It’s a frightful thing to be caught in a storm. On Tuesday afternoon I was in the office when we were all caught off-guard by a sudden clap of thunder that shook the building. I glanced outside where it was very dark; the wind picked up in an instant. The skies opened up and the rain was so heavy and the blowing so strong that the water was rolling sideways. I saw a woman’s umbrella blown from her hand as she struggled to stay on her feet before ducking into the parking garage across the street.
I thought of that scene as I read the Gospel story of the windstorm that blew up on the sea of Galilee. The disciples were in a boat with Jesus and other boats were with them as well. A storm at sea can be more frightening than a land storm, because there’s the additional threat of the raging waters, roiling seas, and pounding waves. The boat containing the disciples and Jesus was being swamped—and there was no nearby garage to duck into. The disciples thought they were dying. They woke Jesus up and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?’”
Although we don’t live on or near the sea, the sense of looming threat and chaos all around us is part of the human condition. Whether it be a natural occurrence like a tornado or violent storm, socio-political developments within or among nations, or the onset of disease—there are deep threats to our sense of calm, order, and well-being.
From the earliest times there was an understanding—a faith, if you will—that God is the only one who stands between us and the chaos.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
So begins the ancient tale of the creation whereby God brought order out of the chaos—”the formless void and darkness that covered the face of the deep.” There was a word from God that initiated and brought about creation. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” So in this Markan story about the storm at sea, there’s a similar word spoken. “He rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.”
Jesus was seen, almost from the beginning of the Christian Era, as one with the Father. Mark has the disciples ask a rhetorical question: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
From early on, Christian art and architecture represented the church as a ship with a cross on its mast—a ship that navigated the storms of human existence. Our church buildings often have ceilings shaped somewhat like a ship’s hull, including the wood cribbing, where our upside down churchly ships sail on the seas of heaven.
And, of course we sing:
Eternal Father, strong to save,
whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
its own appointed limits keep:
O hear us when we cry to thee
for those in peril on the sea.
That’s all well and good. Indeed, we seek to beseech the Almighty to intervene between us and the chaos of life. But let’s not lose sight of another aspect of this story, which it would be easy to do. And that is that the proximate cause of the disciples’ jeopardy on the sea is that they are in that boat with Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel, it’s only in chapter 3 that Jesus completes the calling of his disciples. Here in chapter 4, Jesus has been preaching, teaching, and gathering crowds who have followed him on the journey across the sea.
They’re in danger, because they are following Jesus! To be his people, speaking his truth, witnessing to the gospel of justice and peace is often to place oneself in the way of danger and to be subject to the chaos of the world. Sometimes we’re called to place ourselves and our lives on the line – to stand with the weak and the persecuted – because that’s where Jesus is – that’s the boat in which he’s sailing and we have taken up the call to get on-board with him.
William Alexander Percy, penned this poem in 1924. It’s in our Hymnal as Hymn #661, and captures the thought so well:
They cast their nets in Galilee
Just off the hills of brown.
Such happy simple fisher-folk
Before the Lord came down.
Contented peaceful fishermen
Before they ever knew
The peace of God That fill’d their hearts
Brimful and broke them too.
Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
Homeless, in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
Head-down was crucified.
The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod,
Yet, brothers (and sisters), pray for but one thing–
The marvelous peace of God.
“Take up your cross and follow me,” he said. “Follow me.”