Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Making Sailors--Making Christians


You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Ephesians 2:1-10

Many years ago, I took a class from the American Sailing Association to become a certified sailing instructor. Duncan Hood taught the class. His goal was to teach us, a group of experienced sailors, how to make more sailors. From the start of the class, he had a mantra, “Let’s get out on the water!” He asked, “How do you start teaching?” People responded with aspects of teaching sailing.
Someone said, “I begin with vocabulary because we all must speak the same language.” Duncan said, “Sure. Let’s get out on the water and talk about the parts of the boat and the words we use while we’re sailing.” Someone else said, “I start by going over the techniques.” Duncan replied, “That’s great! Let’s get out on the water because there’s no better place learn what being in irons is than when you experience it.” On and on it went, until he got to me. He said, “How do you start teaching, Matthew?” I said, “Let’s get out on the water because there’s no better place to make sailors than on a sailboat.”
As Christians, we learn our faith by practicing it. We do not have a lab where we work out all the kinks and then try them in the real world. We learn our faith while we are doing it, and while we learn, there are traps along the way. In Ephesians, we see these traps described as being dead in our sins. This is not judgment; calling us dead in our sins is recognition of our need for God while we are becoming sailors. How do we get to God? Ephesians 2:5 says, “Even when we were dead… God saves us by grace.” Salvation was free. Grace comes from the Latin word, gratis, meaning free or for nothing. We do not earn God’s grace.
Many people approach God and approach life doing what Frederick Buechner describes as trying to “beat and kick [their] way through a door that had stood wide open the whole time.”[1] Sinfulness is the state in which we are separate from God. We live to ourselves, but do not even realize that we are doing it. We are free, but the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev points out that freedom is a paradox, a gift with a price; we must choose how to exercise our freedom.[2] Being separate from God is like walking along terra firma without realizing that sailing exists. Many who are separate from God do not realize that God exists; they do not realize that the door to a relationship is wide open and in front of us.
Joan Gray writes, “As we come into a trusting relationship with Jesus, we learn that everything that could ever separate us from God or condemn the world to eternal darkness is being wiped away.”[3] Eugene Peterson’s paraphrased version of Ephesians 2, puts it this way:
It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat.[4]
We are in the same boat. When we think about all of humanity, we share far more in common than we have differences. Sure, many people look different from one another; we have different beliefs, preferences, and so on. Some people prefer Beyoncé, whereas others like Abba; I prefer Pat Metheny, but some like Poulenc’s “Gloria.” And, we can often focus on our differences more than what we have in common. Our universality is brought to the fore in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, when the moneylender Shylock gives a great sympathetic speech, asking:
[Are we not] fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer…If you prick us, do we not bleed? …If you poison us, do we not die?[5]
As human beings, we are in the same boat. And, from God, we have a similar calling—to leave the life of sinfulness behind and enter a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Using this sailing metaphor, “Christian sailing is a way of life that involves a committed, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We sail because Jesus calls us to be sailors.”[6] And, Christ is the key to being Christians. Buechner calls Christ, “the key to the key.”[7] Jesus makes us alive, even when we are dead in our sinfulness. Left to our own devices, we cannot accomplish anything, let alone achieve eternity. However, with Jesus Christ, we can enter into communion with God. Just like we cannot become committed, growing Christians on our own, few people turn out to be good sailors on their own.
I began sailing by going out into a boat and to see what would happen. I raised the sail and the boat began to move. I had little control and did not realize what would happen as I moved the tiller. One of my early experiences was moving the stern through the wind. Any sailor knows what would happen next—the wind catches the trailing edge (leach) of the sail and it moves to the other side of the boat rapidly; this is called an accidental jibe and it can be quite violent.
To become Christians, we do not go out in the boat alone. We go with other Christians; we go with our church family. Other people warn us, so we do not accidentally jibe. More importantly, they help us see the way of Christ. God makes Christians through other Christians.


[1] Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC's of Faith  (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 302.
[2] Nicolas Berdyaev, The Fate of Man in the Modern World, trans. Donald A. Lowrie (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1935), 40ff.
[3] Joan S. Gray, Sailboat Church: Helping Your Church Rethink Its Mission and Practice  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 40.
[4] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message  (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003), Ep 2:1-5.
[5] William Shakespeare, The Plays and Poems of William Shakspeare  (London: R. C. and J. Rivington, 1821), 75.
[6] Gray, Sailboat Church, 40.
[7] Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC's of Faith, 303.

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