The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12B)
Sunday, 29 July 2018
O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
2 Kings 2:1-15
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
Today’s gospel lesson focusses upon Jesus’ walking on the water and calming the storm. Taken out of context, it becomes easy for us to get hung-up on the miracle itself, on the trick, and start fumbling around for scientific explanations on the one hand, or affirmations of blind faith on the other. We have to remember, however, that stories about Jesus that showed him merely as a magician or miracle worker were rejected by the church very early on.
Stories like the ones in the text known as The Infancy Gospels of Thomas about the
toddler Jesus turning clay birds into real ones and, in a snit, withering a man like a
tree, found little resonance outside of the communities from which these tales
emerged. The whole Catholic Church, in discerning what stories about Jesus would
become part of the canon of scripture, did not include those that were not consistent
with the Gospel, the Good News.
It rejected, therefore, those that did not affirm that Jesus’ life, death, and
resurrection made a difference, created a new way for the whole world to share the
grace and love of the God of Israel, created a new community and a way for all humans
to relate with one another as brothers and sisters of one God and Father of us all. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection affirmed that God was at work in creation reconciling all things to himself and to his loving purpose. Jesus’ walking on water,
then, has to be more than a magic trick. It has to be connected to our very
understanding of the nature of God in Christ, and have a direct impact upon our lives
individually, and, more importantly, our lives as a community in our relationship with
So, back to our Markan text, which was included in the canon of scripture and
which, we shall see, tells us something profound about the nature of God and about
the lives we are called to live. Today we are continuing our journey with Jesus and his
disciples who have been preaching, teaching, and healing throughout northern Judea.
In the passage we missed last week when we celebrated the feast of Mary Magdalene,
we would have heard how they all met-up after being separated for a while. Jesus
wanted to take some time with the disciples to debrief and learn everything that had
been going on. However, they all had made such a stir on their travels that they were
noticed and people flocked around them to be in their the presence. In that story Jesus
fed the whole crowd of five thousand with only five loaves and two fish, and before he
did so, Jesus “looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke the loaves, and gave them
to the disciples to set before the people.” It is no coincidence that Mark used these very
words to describe the actions Jesus performed over the bread at the last supper. These
are the words and actions that were probably an essential part of the Eucharistic meals
of the Markan community and which remain central to our Mass almost two thousand
years later. Mark’s listeners, like us, would have heard and seen in this story of the
feeding of the five thousand, their communal meals in which Jesus became specially
present to them in the bread and wine, in which they were united with Christ and with one another in a new a different way.
Today’s Gospel picks up next morning in the wake of these events, which loom large over what is to follow. Jesus tells the disciples to go on ahead of him by boat while he sent the people on their way. Jesus then goes up to the mountain to pray, which like the feeding of the people evoked to both those present and to us this story’s relationship with the Exodus narratives and God’s mighty work in Moses. In the evening, Jesus sees that the disciples are in trouble on the sea and that they need help. He goes to them walking own the water, reveals himself, gets in the boat with the disciples, and the storm dies down.
In these actions—his walking by them, his self revelation, and his calming the storm—we learn more about Jesus and his power than we might first imagine. Jesus’ desire to pass them by may at first seem an odd detail, but to the first century Jewish-Christian reader of the Greek Old Testament, it would have immediately conjured images of God self-revelation to Moses and would have been a marker of a true encounter with God.
Jesus does not pass them by completely, however, because he sees that the disciples are frightened and need his presence, so he makes himself known by speaking to them—another marker of divine presence. He tells them, “take heart, it is I, have no fear.” The reassuring words are certainly important, but what is truly amazing is the claim Jesus seems to be making when he says, as our translation of the Bible puts it, “it is I.” Indeed, all he actually says are the two simple words “I AM”—the name by which God identifies himself personally to Moses. Jesus is not simply a miracle worker with some command over nature—the late antique world recognised that there might be many people with such power—but Jesus makes the claim, which Mark’s listeners and we know to be true, that he is the Great I AM, the God of Israel.
These connections with the Exodus story highlight how God works. In the Old
Covenant God revealed himself through Moses and fed the people in the desert with
manna. Now God reveals himself personally in Jesus Christ, feeding the people with
bread so that none go hungry and making God present to the disciples in the midst of
the storm, bringing them peace and reassurance.
Mark’s listeners would have still made more of the story, and so should we. You will remember that what Jesus saw was the disciples, “making headway painfully, for the wind was against them.” Certainly the Markan community would have taken the story seriously and understood it to be an actual event in Jesus’ life. At the same time, the disciple’s difficult, literally torturous, progress on the sea would have resonated with the situation in which the young Christian community found itself. This was the generation that had seen the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and would have experienced the ravages and persecution of the struggles with the Roman authorities. Life was not easy for Jesus’ followers and a story of a difficult journey, a life on storm tossed seas would have caught the ear of anyone listening. This episode tells of a God who becomes present in the midst of the worst troubles, makes himself known through reassuring words, identifies himself as the one who is at the very heart of all things, and calms the waters, bringing the people safely to shore. It is a profound message of hope for a people struggling with a world of bewildering violence and dislocation. After Jesus makes himself present in the bread and feeds the people when there is no food, Jesus makes himself present once again when there is great danger and brings relief. God in Jesus Christ, the messiah who knows the suffering we know, makes himself available and present to his people.
And just as this message is not lost on those who heard Mark’s Gospel for the
first time, so the message is not lost on us. We, too, can hear this story and hear words
of reassurance and hope. On a very personal level, we know that God understands our
distress and is always with us in our struggles; that we are not to fear, and to know that
God’s unwavering purpose is love and reconciliation. We individually can participate
in the Eucharistic meal where there is always something to eat, and from which no one
will leave hungry.
More profoundly, however, we should hear this story as a community. In
today’s lesson from Ephesians we are reminded in no uncertain terms that the Church
is none other than the Body of Christ. God calls us all to grow together into the one
who is our pattern and our head, into Christ. The Body of Christ is in motion in the
world, growing and developing and changing, upbuilding “itself in love” and thereby
conforming itself to Christ. The Body of Christ in the world exists to grow in love and
reconcile the whole world to God. We exist as a Body not merely to improve ourselves
and meet our own needs. We exist to meet the needs of the whole world, a world that
is “making headway torturously” with “the wind against” it. The Body of Christ exists
to make Christ known and to say to a troubled world “take heart, it is I, have no fear.” This message of hope proclaims that love—the wishing of good for the other, not for
our own sake, but for the sake of the one we love—is the purpose of God and his wish
Today’s Gospel is much more than a miraculous vision or a trick. It is a call for us to know at the most profound level that Jesus is the true “I AM,” to know the love and reconciliation of life in Christian Community. It is a call for us to live more deeply into the life of Christ and for us, the Body of Christ, to incarnate and make known that presence to the world.
Andrew C. Blume✠
Mary and Martha of Bethany, July 18, 2018
© 2018 Andrew Charles Blume