In last Sunday’s Mass we heard Jesus comparing the birth of his new community – ‘kingdom’ – to a tiny mustard seed growing into a huge tree. Today’s text – Mark 4:35-41 – describes an event which, 40 or so years after it occurred, was recorded by St Mark to encourage people belonging to that community who were living in a time of crisis. And I wish to suggest to you that its application is as timely for us today and it was for them.
We read of Jesus and his first disciples caught up in a violent storm on the Sea of Galilee. Also called Lake Tiberias, the Sea of Galilee is situated in northeast Israel, between the Golan Heights and the Galilee region. It is the lowest freshwater lake on Earth and the second-lowest of all lakes in the world (after the Dead Sea, a saltwater lake).
Much of the ministry of Jesus occurs on the shores of this lake. In those days, there were lots of settlements and villages around it and plenty of trade and ferrying by boat. All the Gospels mention that four fishermen from the shores of this lake were chosen by Jesus as his apostles and that many of his miracles occurred there as well.
Due to the lake being so low and surrounded by hills, the scorching sun would heat the lake during the day but in the evening the coolness of the air could stir up the waters, and to such a degree that even the strongest rowing boats would struggle to cope (no outboard engines then). As the boatmen in the story were familiar with these storms, the fact that they panicked is an indication of just how violent this particular storm was.
Some forty years later, early Church members were living in a time of crisis. Both in Rome under the Emperor Nero and in the Holy Land during the Jewish War, Christians were being killed in waves of persecution. The threat of martyrdom put tremendous pressure on them and, understandably, some members abandoned their faith for fear of being put to death.
The original event of Jesus calming the waters pointed to Jesus divinity, that he was no ordinary human but the One who shared in the divine power of the Creator of the sea, earth and heaven. Now, for St Mark and his fellow Church members, the event had taken on a new application. The chief concern now was not so much the miracle of Jesus calming the storm but the crisis situation of the Church members (the disciples in the boat), under persecution (perishing in the storm) and being told that they need faith (“Have you still no faith”). Mark’s generation, who never met Jesus in the flesh, were being challenged not to abandon ship but to not to lose faith – in their struggles Jesus might appear to be asleep and seemingly not care about them but they had to believe that he was with them in their sea-tossed boat and, ultimately, as he demonstrated to the first disciples, he, the Lord, was in control.
If you visit the catacombs in Rome – the underground chambers where persecuted Christians were buried, you will find images of small boats etched into the walls of the tombs, a clear indication of how these martyrs identified with that Gospel story.
When Jesus awakes in the story, he is described as rebuking and commanding it to ‘Be clam’. Earlier Mark describe Jesus dealing in the same way with an unclean spirit possessing a man in the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:25) (and the same command is used in Psalm 106:9 to describe God rebuking the sea when the Israelites crossed it during the Exodus event).
Then story ends with Jesus challenging the disciples lack of faith in him, leaving them ‘filled with awe’ and asking: ‘Who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him.’ Thus an event in which they first gave Jesus the title ‘Master’ or Teacher (Rabbi) now changes their perception of Jesus. He is not just another holy man or prophet but One who shares in the creative and divine power of God who is Master of the seas, the heavens and the earth.
For St Mark’s generations of Christians, the message is now not just that Jesus has divine power but that in their crisis, in the storm of persecution waging against them, they must not lose faith but believe the same Jesus is with them, as he was in the storm with those fist disciples.
How might we apply this teaching to our lives today?
The image of a boat in a stormy sea represents life for us in difficult times and the inner turmoil, fear and anxiety we have to endure. Few of us escae such experiences. Living in the storms of COVID-19 and all the other 21st century problems that beset us, including the personal problems that affect us, this Gospel story is calling on us to have faith in the same Jesus in our difficulties; and to believe that whatever the waves crashing against us, He is in control and gives us the strength to endure. If we seem at times to be all at sea, our boat shipping water and we are tempted to jump ship, while the Lord is apparently napping, we hear him say to us as he said to sea: ‘Be calm. Quiet now!’
And, perhaps, we might make this prayer of the Breton fisherman our own:
Lord, the sea is so wide and my boat is so small. Be with me.
Holy Name, Jesmond
20 June 2021