A couple of years ago I visited Fingal’s Cave, the famous cavern in the cliffs of the Isle of Staffa. Staff is a long way from land- you get a boat from Iona or Mull, and it takes more than an hour to get there. On this particular occasion we were tossed about quite a bit, for it was a windy day, and the waves were getting pretty high. Those of us who were in the boat sang daft songs to keep our spirits up- of course, we were in no real danger, for the boatman would have taken us home if things had been really rough.

We were all aware of the fact that the wide open sea can be a dangerous place to be. After all, we seem to hear about rescues from ships almost every week on the Scottish news- things sometimes do go wrong. The sea is a place where, despite all our technological know-how, we humans are still brought face-to-face with the awesome power of nature. We are reminded that we not always able to be in control. For the sea is a dangerous place.

On Thursday, the United Nations Refugee Agency reported that some 220 people had drowned off Libya as they tried to make their way to Europe in a rickety boat[1]. This follows the recent saga of the Aquarius, a ship laden with over 600 rescued migrants which was turned away by both Malta and Italy before finally docking in Spain[2]. So far, over 1,000 people have died in the central Mediterranean this year. The boats involved in this week’s mass drowning were a rubber dingy carrying some 130 people and wooden boat carrying an estimated 100 people, of whom only 5 survived.

There may be controversy about how to respond to this crisis, but there is little doubt about the ultimate cause- that too many places in the world are too terrifying to remain there. People go to sea for many reasons- to travel, to fish (like Jesus’ disciples), to trade. And, in the case of those crossing the Mediterranean I rickety boats and dinghies, because they are trying to get away from places too terrifying to live in. The poet Warsan Shire, who spent time with a group of young refugees, wrote

no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land[3]

The sea may be dangerous and terrifying- but in too many places- Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, many parts of Africa- the thought of staying on dry land is even more terrifying for many people.

Today’s Gospel reading is about a storm. It must have been some storm, for Jesus’ disciples are scared, and some of them are fishermen, who would have had no illusions about the power of the wind and waves. A squall has sprung up from nowhere- the boat threatens to get swamped- and where’s Jesus?- fast asleep, unconcerned. So the disciples wake him, and their tone is really quite angry:

Teacher, don’t you care that we are about to die?

So Jesus gets up, faces the storm, and apparently talks to the wind. ‘Be quiet!’ he says to the wind, ‘Be still’, he says to the waves… and there is an eerie calm. Then he turns to his disciples and says,

Why are you frightened? Have you still no faith?

Jesus has calmed the storm, but the disciples are if anything even more frightened now! In awe they ask,

Who is this man? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’

For its pretty frightening being around someone who can tell the weather what to do!

The first Christians lived in stormy times. If they were Jewish, they were often thrown out of the synagogues; if they were Gentiles, they could be persecuted for not worshipping the Roman Emperor as a God. I think they must have told this story to say to themselves: ‘This is the sort of man Jesus was- he saved his disciples from the storm- so we can have hope even in the worst storms’.

So when I listen to this story, and I hear the words of the disciples: ‘Who is this man? Even the wind and the waves obey him?’- when I hear those words, I’m forced to try to answer them. Who is this man Jesus? What does this story- this event- tell me about him?

Many a preacher has said that the point of the story of the calming of the storm is that it has some kind of moral lesson- something like ‘Jesus will calm your soul in the storms of life’. Well, maybe Jesus can do that for us. But in Mark’s version of the story, that can’t be the point of the tale. For Jesus doesn’t calm the souls of the disciples. Sure, the disciples were frightened by the storm. But Mark also says that after Jesus calmed the storm, the disciples were ‘terribly afraid’. No wonder- they’ve just seen Jesus do something Godlike. If you met someone who controlled the weather- wouldn’t you be afraid? Jesus doesn’t calm the souls of the disciples. He calms the storm, but he doesn’t calm the disciples.

Some people think that Christianity is the key to a quiet life. They want Jesus to give them calm within their souls. They are often disappointed when the reality is that being a Christian can bring anything but calm to their lives. Anyone who gets involved in the church for any length of time soon realises that it’s not all sweetness and light all the time. Of course it’s better if Christians can agree with one another, don’t fall out with one another, of course it’s better when there are no misunderstandings and divisions and personality clashes. These things, regrettably, happen in the church. And they’ve always happened, even from the earliest days. If Christians hadn’t argue with each other, the New Testament would be a very short book. For most of the letters of the Apostle Paul were written to deal with arguments and divisions in the church- many of which were, arguably, his fault!

In the reading we heard earlier, Paul talks about some of the things he had to put up with since he started preaching the Gospel message. His life after he became a follower of Jesus was anything but calm. Paul had a stormy time being a missionary and preacher for Christ. In fact, at one point he was caught up in a literal storm in the Mediterranean, and shipwrecked on the coast of Malta[4]. That was still ahead of him when he wrote to the Corinthians, but already, he says, he has had much to endure for the sake of the Gospel:

[W]e show that we are God’s servants by patiently enduring troubles, hardships, and difficulties. We have been beaten, jailed, and mobbed; we have been overworked and have gone without sleep or food’[5]

There were people who called him a liar. He was rejected by people of his own religion, Judaism, he had lots of arguments with his fellow Christians, and he probably died at the hands of the Romans.

Part of the trouble was that seems to have been that Paul had the sort of personality which provoked a strong reaction in people- they loved him or hated him. Paul said of himself,

We are honoured and disgraced; we are insulted and praised’[6]

There’s nothing new about church leaders causing Christians to take sides for or against them- that’s exactly what happened to St. Paul.

And yet despite everything, despite being attacked on all sides, St Paul could speak with confidence. He was sure that his message was true, sure that God’s power went with him. To those who thought that he really didn’t amount to a hill of beans, Paul had his reply:

…although punished, we are not killed; although saddened, we are always glad; we seem poor, but we make many people rich; we seem to have nothing, yet we really possess everything’[7]

Where did he get his astonishing confidence from?

It wasn’t that Paul had some magic religious formula that made everything calm down. Paul knew that he couldn’t get out of having a stormy life. He didn’t expect his life of faith to be a millpond. But, he writes, although

…we seem to have nothing, yet we really possess everything.

Christians may sometimes seem to have nothing, but if we have Christ, we have everything. For we possess Jesus Christ, the one whom the winds and waves obey. For he is Lord of creation, and the big bad world, with its wind and waves which toss us around, was created by him. And it is this mighty Saviour who now invites us to his table, to eat and drink bread and wine to strengthen us for the storms of life.

In these stormy days for faith, when the waves of materialism threaten to swamp the fragile ship of the Church, or we seem to be blow off course and heading for the rocks, the word of Jesus to us is not- I’m afraid- a soothing word to calm us down. Instead, it is a challenging word, a call to faith: ‘Why are you frightened? Have you still no faith?’ For it is true that we are not in control of the situation- we are not in control of the church in this stormy world, we are often not even in control of our own lives. And yet as Paul said in the midst of his turbulent life, ‘We seem to have nothing, but really we possess everything’. For we have Jesus Christ on board. We can say, in the words of the Psalmist-

Our help is in the name of the Lord, maker of heaven and earth! (Psalm 124.8)

And if we are going to say that Christ is sailing with us, then certainly we must say that Christ is sailing with those whose lives are literally at risk as they take to boats. Jesus was a friend of fishermen, whose did not go fishing from pleasure. For the Lake of Galilee was a dangerous place, prone to sudden squalls and storms. Peter and James and John did not go fishing for fun, but because they lived in poverty, and needed to catch fish in order to feed their families. And yet, Jesus went with them on their boats, sharing the dangers and hardships they faced.

Nor should we forget that as a child, Jesus was a refugee. Matthew’s Gospel tells of how King Herod sought to be kill the infant Jesus, so that Joseph, Mary and Jesus had to flee to another country- Egypt- in order to save their lives[8]. Surely Christ is with those who set out on dangerous journeys across land and sea, in order to escape persecution, violence, war or grinding poverty?

There is a prayer, which is said to be that of a Breton fisherman:

Dear God, be good to me;
The sea is so wide,
And my boat is so small.[9]

That is a prayer which those of us who might feel metaphorically at sea- the hope that God would be good to us, that Christ would sail with us, through ‘the storms of life’. But it is also a prayer we could pray for the migrants and refugees for whom the risks of the going to sea on a rickety boat outweighs the horror of staying at home- a prayer for all ‘those on peril on the sea’. And we should pray, also, for a just solution to the crisis: that governments and international agencies would work together that the ongoing tragedy in the Mediterranean- which is a stain on the conscience of Europe- might soon be brought to an end.

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] http://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2018/6/5b2bf4d24/unhcr-shocked-mass-drownings-libya-calls-urgent-action.html

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-44510002

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/16/poets-speak-out-for-refugees-

[4] Acts 27.38-28.10

[5] 2 Corinthians 6.4b-5

[6] 2 Corinthians 6.8

[7] 2 Corinthians 6.8,9

[8] Matthew 2.13-15

[9] A plaque with a version of the prayer was on President Kennedy’s Oval Office desk https://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/S401xjTakEKtasb2kOTYXw.aspx