Proper 7 Year B 4th Sunday after Pentecost
There’s more to the storm and chaos of today’s readings than just the personal challenges and crises we all face. Storms at sea were a powerful image in antiquity; watery chaos was the chief Old Testament image for the threatening otherness that our God keeps in check. Genesis tells us that God’s Spirit moved on the face of the deep to create a world of order from chaos, and there are echoes of that faith in our readings today. Our psalmist rejoices with sailors in the sense of relief that comes with storms calmed.
God reminds Job in our first reading today that it isn’t within human power to restrain the primal chaos of existence, to silence the threat that otherness poses to an ordered and peaceful life. Rather, this is God’s business. And in our Gospel today Jesus is presented as doing just what God our creator does—moving on the waters and creating order out of chaos.
Three hundred years before our Nicene Creed formalized Jesus’ status as son of God, here the first Gospel written is already testifying to Jesus as no less than God with us. This is the main symbolic reason we use water at baptism. God’s Spirit moves again on the face of the waters at baptism, and there is a new creation—the baptized child or adult emerges as a new creation; the world for them begins again.
We all know that there’s more to today’s Gospel than meteorology. Our collect and our hymns recognize that the storms Jesus calms are the storms of life, and we confirm this in our experience. Our God does save us in the time of trial, so despair and hopelessness don’t overwhelm us. Many of us know the strength and presence of God in the face of life’s harshest challenges, like poor old Job knew; when you’ve been betrayed, abandoned, or when you’ve failed. At times like these, many of us report the same sort of calm that Jesus’ disciples discovered in today’s Gospel. Indeed, for us the storms may still be raging, but we have passed beyond fear, sensing God’s peace. This is the age-old testimony of faith in the God of Jesus Christ, who calms the storms of life.
Jesus calms the storms not only of personal crisis but in the fraught business of group dynamics. This is a sociological miracle as well, and not simply a meteorological one. Note how in Mark the storm on the lake always blows up when Jesus says ‘let’s go over to the other side’. It’s a bit like the Lone Ranger saying to Tonto, ‘Let’s go into town’, which is always an infallible signal for trouble.
Because on the other side of the lake of course is gentile territory, and here we have a plain allegory of the Church’s mission. Jesus’ followers were doing just that—their little Church was crossing the dangerous boundary between Jews and gentiles, having to cope with all this alarming otherness, as yesterdays outsiders, against whom Israel had long defined itself, were beginning to come on board Jesus’ movement, seeking baptism and membership of the Church. No wonder storms came up for that little community, just as they still do for us today. Now as then we take comfort that Jesus can calm the storm—that no one need be lost, that the voyage together can continue in peace.
Today’s Gospel is good news for the Church, just as it was good news for its first hearers, who would immediately have recognized the Old Testament symbolism of a new creation out of chaos.
What a difference it makes that Jesus is the one who calms our storms—that we can trust him when we’re confronted with things that alarm us. This is a wonderful thing, when you consider our usual human alternative. When human society convulses in crisis, and a storm of violent mutual antagonism blows up, threatening destruction—when we’ve all become rivals and all the anger has to find an outlet—then what do we normally do to calm such a storm? We find a victim, a scapegoat, some convenient outsider who’s transgressed a boundary or two, and we expel them or worse.
These are all the ways that some like to calm the storms that blow up in all sorts of groups—by violence and scapegoating. But Jesus brings a better way, as today’s Gospel beautifully illustrates. Jesus dies with the victims, and he unerringly nails the whole fearful, Godless, universal process that creates these victims as the price to be paid for our peace of mind. Then in his resurrection Jesus is anything but the angry ex-victim, back with a vengeance. In his resurrection, having passed through the deep waters of death, Jesus emerges as the first fruits of a new creation that doesn’t depend on violent scapegoating and bitter payback. Jesus is risen beyond the universal fact of anxious fear and is our best bet in a world of angst-ridden, violent exclusion. Therefore we can take heart, because with Jesus to defend us we don’t have to be defensive or narrow, but lovingly embrace the outsider in our midst.
A final word in light of our epistle reading today. Paul can be a calm and persevering person of faith, showing his own non-anxious presence—in the midst of that extraordinary clearing house of anxieties and frustrations called the Church—that Jesus is dealing with our fears and moving us forward, without employing the violent and exclusive means that humans regularly prefer. Paul’s is the priestly witness of Christ himself, bearing pain and anxiety for the sake of the Church’s identity and mission. Two thousand years before the discovery of family systems theory, Paul is the non-anxious presence which this theory identifies as crucial; Paul knows, like Jesus, that persevering faith, hope and love in the face of provocation is God’s medicine of new creation to troubled human groups.
So whether it’s individually in the face of life’s storms, whether as a typical human society coping with its anger and rivalry by scapegoating the ill-fitting other, or as the Church that risks giving-in to the dark angels of fear and exclusion, Jesus stands in our little boat and says ‘Peace! Be still!’ So it is that in Jesus, and most reliably in him, our world begins again. This is our birthright in baptism, to be agents of this peace ourselves, in a life and in a culture and in a world that simply can’t achieve peace by any other means.