“Have you still no faith?”
Sunday 24 June 2018
One of the characteristics of our world today is the proliferation of experts. No doubt it arises as a consequence of the complexity of our living arrangements.
You know what I mean. You go to the doctor with a medical complaint and you are referred to this or that specialist for tests or diagnosis and treatment. You can be watching a news program and a particular event in the world is being considered and in comes professor so and so who is an expert on some obscure area of knowledge that you probably never knew existed to give an expert opinion on what the event means for the rest of the world.
There are people all over the world doing PHD’s into smaller and smaller aspects of life. You can start to wonder how it can all be brought together into a coherent whole so that we can just live our lives. Indeed, we live an age of experts.
It was not so in Jesus’ time. Life was nowhere near as complex and there was no need for experts on everything under the sun. But that is not to say that there were not some areas of life where it wasn’t a good idea to follow the advice of someone who had just a little more knowledge than everyone else.
And one of those areas where a bit of expert opinion would be valuable would be the weather on the Sea of Galilee. The Sea occupies a pear-shaped depression and is 21km from north to south and 7km from east to west at its broadest. One of the key features is that it is located over 200m below sea level. The Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us that its annual rainfall of around 15 inches or 380 mm falls during the fifty days of the year that can be counted as winter in the form of brief but violent showers because of its low topography.
So, if you were going to venture out on the Sea of Galilee in the dark during that 50 day winter period, who would you consult – fishermen who had spent their lives on the sea earning a reasonably profitable living for their families; or a carpenter from a village well over 20 kilometres from the sea?
That is the first thing that jumps out at us from this account of Jesus’ calming the waters in today’s gospel. It is not the expert that suggests the crossing of the sea by night, it is the amateur. But because of who the amateur is, no one comes to any harm. But that is not to say that the anxiety levels of the disciples does not go through the roof. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” “Do you not care?”
Of course Jesus cares. He cares about their wellbeing. “Peace! Be still!” But what he cares about the most is their faith. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
I’ve said many times in my sermons that, in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, the word “faith” almost never means belief in the existence of God as against non-belief in the existence of God. And it certainly never means belief in a doctrine as against non-belief in a doctrine. “Faith” means trust in God and his promises. And in the gospels, that trust in God always means trust in Jesus.
Consider the setting of this encounter with the wild weather of the Sea of Galilee.
It occurs right at the end of chapter 4 of Mark’s gospel. Chapter 4 begins with Jesus sitting in a boat of the shore of the Sea of Galilee telling the parable of the sower to a very large crowd on the shore. We then lose the sense of location as the gospel tells us that “When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables”. And he tells them “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables”. He then explains the meaning of the parable of the sower to them.
As the chapter progresses, he tells them the parable of the lamp under a bushel, the parable of the growing seed and the parable of mustard seed. The gospel then tells us that “he explained everything in private to his disciples”. And after what we can imagine was a big day of instruction and disciple-forming, we read: “On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side”.
The other side of the sea was Gentile country. Jesus is challenging his disciples to whom he has given a full day of teaching and private instruction to do something with it. And if that means striking out across the sea at night during the storm season, so be it. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” “Don’t you trust me? Do you think I will let you founder? Do you think I call you to discipleship and then abandon you to your own devices against the forces arrayed against you?”
It seems to me that this episode of the calming of the sea has been used by the Church often enough to point Jesus’ divinity. The question at the end of the episode is seen as calling us to reflect upon Jesus’ identity as Son of God. “Who then is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?” And it is perfectly legitimate to consider the text in this light. But we have already been told who Jesus is in the first verse of the gospel – “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.
We already know that. So I think it is also legitimate, and I suggest far more challenging for us as disciples of Jesus, to consider the question in terms of the demands that Jesus makes of us as disciples. Who is this who calls us to be his disciples, to take his gospel into difficult places, assuring us that he has the power to see us through?
Jesus was no expert on the weather patterns of the Sea of Galilee. But he was definitely an expert on discipleship. He knew that disciples have to step out of the safe places and face up to the challenges of proclaiming his gospel to the world at large. And he knew that his disciples might get a bit weak-kneed at times in the face of the forces against his name, but he assures them and us that we need not be afraid. We need only have faith in him, trust him and “even the wind and sea” will obey him.
Let us pray.
Christ, whose insistent call disturbs our settled lives: give us discernment to hear your word, grace to relinquish our tasks, and courage to follow empty-handed wherever you may lead, so that the voice of your gospel may reach to the ends of the earth. Amen.
The Reverend Allan Paulsen
Parish Priest, St Matthew’s, Holland Park
“Have you still no faith?”
- “God’s ways are not our ways”
- “When the going gets tough…”