There is something about water and darkness. It brings out our primordial fears. Darkness hides what is coming at us and whatever it is, it might be dangerous. Water … well … we can’t breathe under water so there is a danger, a very real danger, of death. Now add a storm into the mix and you have the chaos and fear of today’s Gospel reading. This story is one of two about crossing of the Sea of Galilee in the Gospel of Mark. In this one, Jesus is in the boat with the disciples; in the other, he comes to them walking on the water. Both stories have common elements: water, darkness and a storm.
The images of water and darkness are powerful ones and they occur right at the beginning of our scriptures in Genesis 1:2 where it says, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” The chaos of darkness and water, the unknown and uncontrollable, makes us fearful. We fear what we do not know and what we cannot control. God alone has authority over the chaos, so when Jesus tells the storm to be still and it obeys him, this is clearly something no mere mortal could ever do. He has authority over the unknown and the uncontrollable.
But the chaos facing the disciples isn’t just about the storm or the water. This is most certainly the immediate and present danger; but Jesus has bidden them to go to the “other side” – to Gentile territory … unclean Gentile territory. The disciples are told they need to leave the relative safety of their known and predictable Jewish environment to go where those “other people” are – you know … they aren’t like us! And facing what is over there is emotionally and spiritually chaotic. What will happen? Do we have to go there? Really?? When Jesus tells them they are going across to the other side, the literal translation of the Greek is, “Let us go into the beyond.” Go into the beyond … go into the unknown, the uncontrollable, the chaotic.
In the original context of this story, Mark is telling us about the mission of the early church to the Gentiles. Integrating into his gospel that which had already been written by Paul, Mark tells us the mission of the Church was to bring the Gospel to all people, not just the Jews. As a professor of mine once said, “If you think this Messiah is only coming for the Jews, you’re thinking too small!” In other words, this good news isn’t just for us; it’s also for the people who aren’t like us: for people who don’t know our traditions, don’t understand our liturgy. It is for people who are aching for some good news of a life beyond and bigger than the small stage of mere survival upon which most of us live our lives.
A vision of the Church which expands the gospel message to include others has caused and continues to cause tension and anxiety. There are some pretty stormy arguments in the early church about who could even be a Christian. The Jewish Christians felt that Jesus was “their Messiah” so anyone who wanted to be a Christian first had to convert to Judaism. This was the, “If they want to be one of us, they have to adopt our ways first” mindset. But St. Paul challenged this view by saying the Gentiles could become Christians without adopting Jewish practices. This was the first great controversy of the Church … and it is one with which we still wrestle, albeit with different presenting issues.
The Church today is challenged to live into the authentic Gospel imperative to go into the beyond and make disciples of people who don’t look or act like us. And that means welcoming all people – embracing all people, no exceptions. The challenge for us is: Are we ready to do just that? Are we going to be daring like St. Paul, Jesus and those disciples in the boat risking everything to welcome outsiders into a transformative gospel community, accepting them right where they are and trusting the power of God to bring about conversion? Or will we be more like the early Jerusalem Christians who insisted the outsiders have to conform to what we do and how we do it?
Admittedly, St. Paul’s model provokes some anxiety in us because it will put each of us out of our comfort zone. But it is this model that spread the church through the whole world … it is the model blessed by God. It is the model that has always worked and always will. Our God is not one of placating our need for comfort and our tendency towards a “just us and our way or no way” mentality. Our comfort and our ways, in the final analysis, are largely irrelevant to God. The only thing which matters, the only thing which endures, is the saving love of Christ for all people … no exceptions.
Taking the Gospel into the beyond, to people who are different from us and conversely welcoming the stranger is the mission of the Church. This mission is not something that just happens because we are members of a congregation – it is an intentional act (it is always an intentional act!). I’ve been in plenty of congregations that do a really good job of taking care of their own members, but when it comes to taking the gospel into the beyond, they don’t do it. These churches are little more than social clubs with a cross on the top of the building because you can be a member but only if you adopt our ways, our thoughts, and our behaviors first. Eventually, these churches decay from within and they die.
Going into the beyond entails great risk. When we venture beyond our known, comfortable world like Paul and those disciples, we run the risk of encountering others who might just bring about change in us. Radical hospitality to those who differ from us means we risk changing our own attitudes, prejudices, and biases. We might just come out of the encounter with a new perspective or a challenge to drop an old one that no longer fits. This is risky business, but as I said last week … if you want safety, if you want to avoid risk, then you’d better get out of the Jesus business because Jesus isn’t safe. While that may be unsettling, we are reminded in today’s Gospel story that the risen Christ is always present with us when we risk it all for his sake.
So what kind of Church will we dare to be? Will we grudgingly accept people who are different as long as they become just like us? Or are we willing to drop our preconditions and go into the beyond trusting Christ is present no matter what the risk? As we ponder these questions, I offer a prayer written by Methodist Bishop Ted Loder:
Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little,
When we arrive safely because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess,
We have lost our thirst for the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity,
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas, where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.
We ask you to push back the horizon of our hopes,
And to push us in the future in strength, courage, hope, love.
This we ask in the name of our Captain, who is Jesus Christ. Amen.