Mark 4 (NRSV): 35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Here’s a new twist on a couple of cliches from old stories: The historical Jesus and the Christ of faith walk into a bar — or a fishing boat — on a dark and stormy night. Now let’s add another twist: The historical Jesus and the Christ of faith get in the boat with you. Who are you going to call upon when a storm blows up?
I’d better define my terms here: “The historical Jesus,” according to Wikipedia, “is the reconstruction of the life and teachings of Jesus by critical historical methods, in contrast to Christological definitions (the Christ of Christianity) and other Christian accounts of Jesus (the Christ of faith).” In a lay person’s terms, the historical Jesus is the first-century rabbi who preached in Galilee, and the Christ of faith is the deity worshipped by Christians. After reading Sunday’s pericope from the gospel of St. Mark, I’d say they both got in the boat.
At least Mark’s story of the stormy night on the Sea of Galilee is about both.
Mark makes it clear who he’s talking about from the very first words of his gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God …” The rest of the gospel, including the story of Jesus and the disciples in the storm on the lake, develops that theme.
If I’d been in that boat (not as a disciple, which would be out of character for me, but maybe as an extra hand on the oars), I wouldn’t know anything about New Testament Christology. To me, Jesus would be a guy from Nazareth who blew into town a while ago, a healer who cast out demons and preached to growing crowds on the lakeshore. The historical Jesus, in other words. I’d be in awe of the guy before I even got in the boat, and I’d jump at the chance to help row him across the lake.
So a storm blows up.
I wouldn’t be too concerned at first. The lake is surrounded by hills, and it’s not uncommon for a a windstorm to blow in out of the Golan Heights to the east, then stop abruptly. But this is a really violent storm, and the guys in the boat are terrified. They’re experienced fishermen from Capernaum and Bethsaida, and if they’re scared, I’m scared. But all the while, the guy from Nazareth is curled up in the stern of the boat, snoozing on a sandbag like a pup on a sunny day. Well, I figure he’s from way up in the hills around Nazareth and he doesn’t know about storms. Plus he’s got to be tired out from preaching and healing all day. That must take a lot of of you, especially the healing.
Simon bar Jonah and the rest are yelling now, Rabbi, we’re going to drown! Don’t you care? Jesus wakes up, and shifts around on his sandbag, so he’s sitting up straight. He may even stand, although I suspect even a guy from the hills would know enough not to stand up in a boat.
“Be quiet,” he yells at the wind and the waves. “Shut up!”
And all of a sudden, everything is still and calm.
“Why are you so cowardly?” Jesus asks the guys. “You still don’t trust, do you?”
And then, as Mark puts it, the disciples “were completely terrified and would say to one another, ‘Who can this fellow be, that even the wind and the sea obey him’?”
(Since I’m trying to recreate a moment in the life of the historical Jesus here, by the way, I’m using the modern American English version of the Jesus Seminar’s red letter edition. I think it’s more colloquial and more immediate.)
I’d be completely terrified, too, and more than a little awe-struck. But that’s as far as I can take it using the tools of historical research and analysis. After all, I have a master’s in history (from the University of Tennessee), and I can no more turn my back on my training in historiography than I could cheer for Alabama during football season.
But I know something about what it feels like to be in a crisis. And to understand what’s going on in this story of Jesus’ stilling of the storm, I have to call on the Christ of faith. Trust in him, to use the Jesus Seminar’s word for it.
But before I do, I’ve got to define my terms a little more. When I speak of the Christ of faith, I’m taking my cue from the first chapter of Mark, proclaiming the “good news of Jesus Christ, son of God.” As an academically trained historian, I don’t have documentary sources to prove that, of course. But I don’t have to rely on a fourth-century creed that tosses off Jesus’ ministry with a comma between “born of the virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” either. If the documentary record doesn’t go all the way back to Jesus, it goes back far enough for my purposes.
Different scholars have different views on all of this, of course. One that comes very close to my own was explained by Richard N. Longenecker, professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario. At a 1999 forum in Toronto, he outlined seven “affirmations,” including these:
- That Jesus acted and taught with such authority that those closest to him began to think of him in an exalted sense, believing that through him they were in touch with God but not really understanding what it all meant.
- That because of God having raised him from the dead (not just after the resurrection, but because of the resurrection) those closest to him began to confess him as Messiah and Lord and to apply such a confession to their lives.
The first, to my way of thinking, is the historical Jesus; the second is the Christ of faith. The doctrine has been elaborated on for the next 2,000 years, but that’s the basics.
So with that in mind, let’s go back to the Sea of Galilee.
As it happens, Debi and I have been there. But it was the opposite of stormy that day. When you tour the Holy Land, one of the things you do is to take a short boat ride and celebrate the Eucharist out on the Sea of Galilee. (The picture at the top of this post shows the bread and wine, actually grape juice, and the one at the bottom shows a tour boat coming in to our dock by the museum at Kibbutz Ginosar where a first-century fishing boat is preserved.) It was a lovely fall day. We could hear another tour group, from West Africa judging by the matching dashikis they wore, singing in four-part harmony in the distance. And it was clearly an occasion to celebrate the Christ of faith and the worldwide church that had its beginnings here.
From Kibbutz Ginosaur, where we saw the “Jesus Boat,” as the restored first-century craft is sometimes called, we went on to a restaurant where we ate lunch — a species of tilapia locally known as “St. Peter’s fish” after the legend he found a shekel in its mouth — before visiting the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes and other shrines along the lakeshore.
In many ways, we live a charmed life in 21st-century America, and that day in the Holy Land was a testament to the fact. But in other ways, we’re still buffeted by storms. And we still want to have the Christ of faith in the boat with us.
I know I do. Without going down a “True Confessions” type rabbit hole, I know that’s how it’s worked for me. In fact, I doubt I’d be going to church and keeping up with the lectionary readings if I hadn’t had some kind of conversion experience — if that’s the right word for hitting bottom — in a 12-step recovery group. When the chips were down, I came to believe “a Power greater than ourselves” could get me through the crisis.
Since then that belief has seen me, with varying degrees of success, through a tumultuous career change, the deaths of both my parents, the onset of COPD and other chronic conditions that come with the territory as we get older and — most recently and dishearteningly — the Covid-19 pandemic of the last 15 months.
They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and I’ve come to believe that, too. The same goes for emergency rooms. In fact, I have a search category on this blog I call “ER spirituality.”
Last year on Feb. 29, just before the pandemic hit town, I had what I now think was a COPD flareup — it was listed on my chart only as “community-acquired pneumonia” — that landed me in the hospital for three days. It was at the tag end of what had been a bad flu season; the ER was crowded, even for a Saturday night, and I spent at least two hours on a gurney in the hallway before a treatment bay opened up. Later on, after I was admitted to the hospital, I had the feeling they were gearing up for the pandemic, which was already spiraling out of control in Seattle and New York City. Let’s just say it got my attention. The same day I got out of the hospital, the first community-acquired case of Covid-19 was reported in Springfield. As it happened, she was an old student of mine. It all hit home.
So I can certainly relate to the disciples, completely terrified when Jesus stilled that storm on the Sea of Galilee.
I’m not alone in this. In his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Jesuit author and spiritual director James Martin says “the passage [in scripture] that is by far the most helpful for people going through difficult times is the Stilling of the Storm.” For Martin, the crux of the story comes immediately after Jesus tells the the wind and the waves to shut up. The disciples are experienced sailors. Storms they know about, but this they haven’t seen before. Who can this fellow be?
Asked and answered, says Martin.
“God’s entrance into your life may mean something will change,” he says, “but unanticipated doesn’t necessarily mean frightening. […] If it comes from God, even the mysterious should hold no terror. You may not understand fully what God is asking, but this is no cause to be frightened.” Martin adds:
A healthy fear may remind fishermen to guard against contingencies like a storm, but in the spiritual life fear can lead to the inertia of hopelessness. It can paralyze us, destroy our trust, crush our hope, and turn us inward in unhealthy ways. Unchecked, it can lead us to despair, if we conclude that only woe can come out of the present situation, which is an implicit denial of God’s ability to do the impossible.
There’s more to it, of course. I suspect there’s even a lot more than what I’m beginning to realize. But change is all around us. Always. And it can be terrifying. Always. And that’s why, when the chips are down, I hope to have the Christ of faith in the boat with me.
[Published June 19, 2021]
Roland Deines, Chris Ochs and Peter Watts, “The Boat in the Storm: An interactive story based on Mark 4:35–41,” Resources for religious education classes: Stories of Hope: The Miracles of Jesus, University of Nottingham https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/research/groups/bible-ethics-theology/documents/resources-for-teachers/resource-galileeboat.pdf.
Robert W. Funk and Mahlon H. Smith, The Gospel of Mark: Red Letter Edition, Jesus Seminar Series (Sonoma, Calif.: Polebridge Press, 1991), 103.
David Q. Hall , “Wind Storms on Lake Tiberias,” Israel Photos V, Spring 2011 https://dqhall59.com/israelphotosV/engevwinds.htm.
Richard N. Longenecker, “The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith: Some Contemporary Reflections,” Yorkminster Park Theological Forum, Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, Toronto, Feb. 11, 1999 https://www.mcmaster.ca/mjtm/2-51.htm.
James Martin, SJ, Jesus: A Pilgrimage (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 227, 233.