When evening had come, when fatigue and hunger and a need to step aside for a moment from the clamoring crowd overwhelmed Jesus and his disciples, Jesus suggests they “go to the other side” — that is, to the other shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was bringing the disciples into their most known territory, the sea, teeming with fish, shimmering and straining for their freedom from the constraints of their fishing nets, hauled in every dawn and dusk by calloused hands and bulging arm muscles. The sea, with all the chances and changes it held, was a place they could call home. But Jesus sets a twist within the invitation to settle into the sea, a place well known to them, when he invites them to “go to the other side”. This invitation is trouble, its twist beckoning them toward a foreign place they perceive as dangerous — gentile territory where they have heard the enemies of the House of Israel reside, the people whom they had deemed unworthy of the hospitality which is the undercurrent of their scriptures. Jesus knew that to “go to the other side” meant asking the disciples to explore and release ancient hatreds and fears of “those other people”.
It is at Jesus’ initiative that they begin to cross the Sea, but the action quickly shifts to the disciples who take Jesus with them, “just as he is”. Now this phrase is a bit curious, for at this point in the story, they don’t really know who Jesus is. They’ve been called by him individually, seen him cast out a demon, heal a man with a withered hand, teach and preach to the crowds – in short, they’ve felt the power of his touch and Word, but they don’t really know yet that he is divine. The fact that they are bringing this teaching, preaching, healing man along with them, “just as he is”, tells us that their journey across the sea, this journey of faith, inviting them to move from being disciples in desire only to being followers in action, is an extension of their knowledge of Jesus. There’s more to come of this thing we call faith. But they have to cross over first.
We can understand the disciples’ crossing over in that water-swamped boat to be traversing the unknown , meeting foreign people, and constructing a bridge between what they expect of these hated people, , and their reality, which may yet prove different and, surprisingly, much like their own. We can also understand it as a journey into the unknown and unchartered territory of their souls – those places not yet discovered; places ignored, dismissed, or cut away from their heart; places which harbor hatred and fear, ignorance and prejudice. Jesus invites them into that place. “Look within yourself,” Jesus implores them.
But they don’t. What we would have hoped would have been the turning point in the story– the disciples’ transformation into a living and breathing faith — doesn’t happen. When the seas calm and Jesus begs them to go into the dark and foreign places within their own souls, to examine why their fear has overridden their faith, they don’t. Instead, they focus their attention on understanding Jesus, rather than understanding the difference Jesus makes in their lives of faith. They adore Jesus, they praise him and worship him, but they don’t imitate him. They don’t take on Jesus’ ways of calmness, trust and love. Jesus had hoped that, since he had set this particular group of disciples apart to give them special insight into his teachings, that they would be ready to take on “the mind of Christ”, as we would hope happens to us. We hope that, as we worship regularly, hear the scriptures with heart and mind, open our hands to receive the nourishment of Christ, we would move from worshiping Jesus in awe, into a place of transformation when we will “be in the mind of Christ and live in the heart of Christ”. We hope and pray that God transform our hearts so that we don’t just know about Jesus, but actually follow Jesus.
However, it may be the case for us, as it was for the disciples’, that it can be a lot easier to worship Jesus than to follow him. It can be a lot easier to stick with a rational appreciation of Jesus rather than to know him in our heart. Author and theologian Evelyn Underhill wrote in her text The Spiritual Life that, “It is far easier, though not very easy, to develop and preserve a spiritual outlook on life, than it is to make our everyday actions harmonize with that spiritual outlook.” That’s what Jesus wanted the disciples to do: to take what they knew about him and bring it into their daily lives. A lot of hope accompanied them on this boat ride to the other side.
And of course, we know this story. Jesus takes a nap, which reminds us of last week’s parable and the lesson that, when we sleep, when we don’t over-function, when we let go and let God, God often does the growing. But here, Jesus is sleeping while wild waves and wind crash in upon the boat. The boat is swamped. Oddly, the fishermen, who spend much of their waking hours on this body of water, don’t know what to do. So they wake Jesus up and, rather than asking Jesus to solve the problem, they go right to the heart of the matter, asking: “Don’t you care about us?”
Who among us hasn’t gone there when chaos swarmed around us in real life situations? Can we hear ourselves saying to God, “If only you loved me… if you were a God of love, you wouldn’t let this be happening to me.” We often mistake God’s refusal to jump in and fix the situation for us as God’s apathy. Not so.
Jesus calms the storm, and the truth of the story comes out. Jesus invites the disciples to look within themselves for the same inner resources, the same calm and peace offered to them as to him, and yet they don’t. Jesus wanted them to talk to him about what was going on inside of them that they were allowing fear to override faith. “Look within yourself” is Jesus’ message to the disciples and to us.
Our story calls us to look at the relationship between faith and fear. Often we imagine fear to be the opposite of faith. After all, angels begin their proclamation of the good news of God saying “do not fear,” so that all might have faith in the truth of what is happening before them. And it is true, faith and fear can have a hard time living together. The danger of fear is that it can seduce us into a frantic loop in which our perceptions get so distorted that we may completely lose the path that would carry us through our fears, on the path of faith.
The disciples were right to feel afraid. Yet their perception that their reality was defined solely by the storm only further overwhelms them. The presence of the storm was not the whole truth of their situation. They had a sleeping savior nearby.
Faith, despite our fear, demands that we get as close as possible to the truth of the present moment so that we can offer our hearts fully to it, with integrity. Faith doesn’t mean the absence of fear.
It means having the energy to go ahead, right alongside the fear.
The word courage in English as the same etymological root as the Latin word cœur, which means “heart”. With courage, we openly acknowledge what which we cannot control, and place our hearts wisely on our ability to connect with the truth of the moment and to move forward into the uncharted terrain of the next moment. Faith enables us to be fully engaged while also realizing that we are not in control. Being able to make an effort to heal, to speak, to create, to alleviate our suffering or the suffering of others, all the while guided by a vision of the life with all its tumult and unruliness, is the particular gift of faith.
When the sleeping savior stirs in response to his disciples’ cries, he doesn’t tell them to have no fear. He instead invites them to examine why they are afraid – in essence, to consider how and why they have let the windstorm rule their reality, and calls upon them to have a measure of faith that will accompany them amid their fears and help to restore their vision.
“Look within yourself” are Jesus’ wise words. The reality of the windstorm was not their full reality. Their reality was not only the water pouring in over the side of the boat threatening to swamp them. Their reality wasn’t only the wind stinging their faces. Their reality wasn’t only the shore they could no longer see.
Their reality wasn’t only the crooked lines in the Holy Napkin of my icon. Their reality wasn’t only the mounting pile of unpaid bills. Their reality wasn’t only the fight they had with their spouse that morning. Their reality wasn’t only the disappointment in their hearts when things didn’t work out the way they expected, when they didn’t get the raise they expected, or the approval they longed for by their colleagues. Their reality wasn’t only the too-crammed schedule. Their reality wasn’t only the cancer diagnosis. Their reality wasn’t only their child’s despair. That wasn’t their whole story, nor is it ours.
The sleeping savior was nearby, ready to be awakened to show us our larger reality. Always ready to be awakened in our heart. Always ready to speak peace to us. And to invite us to look within ourselves, to find it has been there all along.
How’s the weather in your world this week? Are there any storms raging that have you feeling overwhelmed with anxiety and fear? How might God be inviting you to shift your attention in a way that helps you recognize that the storm does not have the final word?
Instead of experiencing fear and anxiety as bullies that leave us feeling helpless, how might it be to receive them as messengers who invite us to refocus our vision? How would it be to pray that God would turn your anxiety into energy for moving forward?
We make this ancient miracle story our own when we confront the fear within us, not necessarily with a sudden outburst of courage or resolve, but when we refocus our vision on the larger story that we are a part of. We can chose to stand within the storm. We can chose to still ourselves. We can choose to turn our faces toward the One who speaks peace, breathes peace, and is peace, Jesus, our no-longer sleeping but wide awake savior who will still the storms within our hearts. Amen.