Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Third Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Third Sunday after Trinity. My podcasts are available wherever you listen to your podcasts. Search on your podcast app for: Ross Royden.

The Third Sunday after Trinity


Reading: Mark 4:34-41

Last week, our reading was also from chapter four of St Mark’s Gospel. This chapter is one of only two chapters in the Gospel that contains any extended teaching by Jesus. The other is chapter 13. Chapter four, as we saw last week, in addition to containing several parables of Jesus also has Jesus’ explanation of why he teaches in parables.

After describing Jesus’ teaching in chapter four, St Mark describes how Jesus and his disciples cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee features prominently in the ministry of Jesus. The Sea itself is relatively small, just 13 miles or so from north to south and 8 miles from east to west. The area, however, was a busy one for trade and local industries such as farming and fishing. One scholar (C. Parker, 2016) describes it this way:

‘The area surrounding the Sea of Galilee is a limited geographical arena, yet in the first century this is where worldviews converged. Galilee was primarily Jewish, the Decapolis was primarily Hellenistic, and Gaulanitis was a mixture of both. Three political units, controlled by different rulers and representing a variety of lifestyles and worldviews, shared the small shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. The residents of these areas enjoyed the same freshwater resources: fish from the lake, a temperate climate allowing for abundant agriculture, and international roads providing opportunities to trade outside the region. The fact that each political unit included sizable cities around the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee emphasizes that the entire area was full of industry, trade, and access to international peoples.’[1]

In next week’s podcast, we will see what happens when Jesus and his disciples get to ‘the other side’ and what happens when they come back.

This week, however, we are concerned with what happens on this trip across the Sea. Jesus’ calming of the storm is a well-known and much-loved story. It has famously been depicted in art, not least by Rembrandt in the seventeenth century.

Jesus and his disciples set out to cross the Sea in the boat that has been serving as a pulpit for his teaching of the crowds. Suddenly and unexpectedly, they are caught in a severe storm. It is so severe that even the disciples, some of whom are experienced fishermen and used to being on the Sea, fear it will lead to their death.

Jesus himself is asleep at the back of the boat after a busy day oblivious to what is going on, and, the disciples seem to suggest, unbothered by it in any case. The disciples wake Jesus and in desperation say to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ (Mark 4:38). Jesus rebukes the storm and then rebukes the disciples! Jesus is far more concerned by the disciples’ lack of faith than he is by the storm itself.

We saw last week that modern interpreters of the parables have great difficulties in understanding them. These difficulties continue with this week’s passage. We know, don’t we, that this sort of thing simply can’t happen? The weather can’t be changed by someone telling it to! That might be something that naïvely was once believed in more primitive, less scientific days, but we now know better. Don’t we always!

So, what to do with the story? It certainly shows the faith that St Mark and his readers had come to have in Jesus that they believed he was capable of such a thing (even if we today don’t think he was). But the fact that the story comes immediately after St Mark’s account of the parables suggests another approach to the story that makes it relevant to us today, when many don’t believe, as people once did, that it actually happened. Why not treat the story of the calming of the storm as itself a parable?

Preachers all over the world this week will be doing just this in their sermons on this passage. Congregations will be told that Jesus will help us in the storms of life and calm them too. The preachers of these naïve sermons will not, however, be telling their congregations that Jesus also rebuked the disciples for their fear in the storm, thereby suggesting that it wasn’t his original intention to do anything about it. Nor will preachers be telling their listeners that Jesus regarded their fear as a lack of faith. If we treat the story as a parable, we might find that it says things that we don’t necessarily want to hear.

The problem is, of course, that Jesus doesn’t always calm the storms of life, and, indeed, it is rather cruel to suggest that he does. Jesus is most definitely with us in the storms of life, but that is not the same thing as him making the storms of life go away. Many have turned to Jesus during their life storms and have asked, for example, for their loved one to be healed or their marriage not to fail or their business not to go bust, only to be disappointed when Jesus hasn’t done what they have asked.

If we don’t believe that Jesus can control the weather and the story is not a parable, where then does that leave us? Is the story of no relevance to us? Scholars have suggested a more sophisticated approach to the story that seeks to show how St Mark himself may have understood the story. Again, there is no question of them accepting that Jesus actually did calm the storm. Instead, they ask whether St Mark, although he may mistakenly have thought it actually happened, may also have had another purpose in mind by including the story in his Gospel. If he did, then maybe this will enable us to derive some benefit from the story even if, again as many believe, it didn’t actually happen.

Many scholars, then, approach the story of the calming of the storm by looking at the story not so much in the context of Jesus’ ministry, but in the historical and social context of those for whom St Mark wrote the Gospel.

St Mark’s Gospel has traditionally been thought to have been written by St Mark in Rome at a time of persecution. There are references to persecution in St Mark’s Gospel that suggest the author wanted to encourage his readers who were suffering persecution themselves. On this approach to the story, the ‘boat’ that Jesus and his disciples are in is interpreted as symbolizing the Church; and the storm, the persecution that threatens to overwhelm it. The calming of the storm by Jesus is understood to be a promise that Jesus will calm the storms of persecution that the Church is facing.

While expressed in academic language in scholarly articles, this interpretation is no better than the one more popularly expressed in sermons. There is nothing to suggest that this interpretation is what St Mark has in mind. In any case, Jesus doesn’t always calm the ‘storm of persecution’, thereby saving his followers from it, any more than he always heals those who are sick. On the contrary, the book of Revelation, for example, is written to warn believers in Asia of the persecution that is coming their way and to inform the believers that many of them can expect to die in the persecution when it comes.

So, does this mean that we are left with a story that we can’t believe actually happened and which has no relevance at all to us today?

To begin with, let me state my own position on whether Jesus actually calmed the storm. We need as believers to make our minds up. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t recite the Creed every Sunday and come out with all this stuff about how God is the Creator and how Jesus is his Son through whom he created all things, and then say that it was impossible for him to calm the storm.

For too many people, if there is an apparent conflict between science and their faith, it is always our present scientific understanding that we must follow. But God, if he is God, must be able to act within his creation. It is, then, not our understanding of our faith that is wrong, but our understanding of the science.

Now I realize that this has led believers in the past into trouble and into resisting scientific ideas that are now accepted by just about everyone. I am not arguing that scientists have got it wrong when it comes to understanding how weather systems work. I am suggesting that this doesn’t mean that God is limited in how he works because of them. Science does an amazing job of explaining how things work in the natural world. God, however, is the one who works both naturally through his creation and supernaturally, as it may seem from our point of view, whenever he chooses.

However, even given that it did happen, if, the story cannot also be interpreted as a parable about how Jesus will save us from the storms of life or protect the Church in times of persecution, what is its relevance for us?

Firstly, and most importantly, this story is included by St Mark in his Gospel to tell us something about who Jesus is. The parables in chapter four have been about the ‘secret of the Kingdom of God’ (Mark 4:11). Jesus’ message, St Mark has told us, has been that the Kingdom of God is near’ (Mark 1:15). But what we conspicuously have not been told is where Jesus personally fits into all this.

Now, after we have read of how Jesus calms the storm, the disciples will voice the question for us. St Mark writes that the disciples say to one another:

‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (Mark 4:41)

Jesus himself, at this point in St Mark’s Gospel, is reticent about giving a straight answer to this question. (We will talk more about this in future sermons!) St Mark, however, has already given us quite lot to help us give an answer.

We have already seen how Jesus has authority to cast out demons, forgive sins, and decide what happens on God’s Sabbath. Now we see that Jesus’ authority isn’t simply a spiritual and religious authority, but an authority that extends over the whole of creation.

The Kingdom of God, whatever else it is, is the Kingdom of God. So far in St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has been acting in a way that only God was believed to be able to act. The Kingdom of God, St Mark is telling us, is, by implication, intimately tied up with the character, work, and person of Jesus himself. We might not yet be at the stage where St Mark and his readers can say not simply that Jesus is sent by God, but that he is God. We are not, however, far off.

It is precisely because this is the implication of what Jesus says and does that the Church came to think of Jesus in the way that is reflected in the Creed we say each week. Seeing Jesus as himself God and understanding God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, what is known as the Trinity, is the Church’s answer to the disciples’ question:

‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (Mark 4:41)

This understanding of God, that we are celebrating in this season of the Church’s year, isn’t the result of pagan and alien philosophical ideas entering the Church, as is often alleged. Instead, the understanding of God as Trinity came out of a careful, prayerful and, at times, painful commitment by the Church to be faithful to the evidence of the Scriptures. In this they were led, as Jesus promised they would be, by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13).

Secondly, the disciples, having experienced Jesus’ calming of the storm, are themselves now beginning to get some feeling of who Jesus really is. They are not yet ready to say as Thomas will say, ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28). They are, however, beginning to realize that Jesus is not just a teacher or prophet. After all, in the Scriptures, it is God himself who calms the storm (see, for example, Psalm 107:23-29). How the disciples react as the truth about Jesus begins to dawn on them shows us how we too should react. St Mark writes:

‘And they [the disciples] were filled with great fear …’ (Mark 4:41)

Before Jesus wakes and calms the storm, the disciples are afraid of the storm and that they will perish in it. Now that Jesus has calmed the storm, they are in fear of him. One of the greatest missing elements in our experience today is an experience of the fear of God.

We want God to be approachable, accepting, and forgiving; and so he is. But that is not all he is. God is also incomprehensible, holy, and just. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it: ‘for our God is indeed a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:29).

While this might be how we see the Old Testament God, we want to believe that this is not how we should see God now. We might have feared him once, but since Jesus has come, we fear him so no longer. In fact, the opposite should be the case. The writer to the Hebrews, for example, suggests that now Jesus has come, we should fear God all the more. He writes:

‘See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!’ (Hebrews 12:25)

We are remarkably causal about God. We don’t take him particularly seriously and, consequently, give so little time and thought to him, turning to him only when we feel he can be of some use to us. We need to have experience the ‘fear of God’. By this, I don’t only mean that we should be reverent and respectful to him; nor that we should simply have a sense of awe in our worship. True though this is. No, I mean that we each need to have the experience of being absolutely afraid of him, of being completely and utterly overwhelmed by his power and glory, so that we become conscious and ashamed of our weakness and sinfulness, and fearful of what is going to happen to us.

An experience of the fear of God, such as the one experienced by Job in our first reading and the disciples in our Gospel reading, isn’t meant to drive us to despair, but to bring home to us how powerless we are and how dependent we are on the mercy of God. Job says to God:

‘I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’ (Job 42:5-6)

We will never have faith in God while we continue to have faith in ourselves. We will only abandon faith in ourselves when we see for ourselves how great is our God and how small and insignificant we are in his presence. St John writes that ‘perfect love casts out fear’ (1 John 4:18). But it cannot cast out what does not exist, and if we are to experience the love of God, we need first to know the fear of God.

St Paul begins the passage of which our second reading this week is a part:

‘Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others…’ (2 Corinthians 5:11)

Those who have known what it is to fear God, and who take God seriously as a result, will want to persuade others. This is not, as it is so often said, because we are frightened of hell and want to scare people into believing. Rather it is because, having seen who God is, we have seen how futile and false are all the other things in this world that people trust in and lust after. Anyone who has experienced the fear of God is unable ever again to trust in the systems of this world or to take seriously the claims of those who take pride in themselves and who boast of their achievements.

Having experienced the tremendous reality of God in Christ, we will want to expose the meaninglessness and emptiness of all that we are encouraged to believe in and seek after in this world. We do this in the hope of leading people to see the truth that is in Christ and in Christ alone. Knowing the fear of God, we seek to persuade men and women of the need to be saved from the storms that will overwhelm and destroy those who don’t put their faith in him.

The disciples asked Jesus:

‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ (Mark 4:38)

It is because he cares that we are perishing that Jesus came and died for us. It is through faith in him that we can be saved from perishing. As St John writes:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

As we experience the presence of God and are overwhelmed that one so great could love us and go to such lengths to save us, we will not only want to respond to him ourselves, but to share his grace with others and to do so urgently.

As St Paul writes:

‘As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!’ (2 Corinthians 6:1-2)

May God give us the faith we need to experience his salvation.

Amen.

[1] Parker, C. (2016). Crossing to “The Other Side” of the Sea of Galilee. In B. J. Beitzel & K. A. Lyle (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels (p. 159). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

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