Our reading from St Mark’s Gospel is one of those familiar stories that can take us back to Sunday School, Girls and Boys Brigade and pictures in children’s Bibles. We all know what it is to be caught in a storm and many of us know what it is to be on a boat in appalling weather. A mixture of empathy and memory makes this story come alive to us – it captures our imaginations. The story is also an easy one to find hymns for as generations of hymn writers have seen this story with the drama of storms and the need for faith as being rich topics to explore and, when coupled with a good tune, congregations enjoy singing them.
On one level the story is about Jesus’ kingship and divine identity. It’s one of a series of stories in this part of St Mark’s Gospel where the author is revealing to us who Jesus is – the disciples, slow on the uptake, gradually understand too. In this story Jesus does things which are reserved to God.
- Jesus brings order to the chaos of the storm – just as God spoke at the beginning of creation and bought order to the chaos of the cosmos.
- Jesus conquers the forces of death – if you’ve ever been on the sea in a storm you will know the power and danger of the waves. In modern times our ships are very safe, very strong and very stable – the disciples were on little more than a rowing boat – a simple fisher’s boat which, by today’s standards would be very vulnerable to the power of the wind and waves. Only God can conquer death.
- Jesus ensures the endurance of life – at Creation God breaths over the waters and life is bought forth, here Jesus calms the waters so that they, again, become life giving rather than life threatening.
The authors of the Gospel wanted to ensure that we understand who Jesus truly is – in this part of the book he’s helping his readers understand that Jesus has divine attributes. Of course, there are always many ways of reading the story and I think there is a more personal way which revolves around the twin ideas of fear and faith.
Fear and Faith
In the story the fear of the disciples is contrasted with the faith of Jesus. Fear made the disciples panic. The wind had come suddenly, the waves were strong and the boat was being swamped with water. On the sea the disciples were afraid that they would drown – Jesus is asleep which must have annoyed them no end! Fear can make us panic.
If a noise in the night wakes us we can be full of fear. If we’re put into a new situation we can be full of fear. Put me on a roller coaster and I am full of fear! But fear can effect not just us as individuals but as institutions too.
We have seen how fear is used in political discourse – vote for that lot and the country will be ruined; vote this way to secure our way of life which is under threat. Business is increasingly fearful of what Brexit may mean – not so much of Brexit itself but of the uncertainty that is the result of the lack of clarity in the negotiations. The Church is fearful – fearful of a culture that doesn’t understand us, that condemns us as being out of touch, repressive and bigoted. The Church is fearful for the future, at our rising age profile, at the lack of money, at the lack of status in society, at the decreasing number of ministers. Of course we don’t say we’re afraid – that would, actually, be helpful as we would then be able to name what was going on. Instead we chase our tails trying to find the new initiative, the new theology, the new leader, the new music style which will reverse the decline and stop us feeling fearful. We ignore evidence that says this doesn’t work and lurch from initiative to initiative as the storm clouds billow around us.
Local congregations, trapped in fear, think the answer is to get the Sunday School going again – we think back to yesteryear when there were so many children in Sunday School that we thought the future was secure; if only we could do that again but, if not, well the church will see me out. As we live in fear, like the disciples in the boat, we find we can do less and less and we become despondent. If we are fearful and despondent we don’t want to invite new folk to come along to church – if we think the institution is on its last legs why would we think anyone else would want to come?
So fear makes us and the institutions we belong to panic and rush around in ever decreasing circles trying to make things better. Rather like the disciples in that boat so long ago.
In contrast to all this fear and panic we have Jesus and his faith. He calmly rebukes and stills the elements. Jesus’ faith gives peace. Jesus faith calms the storm. Jesus’ faith calms the disciples.
Intriguingly, the response to this is more fear! Instead of being reassured that Jesus had things under control the disciples are more disturbed by the power of Jesus over the elements than they were by the elements themselves. Sometimes in our own lives we are fearful of those who have authority – even when the authority is used for good. Sometimes in the Church we are fearful of those places where it seems to go well. Sometimes our fear mixes with resentment and jealousy to create a deadly mixture of emotions.
Jesus’ response to the disciples is interesting asking if they have no faith. Jesus didn’t tell the disciples, and doesn’t tell us that we have nothing to be afraid of. He doesn’t dismiss their, or our, concerns but he does tell us to have faith.
So we’re right to be concerned about decline in church attendance in the West. We’re right to be concerned about fewer people understanding Christianity and its claims. We’re right to be concerned that local churches can struggle and close. But our response is to have faith.
- Faith in Jesus, the Lord of the Church, who promised that the gates of Hell will never prevail against His Church.
- Faith in Jesus, the Lord of our hearts, that he continues to call people to Himself who will work their discipleship out in local churches.
- Faith in Jesus, the Lord of our lives, that he will guide us to be open, welcoming and inclusive of those he sends to us.
- Faith in Jesus, the Son of God, that he will calm the elements and whilst he won’t take away the things we are afraid of, he will give us faith.
Will you pray with me?
Calm our storm, Lord Jesus
our heart is failing,
our mind is darkened,
our faith is fearful.
Calm our storm, Lord Jesus,
we forget to love,
we forget our neighbour,
we forget to serve.
Calm our storm, Lord Jesus,
you came to preach peace,
you challenged religion,
you won over sin.
Calm our storm, Lord Jesus,
and give us faith.
(based on Simone Ramacci in On Eagle’s Wings)