21 June 2009
St Michael’s Kelburn
After some weeks of to-tooing around the other gospels for Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity and Te Pouhere Sundays, today we are back to the Gospel of Mark – back to the ‘ordinary Sundays’. Such a funny Church phrase. We’re in ‘ordinary time’; it’s ordinary Sunday #12, if I’m not mistaken. Be that as it may, today’s readings are about the extraordinary, about disrupted time.
First, a note about the Gospel of Mark’s approach: The big questions for Mark are: Who is Jesus? and What is the nature of discipleship? (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) A lot of the time this Gospel doesn’t spell things out for us. Jesus is regularly said to be teaching people, but often we’re not given the content of his teaching. Instead Mark tells us about Jesus by relating what he did. This means we have to carefully attend to the details of the story if we’re to understand what exactly Mark is telling us about Jesus, and about discipleship.
The disciples were experienced fishermen, and they were sailing on the Sea of Galilee, their home turf, so to speak, where they worked every day. If they were frightened about their boat capsizing then this was a real storm and they really were in mortal danger; it was sensible to be terrified. Jesus, on the other hand, of course, is sleeping at the back of the boat, apparently blissfully unaware of any risk. The disciples wake him up. Jesus rebukes the storm, and then he rebukes the disciples.
As you’ve probably heard before, for the ancient Israelites, the sea often represents destructive chaos. As well as being dangerous in its own right, the sea comes to stand for ‘the powers’ – those forces and structures that are bigger than us, dominate our lives, and to a greater or lesser extent resist God – ‘the economy’, ‘the nation’, public opinion, politics, class, consumerism, militarism, etc, etc. (John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, p.142) This miraculous calming is in line with Jesus’ many confrontations with demonic forces elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel. It’s not that these powers are wholly evil, only that they’re out of control, out of order.
Jesus calming the storm also tells us something about the nature of the future kingdom. When God finally puts the world back the way it ought to be, the ‘natural world’ will no longer be disordered. This is good news for a time like ours that faces the likelihood of (just to name three watery troubles) sea-level rise, shrinking glaciers and collapsing fisheries.
You would think that having been saved from the terrible storm that had so frightened them the disciples would be delighted, but instead they’re even more afraid. “Who can this be?” they ask. The disciples were Jews, they would have known the Psalms, including today’s – Psalm 107 – that say that it’s Yahweh, the Lord God, who both whips up the storms on the sea and causes them to be still. And here is their confusing and demanding Rabbi apparently doing what only God is supposed to be able to do. It’s likely that the extent of the disciple’s ambition was to find some to kick the Romans occupiers out of Palestine, but they’re realising they’ve got much more than they bargained for.
Much of the time we’re tempted to domesticate God, to lock down Jesus in various ways. We have the creeds, we have the prayers, we have the songs. It’s comforting. Things will turn out all right in the end. We turn up and give God his due. He knows his place and we know ours. But from Mark’s point of view, a true meeting with God in Jesus is as likely to produce fear as it is a warm glow.
Here is a quote from Annie Dillard that gets at the point from a different angle:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life [jackets] and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk.)
It’s sort of dated, but you get the idea.
Throughout the Gospel of Mark, the disciples are constantly misunderstanding, disbelieving, cowardly, and even denying Jesus. In the same way, the Church, any particular church, St Michael’s and each one of us, are always at risk of failing to follow Jesus (Nathan Guy, ‘The Gospel of Mark’). That’s normal, in a sense. We get stuck on a plateau – complacent, content with our religious activities while the world goes to hell. But there is always a way back… We need to be constantly reminded who it is we are dealing with. Where can we find Jesus in order to follow him again? The usual places: the Bible, the sacraments, in prayer, in each other, and in service to ‘the least of these’.
There is another resonance we’re meant to hear in this story that hints at who we’re dealing with. In the creation account in Genesis 1, God only has to speak a few words and the world comes into being: “Let there be light”. Jesus only has to say the word and the world obeys. This links to Paul’s words in our reading from 2 Corinthians 5: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (This ‘new creation’ theme seems to just keep popping up every time I’m assigned to preach recently. When I first started giving sermons it seemed every text was about participation in the life of God, now it’s all new creation.) Paul sees that the beautiful, redeemed, harmonious future promised by the prophets has come near in Christ, and is in some sense accessible to us, now, here. Paul wrote “He died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though once we knew Christ from a human point of view.” Jesus’ resurrection has disrupted the tired old world, and for those with eyes to see, has revealed a new world. This new creation comes with a new way of seeing. It is not enslaved by the powers I mentioned, but ruled instead by the risen Jesus.
These stories reward repeated reading. Something I noticed only in the last day or two is that it was Jesus’ idea to cross the lake at that particular time, just before the storm came up. Following Jesus is dangerous, and the disciples were right to fear Jesus more than the storm. Jesus is the fiery centre of things, and when we acknowledge his central place, then the competing fears that make up our lives – fear of not having enough money, fear of losing status, fear of loneliness, fear of death – begin to find their proper, subordinate, places. [It is the flip side of having our loves rightly ordered.] If Jesus is the centre, then I can’t be the centre of my own life anymore. Nor can my wife, or daughter, or friends, or work.
Now we can all probably agree that Mark’s story is a deep one, loaded up with rich symbolism – but is it really credible? What use have 21st-century, first-world people like us got for miracle stories? Can’t we jettison the ‘supernatural’ stuff and keep the kernel of truth? On reflection, my answer to that is no, we can’t. If our faith is centred on someone who doesn’t in actual fact have control over wind and waves, storms and climate, then it’s really not much use to anyone.
But if we accept that it is true, and tells us something about who Jesus is, what concrete difference does it make? What does life look like in Christ’s new creation, no longer looking at things ‘from a human point of view’? Here is one summary, from my favourite theolog, John Howard Yoder:
When he called his society together, Jesus gave its members a new way of life to live. He gave them a new way to deal with offenders – by forgiving them. He gave them a new way to deal with violence – by suffering. He gave them a new way to deal with money – by sharing it. He gave them a new way to deal with the problems of leadership – by drawing upon the gift of every member, even the must humble. He gave them a new way to deal with a corrupt society – by building a new order, not smashing the old. He gave them a new pattern of relationships between man and woman, between parent and child, between master and slave, in which was made concrete a radical new vision of what it means to be a human person. He gave them a new attitude toward the state and toward the “enemy nation”. (John Howard Yoder, For the Nations, p.176.)
These are some of the small but extraordinary signs that intimate the world’s destiny. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
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