Maker and Sustainer of creation,
you bring order out of chaos
and calm in the discord of our lives;
help us to trust in you,
even when all around seems to be giving way;
this we ask in our Saviour’s name. Amen.
Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity. Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real but fear is a choice. — Will Smith, After Earth (2013)
There are a number of ways of picturing the Christian church—the church is the Body of Christ, we are living stones, or a royal priesthood. Or that perennial favourite: a peculiar people.
There are other pictures too. For example, we can see the church as a boat, sailing over the waters of chaos. There are two places in the Bible where we are encouraged to see this image:
Firstly, in the story of the Flood in which Noah and his family are delivered from death through the ark; and secondly, in today’s Gospel story, in which Jesus stills the storm that threatens to send the disciples to a watery grave.
Here are two examples of nautical logos for church bodies, the National Council of Churches in Australia, and the World Council of Churches:
The inside of a traditional church building may also remind us of a boat:
Just over five years ago, Karen and I were on a boat in the Holy Land. One of our favourite parts of Israel was Lake Galilee and the surrounding areas. Our guide would take us places and say things like This is the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount, or the Feeding of the Five Thousand—and he always said that it might well not be ‘the’ place. But there’s only ever been one Sea of Galilee, and when you looked at the water and the shore and the sky you knew that Jesus himself had seen that same sea, that same shoreline, that same blue expanse of sky. There was something very special in that.
We went across the Sea of Galilee on a boat, and had Holy Communion as we went across. They say storms blow up very quickly there, and it was certainly true for us that day. We began in a calm, glassy sea and ended up in rolling waves. Our guide said he wouldn’t have allowed us to go out if the weather had been like that when we started out.
Today, we find the disciples sailing a boat across Lake Galilee, when
Suddenly a strong wind blew up, and the waves began to spill over into the boat, so that it was about to fill with water.
Yes indeed, storms blow up quickly there all right.
Now, the disciples were in much more danger than we were. We were in a little tub, a rust bucket with diesel engines.
Yet if you go to the museum in the town of Tiberias, you’ll see a first-century fishing boat. It’s the real thing, preserved in mud for centuries. It’s about 8m long and 2.5m at its widest.
I wouldn’t cross the lake in that, so I wouldn’t blame the disciples for being frightened. Would you?
So, Jesus wanted to go to ‘the other side’. What was on the other side of the lake?
The other side was a very different place. It was Gentile country. It was where ‘the others’, those who were different, lived. Jesus wanted to go to them. The kingdom of God is for others too, for people who aren’t like us.
So Jesus was going from somewhere relatively safe to somewhere unknown. He was going from Jewish territory—Nazareth, Capernaum, Cana—to Gentile turf—the country of the Gerasenes, where the Gerasene demoniac lived. That was a huge jump. But God’s will is done when different kinds of people come together, live together, work for justice together, worship together. The disciples were already scared. What would become of them on the other side?
It didn’t help that the feared sea was threatening to swamp their little tub. It helped even less that Jesus was fast asleep. It’s frightening going from the known to the unknown. People complain when that happens. I mean, remember the Israelites wandering through the desert to the Promised Land, how they bitched and bitched against Moses and even against God?
When people are on the way without seeing what the end of the journey may bring, when they are between one place and another, they have a habit of complaining and even losing heart.
Last Friday was the 41st anniversary of the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia. Being on the way, being in between, being a pilgrim people is a huge part of who we are as the Uniting Church. And our church has had more than our share of bitching over the years.
Let me read an excerpt from the Basis of Union. The Basis of Union was the document that the three churches that came into the Uniting Church agreed on, the basis on which the Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist Churches united back in 1977.
And in paragraph 3 it says:
The Church lives between the time
of Christ’s death and resurrection
and the final consummation of all things
which Christ will bring;
the Church is a pilgrim people,
always on the way towards a promised goal;
here the Church does not have a continuing city
but seeks one to come.
The very name ‘Uniting’ shows we are a pilgrim people. We could have been the United Church in Australia. A United Church has arrived, it’s there already. But we are still on the way, always in between, ‘always on the way towards a promised goal’.
We are a pilgrim people with Jesus.
We are disciples in the boat, travelling across a choppy and at times dangerous sea. We are merely Uniting.
So let’s go back to the disciples. Let’s stand with them in the boat. The winds are shredding the sail. The water is lashing your face. Your clothes are sodden and you’re soaked to the skin.
You look around for Jesus, expecting to see all hands on deck. But no, he’s working another miracle: he’s fast asleep.
In the storm!
How can he possibly sleep? Doesn’t he care?
A couple of the others wake him up.
Teacher, what’s up with you? Don’t you care? We’re about to go down!
In this highly symbolic story, the storm represents the power of evil and the desire of evil to turn Jesus back. Jesus is on a mission; so are the disciples, though they haven’t got it yet.
So Jesus rebukes the wind, and tells the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the sea is as still as a backyard pool.
Well, the disciples begin to wonder just who this Jesus really is. And we’ve being trying to answer that question ever since. We can know the right answers—he is Lord and Saviour—but we each have to answer it with our own lives.
And look at just where the disciples are.
They haven’t been immediately transported to the other side. The boat isn’t going at sixty knots. They are still on the sea, well away from land. They still have to go over the water to the destination that Jesus has picked out. They are still on the way, still ‘in between’.
The more pessimistic disciples might think that it’s still possible for the boat to capsize. Or for a sea monster to surface right in front of them. Or for the old tub to spring a leak. Jesus isn’t taking them out of the danger zone. But he is with them as they go through it.
The Basis of Union puts it a bit more formally:
On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.
We’re on the way.
Sometimes we can’t see the destination, but we know we’re on the way ‘towards a promised goal’.
Christ feeds us on the way, not with manna like the ancient Israelites, but with his Word. And through the Sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
And the Spirit—the Spirit of Jesus himself—keeps us on the right bearing. We have to listen to the voice of the Spirit; and the Uniting Church confesses that this voice comes to us through the councils of the Church.
More often than some care to admit.
We’re heading for the three-yearly meeting of the Assembly of the Uniting Church, and one of the more contentious issues on the agenda is that of allowing ministers to be guided by their conscience in the matter of same-sex marriage. No minister would be forced to marry same-sex couples, no church would have to host them on their property if they did not want to.
Some people are feeling like the disciples; our little boat, our ‘SS Uniting’, is going to capsize! But let us wait, wait on the Lord. Let us hear the voice of Jesus saying ‘Peace, be still’.
Let us pray and trust the Lord of the church that he is guiding us through this storm and will ensure that whatever decision the Assembly makes will be from him.
I want to end today with a small prayer. You may have heard it before; it’s called the Breton Fisherman’s Prayer:
Dear God, be good to me;
the sea is so wide,
and my boat is so small.
The sea is very wide. It always will be!
Our boat is small.
And God is still with us. Amen.
Preached on 24 June 2018 at Trinity Wellington Point Uniting Church