention facebook, TV, and a bit ironically, my marathon training, while trying to sit down and write this sermon this week. But that’s ok. As soon as Peter noticed he started sinking because of his focus on fear, all he had to do was yell, “Lord! Save me!” Jesus didn’t say, “Too late, buddy. Should have kept looking at me in the first place.” He reached out his hand and said, “Oh, Peter. I was right here. Why did you get scared?” And then he calmed that distracting storm.
It’s never too late or too early to call out, “Lord! Save me!” We need to call out to him not just at the beginning of our Christian journey, but continually throughout our walk. We need to constantly keep our eyes on him lest we start to sink into fear or law or despair.
And when we have him in our sight, as our focus, remember the words of Romans:
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
We are to take that news that he saves all who cry out to all those around us who are sinking. What good news that there is nobody too far gone for Jesus to reach out to, that all of us get scared, that all of us are loved and can call out, “Lord, save me!”