The gift of a peaceful heart
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 24 June 2018
This is the first of four extraordinary deeds of power done by Jesus that Mark gives us in his gospel one after the other. The first is today’s reading – the stilling of the storm.
This event is so extraordinary that it’s easy to get caught up in the question of whether and if so how, Jesus did it. But trying to get behind a story like this, to question or verify what it’s saying, quickly takes us away from the story itself. Often more fruitful spiritually, is to use our imagination and instead, move towards a story like this.
That said, we need to bear two things in mind.
Firstly, the people of God in the Old Testament were never a great seafaring nation! They didn’t much like the sea! So in the Old Testament the sea is often seen as a hostile place representing the forces of chaos and destruction.
We heard something of this in our first reading from the book of Job. There the sea is described as bursting from the womb, with clouds and darkness its clothes at birth. The power and unpredictable nature of the sea is recognised, so limits are prescribed to it, shutting it behind bars and doors:
‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall
your proud waves be stopped.’
Secondly, authority over the sea and its storms is an authority that the Old Testament attributes to God alone.
Psalm 107 that we’ve just sung/read puts it beautifully. After describing the terrors of a storm in which the sailors reel and stagger like drunkards at their wits end, the Lord hears their cry and brings them out of their distress:
‘He made the storm be still
and the waves of the sea were calmed.’
Bearing these two things in mind, the fear of the sea and the authority of God alone to control it, we can now turn with the help of our imagination to the story itself.
One of the most striking things in the story is that Jesus is asleep on a cushion.
If you’re of a pragmatic turn of mind you probably imagine that he’s exhausted and that perhaps they’re crossing the sea after a long day, to get away from the crowds.
Alternatively Jesus sleeping on a cushion can be seen to reveal something of his own trust in God that gives him a deep sense of peace, even in the face of a storm. The opening words of Psalm 131 come to mind:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself
with things too great and too marvellous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother.
Whichever interpretation you go for, the more pragmatic or the more spiritual, Jesus asleep on a cushion contrasts dramatically with the panic of the disciples!
Jesus is rudely awakened! Not by the storm, but by them!
He rebukes the wind and the raging sea, and a great calm descends. Christ possesses the same authority over the sea that the Old Testament attributes to God alone!
With this, Mark evokes the whole incarnation – Christ the Lord in the same boat as us!
What a rich, suggestive story!
Brother Lawrence in his book ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’ writes:
‘If the ship of our soul is…beaten by the winds or the
storm, we must wake the Lord who is resting there, and
he will immediately calm the sea.’
That’s a classic take on this story. We all experience storms, gales, moments when we seem to be drowning, times when we’re sinking, fast!
Who’s not been there?
‘Wake the Lord within you!’ Brother Lawrence tells us. Christ is able to bring calm to the roughest sea. That’s one very common take on this story.
Another less common take, comes from another spiritual classic the ‘Story of a Soul’, the autobiography of Thérèse of Lisieux.
In that astonishing book she writes:
‘Jesus was sleeping as usual in my little boat; ah! I see
very well how rarely souls allow him to sleep peacefully
within them. Jesus is so fatigued with always having to
take the initiative and to attend to others that he hastens to
take advantage of the repose I offer to Him.’
What an intriguing take on the stilling of the storm!
Thérèse finds that rather than following the example of the disciples and waking Christ up in order for him to restore calm to the troubles in her life, instead she allows Christ to rest in her, to sleep and find his peace in her.
But what then happens to the storms and gales? How does this bring peace to them?
Turning to Christ, as the disciples do, Thérèse sees him asleep on a cushion. She sees his trust in God, the peace that he has that enables him to sleep and take his rest even in the face of a storm. And instead of following the disciples by shouting and waking him up, she lets Christ become the centre of her attention.
His peace transforms the panic within her!
‘Let his peace be your peace’ she learns, ‘then you too will be able to be at peace even when the storms threaten to overwhelm you!’
Brother Lawrence, Thérèse of Lisieux, they each in different ways bring us to the same place as Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan who wrote in the third century:
‘Begin the work of peace in yourself
so that, once you are at peace yourself,
you can bring peace to others.’