Third Sunday after Pentecost

What really happened?

June 21, 2009

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Commentary on Mark 4:35-41

What really happened?

Did Jesus perform a miracle, controlling the forces of nature by a simple word? Or is this a simple story of a stormy day on the lake that the gospel writer inflated into a “fish tale” about Jesus’ power? In either case, what difference could it make to believers living in the twenty first century?

The second possibility of a simple story that grew in the retelling has been the explanation that many in the post-Enlightenment world have chosen. Lake Gennesaret (or the “Sea” of Galilee as Mark calls it, for reasons that this story will make clear) is a large, shallow body of water. As such, it is prone to sudden violent storms when wind hits it−storms that die down equally quickly when the wind stops. Pigeon Pass in the mountains west of the lake forms a funnel for the prevailing winds blowing in from the Mediterranean over the lake, as many fishers and boaters have learned to their dismay over the centuries. Perhaps that is what happened one day when Jesus was napping in the boat with some disciples, who woke him because it was getting dangerous. He reassured them, and the storm stopped. Coincidence of time was interpreted as cause, seen in the light of faith.

As Mark tells the story, though, it is more than a simple report of another wondrous deed attributed to Jesus. With Mark’s typically artful weaving of the story, he offers us two theological options that give this story pastoral power no matter our context. Details of the story’s place in the Gospel narrative and the specific language of the text provide the foundation for both emphases.

The first theological “spin,” if you will, is to show Jesus possessing the power to overcome evil and danger, coming on the heels of a collection of parables about God’s reign or empire (4:1-34). Then, Mark moves into a series of stories in which Jesus himself mediates that power to overcome the threatening chaos of the sea (4:35-41), demons (5:1-20), illness (5:24b-34), and even death (5:21-24a, 35-43). In each case, Jesus engages in a power struggle with forces that could destroy life. He “rebukes” the wind and orders the sea (4:39). He shouts at the demons (5:8).His “power” is engaged to cure the woman’s illness (5:30), and both the wind and the sea obey his commands (4:41).

In fact, the story of Jesus’ power over the storm is the trump-card of the collection of stories. By (mis)labeling the lake as the “sea” (thalassa), Mark evokes the memory of God’s power that liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea. Furthermore, as God delivered humankind from the threatening chaos symbolized by the sea (Psalm 65:7; 68:22; 89:9; 95:5; 104:7; 106:9; 107:23-29), so now does Jesus.

Though this story is set early in Jesus’ ministry, however, several details make it clear that this is a story about the risen Christ present in the daily life of the community of followers. This is the second theological affirmation that this story evokes. The best manuscripts of Mark contain no stories of Jesus appearing to his followers on Easter. Rather, the Gospel ends with the silence of the frightened women (16:8). This story, along with the account of the Transfiguration (9:2-8) and the second storm narrative (6:45-52), look back at moments of Jesus’ earthly ministry through the scrim of the resurrection.

What, then, shapes this story as a resurrection appearance story? The disciples−and only the disciples−are present, despite the mention of other boats also crossing the lake (the boat, it should be noted, is an ancient symbol for the church. as seen in the logo of the World Council of Churches). Jesus, though present in the boat, is asleep–a common metaphor for death–and is awakened. Life and death are at stake in the storm, and Jesus holds the key to both.

At issue also are faith (4:40) and fear (4:41). Six times in Mark, the disciples are said to be seized by the “fear” that blends terror and awe (phobos, or the verb phobeomai). Two are in the stories of the storms at sea (4:41; 6:50). Two others accompany passion predictions (9:32; 10:32). The others are at the Transfiguration (9:6) and the empty tomb (16:8). All of these moments place us unequivocally in the presence of God. They are epiphanies!

But what would Mark’s church have heard in such stories, and what can they be saying to us? As best we can discern, Mark’s church was living in the shadow of the traumatic war of the Jews against Rome that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. If Mark’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry were to be “good news” for the church, it would have to proclaim that message in the midst of the storms through which they were living (and in which many were dying). It would have to shine a light of hope in the nighttime of the life of the church, and not only proclaim the coming “day” of Christ’s longed-for return in power. This story affirms that still in that nighttime, when the long and perilous journey is in process, the cosmic authority of the crucified and risen Christ is with us. God is with us, and we are not alone.

The message for us is the same. Even when the seas threaten to engulf us and human imperial posturing threatens our home and the heart of our identity, the Risen One is always in the boat with us. Christ’s words, “Peace! Be still!” still promise to carry us safely through the night.