The gospel today is something of a storm journal, a kind of picture of the Christian life as we journey through a stormy world against winds contrary to the gospel. There are distinctive stages, beginning with the call of Jesus to cross to the other shore. But as we cross there are surely storms and difficulties that assail us. No matter, the charge to have and keep making the crossing remains the same. Let’s look in more detail at the stages of this gospel and see how the disciples get over to the other shore with Jesus.
I. It begins with the CALL of Jesus: Let us go across to the other side. This is not merely a call to cross an ancient lake 2,000 years ago. This summons echoes down to us individually today, as the call to journey to the other shore, to Heaven.
Such crossings are not uncommon in the Scriptures. The Jewish nation crossed the Red Sea, which God parted for them. They set out as pursued slaves, crossed over, and reached the other shore to enjoy the glorious freedom of the Children of God. And then, too, they crossed the River Jordan to enter the promised land, which is a symbol of entering Heaven. Having made that crossing, they received their inheritance.
A lot of the old spirituals contain references to crossing to the other side as symbolic of the journey to Heaven:
Michael, row the boat a-shore Hallelujah!
Then you’ll hear the trumpet blow Hallelujah!
Jordan’s river is deep and wide,
Meet my mother on the other side.
Jordan’s river is chilly and cold.
Chills the body, but not the soul.
Allow this call of Jesus, Let us go across to the other side, to be your summons to follow Him to Heaven. The disciples boarded a wooden boat to get to the other side. We cross to Heaven by the wood of the cross.
Listen to Jesus’ call and then set out! Heaven lies ahead, just over on the other shore!
II. Then comes the COMMENCEMENT: And leaving the crowd, they took Jesus with them in the boat, just as he was. It is one thing to be called by Jesus to cross to the other shore. It is another thing to respond and set out with Him. And thus the second stage of this gospel depicts the required response: that one set out, or commence the journey.
Note three things that are said here about the commencement of the journey: they renounce, they receive and they respect.
A. They Renounce – The text says they “leave the crowd.” We are called to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil. In our Baptism we renounced the devil and by extension the world, of which he is prince. Scripture says, You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:3-4). Jesus says, No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Mat 6:24). And yet again, I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (Jn 15:19).
Therefore the text says that they “leave the crowd.” They forsake the wide, popular road that leads to destruction and go out on the narrow way of the cross that leads to the other shore. You cannot have both Jesus and the world; you must choose. You cannot have the crowd and its values. Jesus warns, Woe to you when all speak well of you (Lk 6:26). We must be ready to leave the crowd, forsake popular ideas, and embrace the “foolishness” of the cross.
B. They Receive – The text says that they “took Jesus with them in the boat.” That is, they receive Jesus into the “boat” that is their life. They agree to journey with Him, not the world. They let Him pilot their ship. In the baptismal liturgy not only do we renounce Satan and the pomps of the world, we also accept Christ and profess our belief in God—Father, Son, and Spirit—and in the Church, which is Christ’s Body. Now Jesus enters the “boat” of our life and leads us in the crossing to the other shore. Jesus’ command is simple, “Follow me” (Jn 12:26; Lk 9:59; Mk 2:14; Mat 9:9; et alibi).
C. They respect – The text says that they “took Jesus with them in the boat, just as he was.” Even in the Greek, this text is a bit complex. What does it mean that they took Jesus in the boat “just as he was”? Many think that the text is trying to indicate that Jesus was in fact already in the boat. Thus a possible understanding is that they took Jesus with them in the boat because in fact he was already aboard.
Perhaps, but for our purposes here, let’s take the text less literally: to accept Jesus into our life just as He is means to place no conditions on His admittance. It is to accept the real Jesus, not some fake or refashioned Jesus. The real Jesus is complex. He sets impossible demands but then forgives the worst of sinners, He is kind and understanding one moment, but stern and refusing of any excuses the next. He consoles and challenges, affirms and unsettles.
Many today have attempted to remake Jesus into a kind of “harmless hippie” who told pleasant stories and went around blessing everyone. And while it is true that He blessed many, He was a stumbling block for others. Jesus was a master preacher and storyteller but He also warned in those stories that some were sheep and some were goats, some were wise and some were foolish, some were at the feast and others were cast out into the darkness, some heard “Come blessed of my Father” and others heard “I know you not, depart from me you evildoers.” And elsewhere Jesus warned, Unless you come to believe that I AM, you will die in your sins (Jn 8:24). So Jesus is complex and we must learn to accept Him into our lives “just as he is.” St. Paul lamented, For if someone comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached … you put up with it well enough (2 Cor 11:4). Learn of the real Jesus and accept Him just as He is.
So having taken Jesus into the boat, they commence the journey to the other shore. But the journey is not always smooth, for the waters of this world are choppy and the winds are contrary.
III. For indeed, next comes the CONCERN: And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. Here they are, the inevitable storms of life that will test and purify our faith. Such aspects of life often trouble us greatly.
Why does God permit such things? Why do they last so long? Why does God, who could instantly solve all things, allow trouble to go on?
He has His reasons, most of which are mysterious. However we can surely understand some of the ways in which trouble helps to purify and strengthen us. When we are in trouble we discover gifts we didn’t know we had; we gain wisdom; we learn detachment and humility. In living our questions we deepen our search and grow to appreciate the answers and the truth more. Trouble often brings maturity and helps us to hone our skills. No tension, no change. Trouble is also tied up in the freedom God allows His children. Some abuse their freedom and cause harm.
So we can get a small glimpse of why God permits trouble. Yet much is still mysterious.
Some people even notice that storms in their life increase rather than decrease after they begin to follow Christ! Well, take that as a compliment. Maybe there was a time in your life when you were traveling in a similar direction to Satan and so barely noticed him on the periphery. And then you turned around and ran right into him. Do not despair; you are still going in the right direction and Satan doesn’t like it.
Indeed another reason that those who set out on a voyage to cross the sea often encounter more storms than the “land-lovers” who stay back in mediocrity is that, frankly, there are more storms at sea. The “sea” here is a symbol of the way of the cross as opposed to the wide road that leads to destruction (cf Mat 7:13). The way of the cross is bound to have special troubles, but the cross, though not comfortable, is necessary. Jesus says, If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. But since you are not of the world, for I have called you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (Jn 15:19). So again, take storms like these as a compliment, a sign you have set out with Christ across the deeper waters.
And thus this storm at sea is a picture of our life in this storm-tossed world. An old hymn says,
When the storms of live are raging stand by me.
When the world is tossing me like a ship upon the sea,
Thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.
IV. But note the CALM of Jesus that brings peace to the others: But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
In life it seldom helps to be in a panic. If you want to bring peace, you have to be at peace. Jesus is not unaware of the storm, but He is not alarmed by it. He is able to sleep through it just fine. In life, two people can be involved in the same incident and yet have very different experiences.
Some years ago I was out walking with a friend when a large dog, a Golden Labrador, came lumbering toward us. I had grown up with dogs and thus could tell the difference between a dog moving aggressively and one approaching benignly seeking merely to establish contact. But my friend had not grown up with dogs and in fact had been bitten by one as a youngster. Each of us looked at the dog approaching us. We saw the same scene but reacted to it very differently. My friend was afraid, while I was delighted. He reacted angrily and defensively. I put my hand out and greeted the dog, patting it on the head and letting it smell my hand. With my experience, I was able to bring peace to the situation. An agitated reaction might well have provoked the dog to turn aggressive.
And so we see something similar here in the boat. Jesus is able to sleep peacefully in the storm, but the disciples are panicked. Jesus knows His Father; He also knows the end of the story. Do you? Have you not read that for those who love and trust in the Lord all things work together for good? (cf Rom 8:28) Why are we so afraid? Storms will come and storms will go, but if we love God we will be saved, even if we die to this world.
If you have this peace, you too will calm storms. Peaceful people have an effect on others around them. We cannot give what we do not have. Ask the Lord for a heart that is at peace, not just for your own sake but for that of others. Because He is at peace, Jesus can rebuke the storm. How about you?
V. Finally, note the CHARGE: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”
And thus it is that the Lord charges them to grow in faith so as to be at peace and to bring peace to others. How do we lay hold of this peace? By growing in our experience and in our wonder and awe at what the Lord can do, and by learning to trust that God is bigger than our storms and concerns. We also learn that some of the storms are actually to our benefit; they help to strengthen us, even speeding our journey along.
Faith is a way of knowing. And thus we who grow in it are less terrified of storms. We have come to experience how God delivers us and strengthens us, often in paradoxical ways, and that none of the things of this world can destroy us if we have faith.
In my own life I have made this part of the journey to greater faith. I used to be very anxious about many things. Today I am seldom anxious because I have learned by faith and experience that God is working His purposes out. Most of the things I was anxious about in the past turned out fine, or at the very least OK. And even the stunning blows contained secret gifts, hidden at the time, only to be revealed later. This is the knowing of faith, that brings calm in the storms of life.
So our charge is to have faith.
Here, then, is a quick sketch of our life as disciples. We hear the CALL of the Lord to set out. We COMMENCE our journey with Him. Whatever the CONCERNs or storms, we learn the CALM of Jesus and let it reach us by the CHARGE of faith.