03 June 2021

"Why are you afraid?"

Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee, Rembrandt. Detail. Source.
Rembrandt's painting.
The New Testament story of Jesus calming the storm, to his fellow passengers' astonishment, is told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The waves threaten to swamp the boat and drown the terrified disciples (apparently including young Rembrandt in the detail above), but Jesus responds to their cries for help, calms the water, and rebukes the wind.

Each of the evangelists frames this story a bit differently. In Matthew's telling, Jesus is responding to the setting -- they've been surrounded by crowds. Maybe he wants a change of scene, or wants to resume the private instruction of his disciples rather than teaching everyone present. In Luke, the trip is apparently a separate decision. With Mark's typical flair for the dramatic detail, he begins by specifying, "On that day" (apparently the day he'd been teaching with parables) -- that's the day he proposes the evening trip across the lake. Mark also specifies that the boat carrying Jesus was one of several boats making the trip. All of the accounts have Jesus sleeping when the storm comes upon them; Mark says he was sleeping on a cushion.

All of the evangelists report the passengers' perilous situation, but Mark adds the poignant question: "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?" (NIV translation.) For me, this question makes the whole exchange between the frightened passengers and their teacher more complex. In each gospel, before the trip across the lake, Jesus has been teaching his audiences about his relationship to them and about God's realm:

  • Matthew: Jesus says, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."
  • Mark: "With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything."
  • Luke: Jesus says, "My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice."

This prior teaching gives context to the question Jesus asks when they plead for rescue: "Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?" ... perhaps adding by implication, "... despite everything you've all seen and heard?" I interpret Mark as saying that they do have faith, but they aren't yet sure how to apply it in a dire crisis. To put words into his mouth, "Teacher, we know you could save our skins if you wanted to, so why are you acting so calm?"

When our pastor, Matt Boswell, proposed this passage as our focus for last Sunday's unprogrammed worship, he drew our attention to the command that Jesus gave the wind and waves: "Peace! Be still!" (NRSV translation.) As Matt proposes, maybe these words are intended for the disciples as well -- and, by extension, for us.

Right now, it seems very reasonable to compare our situation to the wind and waves that pounded those Galilean boats.

  • New waves and variants of COVID-19 sweep over many countries and regions, just as many people are behaving as if the precautions of the past fourteen months can be set aside.
  • Grieving families in the so-called Holy Land are trying to put their lives back together, as Naftali Bennett (who has "no problem" with killing Arabs) prepares to replace Netanyahu in Israel.
  • In Russia and Belarus, independent voices are being repressed or extinguished on a daily basis. Across the globe, glib authoritarians are exalting the path of deceit and cruelty.
  • One of the USA's grand old parties seems bent on becoming the only party that can win elections.
  • The war in Yemen has claimed more than 100,000 lives. Most of the munitions that shattered those lives came from outside Yemen.
  • Global warming continues its apparently implacable advance.
  • Everyone reading these words has experienced, is experiencing, or probably will experience a Galilean boat-ride of their own, on some scale large or small.

Given all that, I hear the words of Jesus not as a rhetorical question, but as a very real query that I (we) should answer: 

"Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?"

Here's the most important point I can make: This question is not just directed to me, personally, although I'm surely supposed to engage with it myself. It is directed to us, together. It's directed to everyone in the boat.

  • It is directed to those of us who are directly and obviously in the storm, hanging on to the ropes for dear life.
  • It is directed to those of us who don't yet understand that your crisis is my crisis, their crisis is our crisis, no matter how far away or how little it seems to be costing me today.
  • It is directed to those of us who haven't yet asked Jesus for rescue (not just individual rescue, but for all of us in the boat together).
  • It is directed to those of us who haven't yet told the other passengers that Jesus is in the boat.
  • It is directed to those in the boat who are feeling strong today -- so that they are ready to help those whose faith is weak or gone or not yet even born.
  • It is directed to those who are feeling weak today -- reminding us that, though we're all in the same boat, we aren't simultaneously all at the same place spiritually, and when we ourselves can't see Jesus at all, we can ask each other for help.
  • It is directed to those who are especially able to spot the wind and the waves, to those whose special gift may to ask Jesus for help, and to those who, with unsung faithfulness, tend to the oars and the rigging.

One of the historic symbols of the unity of Christians, and our concern for the whole world, is the boat with the crosslike mast. As the waves of violence and bondage threaten to overwhelm our battered boat, maybe it is the special vocation of some of us to warn the passengers that for too long we have been one-upping each other, slandering each other, scandalizing non-believers, and just assuming that Jesus and the Bible are our badges of privilege.

Why are you and I afraid? Or is the better question today, Why are you and I NOT afraid? 

And, if we still have faith, which waves and which blast of wind are we going to rebuke today in the name of Jesus?

An exchange of e-mails between a Palestinian writer and an Israeli writer. 

Meanwhile, Facebook faces a loss of reputation in the Middle East.

Israel may be losing favor among the heretofore most faithful Christian supporters.

Damien Carrington: Climate-related tipping points could topple like dominoes

Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia are definitely in that battered boat.

Albert Collins, with Derek O'Brien and a superb band, play a slow, exquisitely embroidered version of "The Things That I Used To Do."


Bruce said...

I always read and reflect on your blog posts. This one is particularly poignant in our current climate. Every time I read of another episode of police brutality, as we watch the violence in Palestine unfold, as unemployment continues to affect millions (who are blamed by politicians for taking the pitiful $300/wk extra from pandemic unemployment insurance), when I read about the collapse of a women's shelter in Chowan County because of dire mismanagement -- all of these things test my faith.

It's not a test if there's no chance of failure. No room for complacency here.

Johan Maurer said...

"No room for complacency here." Thank you for this fertile comment, which led me on a meditative trail that included this piece on Atlas Obscura: "Before Sloth Meant Laziness, it Was the Spiritual Sin of Acedia." Acedia isn't exactly the same as complacency, but I feel a link.