Readings: 2 Corinthians 6: 1 – 13 and Mark 4: 35 – 41
To cross the open ocean, has for me, become something of a spiritual experience.
During the 2013/14 summer, soon after joining the Navy as a Chaplain, I made my first voyage to sea, travelling aboard our Anzac Class Frigate HMNZS TE MANA to the coastal waters of Somalia where we conducted counter-piracy operations.
As we sailed from Darwin, and made for the coast of Africa, amid the excitement and anxiety of beginning our mission, I was awakened to the profound reality of just how very big the ocean really is. As hours turned into days, turned into weeks, the horizon remained unrelenting and I realised just how very small we really were… how small I was. We were alone out there and, whilst the weather was calm and spirits were high, there was no one to save us should things go wrong; no ambulance, no supermarket, no gas station; just 181 sailors bound by 118 metres of ship.
I remember one morning as I stood alone on the port waist, looking out and thinking… praying… how mighty is our God to have created all this; to have power over all this; to be watching over us – insignificant as we might be; isolated as we might be; vulnerable to the sea as we were.
The sea often plays a special role in biblical imagery and the Bible starts and finishes with passages that give us some insight into this symbolism. Genesis 1: 1 describes the universe at the beginning of creation as a formless void and darkness, covering the face of the deep waters. And just inside the back cover – in Revelation 21: 1 – heaven is described as a place where the ‘sea is no more’.
Those two passages alone, as well as the many references between, help us to appreciate the way in which the biblical narrative uses the sea as a symbol for the darkness of the world; for chaos; destruction; persecution; and even evil. The sea is a place of the unknown, the abode of demons or, as Luke calls it, the abyss. And it’s in the midst of this context that we might read Mark’s account of Jesus and his disciples that day as their little boat was caught by a big storm in the middle of the Sea of Galilee.
The earlier verses of Mark 4, some of which were read last Sunday, also provide context for the storm narrative. Jesus begins in that chapter by sharing the ‘Parable of the Sower’ in which he implores the disciples not to be the barren or thorny ground, where the seed withers or is chocked, but to be the good soil in which the seed may grow and prosper. In other words, as Jesus explains, the disciples must be receptive to his teaching so that when the time comes, they will stand ready for ministry; ready to take on the challenges that will face them, ultimately, as they build the church. He then goes on to summarise his teaching with the image of the mustard seed in which even the smallest amount of faith has the power to achieve great things in the name of God.
So, Jesus tells them, hear my words and strengthen your faith that you may not falter, that you may stand firm when the time comes; that you may fulfil your calling as my disciples.
It all then comes together in today’s storm narrative as Jesus’ teaching on faith is tested. Having heard the words on faith, after all that they have learnt, the storm becomes, in many ways, a litmus test. For Mark it’s about the storm, but it’s about more than that too, as it’s also about all that the storm image represents; the struggle with darkness, chaos, evil, the unknown.
And the disciples? Well… they fail… miserably…
With Jesus asleep, confident himself that the Father will protect him in that environment, the disciples fear and fail. Calm when they set out, a storm rises without notice; the winds howl, the waves beat against their small boat, filling it with water. It’s a sailor’s worst nightmare, and they cry out to be saved.
‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ they say. Do you not care that we are about to sink… and die?
Jesus responds – disappointed, frustrated, almost heartbroken, I think. ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ I’ve just been teaching you about this; I wanted you to be the rich soil, in which faith will grow. I wanted you to be ready, not just to witness the miracles and enjoy the good times, but to face the dangers of the world head-on; to embrace and overcome the difficulties; to accept the challenges of being a disciple of mine. I need you to have more than just ‘fair weather faith’.
This passage would have spoken loudly to the original audience of the gospel for they were, as the saying goes ‘all at sea’. In the year 64, around the time Mark’s Gospel was being written, a great fire ravished the city of Rome. Historians propose that it was actually started by the Emperor Nero, a twisted plan to clear space for a new palace. Nero blamed the Christians though, this weird group of blood drinking nutters (at least that’s the picture he painted!).
So, just a few short decades after Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, the Church found itself under threat by an unwelcoming and militant Roman Empire. Christians found themselves facing a very dark time indeed as they became the subjects of brutal persecution. This was the very real storm that Jesus was asking his disciples to be prepared for.
Likewise, we heard Paul’s words to the Corinthian church as he considers his ministry. In the same breath that he celebrates ‘purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God’, he recalls ‘afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, [and] hunger’.
We know, from our reading of the Book of Acts, that Paul came face to face, both figuratively and literally, with severe storms that tested and put pressure on his resolve to see through his call to be an Apostle and a Disciple of Jesus. Ultimately, we celebrate Paul as one of the heroes of the church because he had more than just ‘fair weather faith’. He had, what we might call, ‘foul weather faith’ that called him to persevere in the face of death itself
And, to be fair to the disciples, despite failing in the midst of that storm, they too did grow and learn themselves and, despite stumbling into other hurdles, they did – ultimately – stand up as the leaders that built the Early Church.
The Gospel is full of promises. Yes, God promises much to those who love him; hope, love, meaning, forgiveness, new and eternal life. There is so much to celebrate; no doubt that is high on the list of reasons for us to gather in worship today.
Nowhere though does it promise an easy path for disciples. In a month of sermons themed around discipleship that will no doubt be a consistent message. Jesus promised that discipleship would be anything but easy, saying, ‘See, I am sending you like sheep out into the midst of wolves…’ (Matthew 10: 16).
Discipleship is about accepting the call to go where others will not. To accept a life of vulnerability, healing the sick, forgiving the forgotten, embracing the marginalised, and loving the lost.
And to truly minister in that way, we do have to make ourselves vulnerable; we do have to risk all that we have, because we live in a world where people would often rather be blind because the alternative seems to be too hard.
No, we might not, as the early Christians did, be facing a lion’s den. We do though still live in a world where just a few days ago a young man walked into a Charleston Church and killed 9 people while they prayed. We live in a world that continues to suffer from intolerance and ignorance as factions and nations continue to war; over land, over conflicting ideologies, and sometimes just because they’ve always fought in that way.
All over the world, Jesus’ words ring true, when he said, ‘you always have the poor with you…’ (Matthew 26: 11). In our own backyard, it’s a sad indictment on our nation, that we have over 100,000 kids who have no idea where their next meal will come from. Our own City Mission reports again and again, that the need is growing… and growing.
So the ministry field is as deep as it is wide. There is much work to be done
If we’re going to talk about discipleship then, we need to understand that that is the stormy sea Jesus is calling us to sail upon. It’s a journey that requires a fair amount of ‘foul weather faith’.
Most importantly, the Gospel today concludes with a very important question; one that we need to know the answer to. ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’
Jesus is the calm amidst the storm; he is the healer amidst the sick; he is the voice of reason amidst the confusion of life. As disciples, Jesus is the one who calls us to have faith. Day in, day out; Sunday to Sunday, as we read scripture, listen to sermons and gather in prayer, we come… so that we may go… strengthened, encouraged, uplifted, motivated. We come, and we go, so that we can offer ministry, in our own ways and places, in our workplaces, amongst our friends and family, through our influence, in the wise use of our resources and in the decisions we have to make. To be the hands and feet of Jesus, to seek justice, to nurture forgiveness, to be the voice of those without a voice.
At the end of the service, I pray, as we ‘go in the name of Christ’, may we do so hearing the words of Jesus to the storm that day.
May we speak those words to the dark places we encounter and when we come up against a wall, when we find derision from those who scoff at our efforts, when we encounter deaf ears to the message that we bear, may we have the faith to stand firm and trust that Christ is with us. To push through the obstacles. To focus on God’s call. And to speak a little louder.
Mighty God; strong, loving and wise. Help us to depend upon your goodness and to place our trust in your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.