At sea

Philocrites : Liberal Religion : Sermons 1.20.03


From a midweek sermon preached by Christopher L. Walton in King's Chapel, Boston, on August 4, 1999.


But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

— Mark 6:47-56 (NRSV)

The gospel According to Mark is a book about witnesses who do not know what they are seeing. In Mark's gospel, the disciples do not understand who Jesus is. The crowds do not understand who Jesus is. His own family does not understand who Jesus is. Mark is a book about the failure of those closest to him to understand what Jesus was about. And so this is a book that reminds me that I too have a place in the company of his followers even though I often do not know what Jesus is all about. I must rely on faith. Perhaps you can relate.

He has just dismissed the crowd of five thousand, whom he and the disciples have fed with five loaves of bread and two fish. He has sent the disciples across the Sea of Galilee in a boat, and spent the night in prayer by himself. And here our story begins. At his direction, his followers have rowed out into the lake toward Bethsaida. In the middle of the night, he sees that his followers are struggling against the wind.

In the story we heard last week, the disciples were caught on their boat in a storm, but Jesus was sleeping on a pillow in the boat. He awoke and calmed the storm. This time, however, the disciples are caught in the storm by themselves. Seeing their distress, Jesus comes to them.

But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

But even once he joins them in the boat, and the winds have gone away, they still do not understand. The text says that their hearts were hardened. More strangely, the text says that they failed to understand the meal on the shore. It isn't the walking on the water that surprises them; it is the meaning of the five loaves and two fishes that satisfied the hunger of five thousand souls that escapes them.

When we are straining at the oars, when we are caught in the dark on the sea and the wind is against us, when we are trying to follow in the way of Jesus and lose heart, is it possible that we too mistake the help coming toward us? Is it a ghost, a phantom of our longing, or is it possibly Jesus who comes toward us in the storm?

I have read the Gospel According to Mark many times. I walked away from the church for several years when I was in college, frustrated by hypocrisy — unaware, I suppose, of my own — and confused by the miracles, the extraordinary claims, the strangeness of the Bible. I was also upset by the way many self-proclaimed Christians use the Bible to justify their bigotry and small-mindedness. I stepped back, but every now and then I tried to understand what Jesus might really be about. I once read the Gospel of Mark from beginning to end one night, hoping that this book — which many scholars believe is the earliest of the gospels — might clear up my confusion about Jesus. When I closed the book, I went to bed as frustrated and agnostic as ever.

I missed something. I didn't pay attention to the confusion of his followers in the story itself. I didn't pay attention to what drew me to the book in the first place. For I too am in the middle of the lake, rowing for all I'm worth, and the wind is blowing. I have heard his teaching; I have even set out for the other shore, trying to live somehow in the way he taught. Is it Kierkegaard who said, "I aspire to be a Christian"?

The first time the disciples are out in the storm, Jesus is there in the boat with them. The second time, the disciples are in the boat by themselves. They can hardly expect Jesus to help them; he is back on the shore, in first-century Palestine, and we are here, rowing in the storm at the end of the twentieth century, here today in the ark of King's Chapel. But where are we going, and is there reason for us to keep going when the wind grows fierce? Would we believe it if Jesus joined us and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid"?

My next door neighbor my first year in divinity school was a Buddhist monk who had escaped from Vietnam in a boat fifteen years earlier. We took an introductory course on the New Testament together. He taught me about Buddhism as he was trying to live it. And he came to me with questions about Christianity. On the day that our professor lectured on the crucifixion, my friend burst into tears in the lecture hall. "It is so terrible," he said to me after class. "The Buddha lived to be old. He died at the end of a long life. How could it be that Jesus died like this? It is too terrible."

Christianity has a terrible mystery at its center, a puzzle that the followers of Jesus have confronted from the very beginning. Who is this that lived so remarkably, who healed body and spirit, who challenged the authorities of his day with the announcement of the coming reign of God? What does it mean that he died on a cross? The empty tomb at the end of the Gospel of Mark echoes with a mystery even more profound than the crucifixion.

Gathering in small communities in the generation after the crucifixion, Gentile Christians heard Mark's Gospel; they shared a eucharistic meal; they lived in anticipation of the reign of God. They knew what the disciples in the story did not yet know: they knew how the story ends. Coming across the dark waves, not a ghost. Not a ghost. "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

I said that the Gospel According to Mark is a book about witnesses who do not know what they are seeing. I should say one thing more. In our own day, it is good to remember that the gospel does not condemn those who recognize Jesus without fully understanding him. His disciples misunderstood; the crowd misunderstood — but they did recognize him, they were drawn to him, and the story says that all who touched even the fringe of his cloak were healed. I do not trust preachers who insist on certainty. Faith lives in that boat on the sea in the middle of the night in the storm. It is for people like you and me, who are rowing with all our might, who are trying to know how to live, that Jesus offers the bread of life and calms the storm. "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid."


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Philocrites | Copyright © 1999 by Christopher L. Walton | clwalton at post.harvard.edu