MARK 4: 35-41
Some years ago I crossed the Channel in a really bad storm. It was fantastic! The ferry rolled from side to side; it swooped forwards down the waves and surged up the other side. People were being sick everywhere. Every toilet, every basin had someone standing over it. Passengers were lying on the floor. I confess to feeling somewhat smug that I felt fine! Then I went on deck and looked at those amazing waves, towering up above the ship and wondered what would happen to me if I fell over board. I would never have survived. I could not have been rescued. What would happen to a small boat out there? I know small boats do survive big storms but it would be pretty scary. That’s what the disciples experienced on Galilee. It must have been bad. They were fishermen after all. They were used to this Lake. They would not have been scared of nothing. If they were scared enough to wake Jesus and say “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” it must have been really bad.
It’s a story which has been given many different meanings. One of the commonest sees the boat as the Church. It’s like Noah’s ark. It may be small and the waves outside may be really big but it will survive and it will keep us safe. There’s some truth in that. The Church is a place of safety in a world which sometimes feels very hostile indeed. The Church is a safe, secure structure grounded in God so it cannot fail. Within it are the sacraments that give us life, and the people who travel us on the way.
It’s a good image but not a sufficient one; it ignores the fact that it was not the boat that saved the disciples. It was Jesus. The boat was nothing without Jesus. The Church is nothing without Christ. It may seem a strange thing to say but people often do forget that the Church is Christ; without Christ it is just a building, a hierarchy, even a tyranny. People in the Church often do forget Christ and their behaviour becomes quite un-Christlike. That is a sad fact of life. People in authority sometimes forget they are supposed to be shepherds caring for lost and hungry sheep and become instead governors like Pilate or priests like Caiaphas.
It is Christ who makes the difference. It is Christ whom we follow. When we look at the world around us and see disaster looming – disaster in the civil wars in the Middle East; disaster in the ecological scene with climate change; disaster with the ongoing carnage wrought by Covid – it is easy to despair, to think those things are just too big for me to handle. I’ll just keep my head down and hope it doesn’t happen. Or we’ll just cut England off from the rest of the world and stay safe.
Is this what Jesus wants us to do? Cut ourselves off from Europe and ignore the refugees? ignore those fleeing poverty or war in Africa? Jesus tells us to love our neighbour. When asked who our neighbour is he told the story of the Good Samaritan. Our neighbour is anyone in trouble. It might be the person living next door who has cancer. It might be the young homeless person who asks me for help. It might be a refugee, or it might even be some kids in Zimbabwe. Our safety within the ark of the Church must never blind us to the needs of people outside.
But our story today takes us further than that. There are many kinds of storms in life, storms that threaten to overwhelm us. St Paul describes these: the sufferings he has endured for the sake of the Gospel. Mobs beat him and stoned him; the police flogged him. Friends disowned him, Jews persecuted him. He was caught in shipwrecks, suffered from heat, hunger and thirst. Every one of these was a temptation to turn away from Christ, or to lose faith in a Christ who seemed to be asleep, not caring, not bothering to rescue him from his suffering, but he never gave up.
Most of us are not called to endure those kinds of storms, but there are others. There are emotional storms as well. There are storms when we fall in love, sometimes appropriately, sometimes inappropriately; there are storms when we mix up love with lust. These throw us off balance and send our perspectives into chaos. There are the storms of anger when we feel unjustly treated, frustrations when people block our way. Much of this is about sin; sin causes those storms in our lives. St Ignatius tells us that the action of the good spirit in our lives is like water dropping onto a sponge – soft, gentle, hardly noticeable; the action of the bad spirit is like water dropping onto a stone, loud, noisy, splattering and divisive. Those are storms. When emotional storms sweep over us we need to look for the sin that is probably there. Or, perhaps more helpfully, we need to remember this picture of a boat in a storm and Jesus asleep in the stern. Just looking at Jesus changes our perspective. He is asleep and resting, why should we be so disturbed? He is not bothered by the storm, why should we be so upset? Just looking at Jesus can be enough to calm the storm in our hearts. And if it is isn’t, then we need the humility to go and wake him and say “help me, I’m perishing.” That is called repentance.
Yet, this picture of Jesus asleep in the boat goes on intriguing me. It brings me to times of prayer; times of prayer that are not stormy – quite the opposite. Nothing is happening. There are no waves. The sea is completely still. The boat is not moving. There is nothing to look at. I am bored. And Jesus, if he is there, is asleep. He doesn’t listen to me; he doesn’t speak to me. If he is there at all he is fast asleep. Can I wake him? Can I get his attention? I sing. I shout. I jump up and down. I do all sorts of amazing things and still he sleeps. In the end I try to shake him, and still he sleeps.
I expect we all know this kind of prayer. For many of us it is not just an occasional experience but the whole experience of prayer in our life. It’s not dramatic. We don’t feel we can call it Dark Night of the Soul, or even Dark Night of the Senses. Maybe the Cloud of Unknowing is better – just that sense of being in a fog, feeling nothing, doing nothing, going nowhere. Where is Jesus? Is he really there? Why does he seem to sleep on when I need him? Is it enough to stay there and do nothing? That can be an excuse for laziness; it can be a kind of complacency. Nothing may be happening because I am so taken up with myself that I cannot sense anything, not even Jesus. But let us assume we have tried all that. I have checked out my sinfulness; I have expressed my faith; I have tried waking Jesus. Nothing works. Well, I think there is one thing left. It is called ‘desire’. Do I want Jesus to be there? Do I want him because he is good and not because I want him to give me lovely feelings.
In the end Christian life is about desire: the desire for God. Everything else leads to that or flows from that. And although God is immanent in this world he is also transcendent, far beyond its furthest reach. Our souls reach out to him because he made them. Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in him. This desire for God reminds us we do not finally belong in this life. Good as it is, beautiful as it is, it points beyond life, beyond death to God. “Here we have no abiding city for we seek one to come.” Sitting in the boat, in a flat sea with nothing happening we look to Jesus, but he is asleep. And maybe that is very important. If he were awake and chatting to us we would be fascinated, happy to sit there for ever enjoying his company. But we are not on earth simply to enjoy Jesus’ company; we are here to learn to want God. Looking at Jesus asleep in the boat reminds us of how much we have enjoyed his company in the past. But it’s not enough. Jesus on his own is not enough. He wants us to move beyond into that place where he as Son, lives with God. He wants us to desire God. “Late have I loved you O beauty, so ancient and so new.” That love in our hearts draws us out of ourselves to the God who put it there. The desire for God may not be comfortable; it may be like thirst or hunger, much of the time. We may get just enough of that sweetness of the presence of God to make us long for more. So we look at Jesus sleeping in the boat; we remember the times past spent with him; we look with love on this sleeping figure and move beyond it to the place where we shall meet him properly and in the fullness of his love. That is the place St Augustine describes so beautifully in the City of God: “There we shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what will be in the end, without end! For what is our end but to reach that Kingdom which has no end.”