(35-36) And he says to them on that day as it was becoming evening, “Let’s go across into the other side.” And leaving the crowd they took him as he was in the boat, and other boats were with him. (37-39) And there was a great storm of wind, and the waves were beating against the boat, so that the boat was already filling. And he was in the stern, sleeping upon the pillow; and they were rousing him and saying to him, “Teacher! Does it not matter to you that we are being destroyed?” And having awakened, he commanded the wind and said to the sea, “Calm down! Be silent!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. (40-41) And he said to them, “Why are you cowering? Don’t you have faith yet?” And they experienced a great fear, and were saying to one another, “Who indeed is this, that even the wind and the sea are obeying him?”
Look, I’m not a “courageous Christian” – never have been. I have plunged into things out of arrogance and folly, and sometimes those things have panned out. I have partnered with brave people who just needed a nudge, a bit of organization, and some financial support to do something important. In more positive terms, I have been compelled by compassion to do the right thing, and that has gotten me into spots that I wish I could have avoided.
But I don’t see myself as either emotionally or physically brave. Even when I found myself piloting a small boat in the midst of gale-force winds, I wasn’t brave. I was stupid, selfish, and simply had to deal with the consequences of my own actions.
So, I recoil when Jesus looks at his freaked-out followers and says, “Why are you cowering?” For crying out loud! Seconds before they were engaged in a fight for their very lives, and they were losing. They knew the families in their villages who had lost fathers, sons, and brothers, to the impersonal and implacable force of wind and water. Now they have to feel bad for being afraid? That seems a bit harsh, Jesus, don’t you think?
Yet, “courageous Christianity” is precisely what is called for in this time. I’m in a group that’s reading Jemar Tisby’s How to Fight Racism, and it’s a good experience. But I’m intimidated by the subtitle – Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice. “Courageous Christianity,” Tisby writes, “contrasts with the complicit Christianity that led so many religious people to cooperate with bigotry instead of challenging it” (page 10). I’ve spent a lot more time in the arms of complicity Christianity than in the vanguard of courageous Christianity. (Read Tisby’s The Color of Compromise for more on the history of “complicity Christianity in North America).
“Courageous Christianity moves beyond the numbing safety of church walls and the comfortable Christianity that makes its home in segregated pews on Sunday mornings,” Tisby continues. “Racial justice comes from the struggle of a small but committed group of people who choose courageously to stand against racism rather than compromise with it. Courageous Christianity,” he concludes, “dares to love through action and to risk everything for the sake of justice” (page 10).
Yes, this is the kind of Christianity for such a time as this. But the disciples seem to have an advantage or two. If only, for example, we could cry out in fear (cowardly or not) and get immediate Divine action in response! Pasquale Basta observes that this text may be cruelly disappointing for those who face their own existential crisis, cry out in desperate fear, and hear nothing but apparent silence in return. I wonder how many hearers of this text might say, “All right for the disciples, but what about me?” A fair question for the preacher to keep in mind.
“In the face of these enormous questions,” Basta writes, “it is more urgent than ever to reread the passage of the stilling of the storm, seeking to interpret it in depth so as to grasp its fundamental meaning which does not actually consist in the search for a miracle or the wonderful intervention of a God who frees from difficulty those who turn to (sic) him” (page 34). That is, preachers, let’s not allow the text to sound like it makes promises it will not keep.
While I appreciate Basta’s question, I don’t find his answer compelling. What is the nature of Jesus’ criticism here? It seems that the stilling of the storm is not a positive response to the disciples’ request for help. It is, rather, a concession to their desperate terror. The disciples are, if anything, portrayed here as anti-models of discipleship.
So, is the message that we are not to call on the Lord in the midst of crises? That does not seem to embody the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The issue is about Jesus’ identity. If they really knew who he was and trusted in that identity, then desperate terror – fear grounded in hopelessness – would no longer be an option. Jesus was in the boat with them, and that would have been enough if they were clear about who he is.
But they are not yet clear about who Jesus is. The “advantage” of an immediate response doesn’t seem to make them any braver. The “advantage” rests, in fact, with us the readers. We know who this is. And yet, I join the disciples in their mind-numbing, shutdown-inducing terror.
The construction is a lexical cognate. “They feared a great fear.” And after spending days, weeks, perhaps months with Jesus, they asked the question which anchors Mark’s gospel. Who indeed is this? We will come back to that question in chapter eight, the center of the gospel drama – “Who do people say that I am?” The question for Mark’s audience, as some of them prepare to enter the sea of the baptismal waters is the same: Who is this Jesus?
This final question, Jim Bailey suggests “hints that their desperate fear in the face of the storm has changed to awesome fear in the face of their rescuer” (page 27). He proposes that the story moves the disciples from a great storm to a great calm to a great awe. What, they wonder, have they gotten themselves into?
“We would be wise, therefore, to keep our apocalyptic glasses on as we read about Jesus’ trip on the boat and the stilling of the storm,” David Schnasa Jacobsen writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “That means that this is not just another boat ride, but the apocalyptic boat ride from hell. This is not just another miracle either,” he concludes, “but an apocalyptic revelation of Jesus’ identity.”
Tshehla argues that Jesus’ identity in Mark in thoroughly entangled with “the Teacher’s solemn concern for the others whom the tradition designates as different, lesser, unclean, even unworthy” (page 10). There is always, in Mark’s gospel, an eye to the other – the other boats, the other side, the other ethnic groups. This is present, he notes, in Mark 1:39, as Jesus goes throughout Galilee healing and casting out demons. “The presence of other boats with Jesus is thus not a remnant of some lost message,” Tshehla writes, “but rather a living invitation to every disciple to take up the challenge of experiencing God’s Kingdom outside safe spaces characterized by familiarity” (page 10).
That’ll preach as we come out of Covid-tide and begin to cross to the “other side” of that experience.
But will we take the opportunity presented by a good crisis? That’s the question facing the disciples then and the church now. The temptation in the face of the storm might have been to hold on, pull back, and hunker down. The disciples, on their own, were out of their depth and in fear for their lives. They couldn’t go back to safety, and forward seemed to hold doom and death.
“In crises, doubts about God’s presence and power arise within us,” Bailey wrote several years before the current crises besetting us. “Afterward, however, we might be in a new place to reconsider God’s involvement in this world, so that this rescue story could comfort and challenge us,” he suggests. “Confronted with our limits, this story declares that the saving God we know in Jesus Christ does not abandon us. A divine, peaceful presence accompanies our panic-filled lives.”
“But,” he continues, “the story also challenges us to ask whether we truly entrust ourselves to Jesus as the one who will bring peace into our personal chaos and disordered world. When delivered from an overwhelming crisis, we ponder anew the One who rescued us,” he concludes. “This storm story calls us to discern more deeply who this One is that even the wind and the sea obey him” (pages 27-28).
“This theme, ‘Who is he?’ is perhaps Mark’s major concern throughout his book,” Hurtado writes. “Only God and the demons know the truth until Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Even the disciples, who see his power firsthand,” Hurtado continues, “cannot arrive at the full truth until then” (page 81).
I sometimes forget that the Gospel of Mark was written to be performed before a community of believers and seekers. As the story-teller paused for effect after the question, I can imagine some enthusiastic listener jumping up and saying, “I know! I know! He is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of us all!” How I would love to have preached a few more messages that would elicit such a spontaneous outburst of testimony!
Perhaps the antidote to Christian cowardice is, first of all, remembering that Jesus really is always in the boat with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. And courageous Christianity is perhaps nothing more and nothing less than doing the next right thing, in this remembering, as we have the opportunity and the vocation. Perhaps it is the discipline of dogged dependence on the One who commands wind and wave and also rests in our hearts in love.
References and Resources
Bailey, James L. “Fifth and Sixth Sundays after Pentecost (Mark 4:35-41 and Mark 5:21-43).” Currents in Theology and Mission 44:4 (October 2017), pp. 25-30.
Basta, Pasquale, 2020. “From Despair to Faith: The Stilling of the Storm.” Roczniki Kulturoznawcze, Vol. XI, number 3. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18290/rkult20113-4.
Howard-Snyder, Daniel. “Markan Faith.” International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion (2017) 81:31-60. DOI 10.1007/s11153-016-9601-2.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Jacobsen, David Schnasa. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-2/commentary-on-mark-435-41-5.
Milinovich, Timothy. “The Parable of the Storm: Instruction and Demonstration in Mark 4:1-41.” Biblical Theology Bulletin Volume 45, Number 2, pages 88-98 (DOI: 10.1177/0146107915577098).
Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-12-2/commentary-on-mark-435-41-4.
Staszak, Jean-Francois. “Other/Otherness.” https://www.unige.ch/sciences-societe/geo/files/3214/4464/7634/OtherOtherness.pdf.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.
Tshehla, Maarman S. “There Were Other Boats Too: A Note on Mark 4:36’s Contribution to Jesus’ Identity in Mark’s Gospel.” Scriptura 116 (2017), pp. 1-12. http://dx.doi.org/10.7833/116-1-1338.
Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Wilson, A. I., 2021, “In the same boat? Jonah and Jesus as wave-beaten heralds.” In die Skriflig 55(1), a2679. https://doi.org/10/4102/ids.v55i1.2670.
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