Sermon for High Mass – Second before Lent Sunday 24 February 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Having grown up near the sea and having been taken to the beach before I could walk, I have always looked on it as a pleasant and friendly environment. Allegedly, soon after I could walk my parents took me to a Sydney beach called Harbord where the waves are quite small. I duly set off walking towards and then into the water, clearly intending to continue until I reached New Zealand, at which point I had to be scooped up and returned to the sand. I leaveyou to judge whether that reflects a primal attraction to our largest constituent element or a revelation about my character. But at that moment I did not instinctively regard the sea as a threatening environment. However, even an Australian beach can kill. I remember reading that about 2,500 UK tourists a year are injured or killed while enjoying their holiday in Australia; most of these interesting events happen, it seems, at the beach.
Learning this I recalled my training incumbent in Penarth, South Wales, looking out from St Augustine’s Penarth over Cardiff Bay. The bay was about to have a boom put across it and become what the South Wales Echo termed ‘more of a feature’. It looked very pleasant to me, but my boss looking even more worried than he usually did when talking to me, remarked, ‘I’ve always considered large bodies of water threatening.’ As, of course, did the ancients, for whom the sea was the place of chaos, from which God rescues people (or in which he allows them to be destroyed), the Exodus story being the primary example.
So this incident of Jesus, the landlubber, sorting out his fearful fellow sailors’ response to the threat of a storm at sea, is intended to appear much more miraculously significant than the simple calming of a storm: this is no less than another epiphany, a showing of Jesus, as one able to do the mighty works of God, to be indeed the Word, of one Being with the Father, through whom, as we proclaim in the creed, all things were made. Hence our first reading from Genesis.
John Pridmore sees today’s readings as about archetypes of our doom, deliverance and destiny: doom, (losing our place in the garden, Genesis), deliverance (Jesus, the Gospel) and destiny (the heavenly worship, Revelation). There is certainly a forward trajectory here, as there is through the biblical story from which today we hear, almost, the beginning and the end. As so often, the gospel, in the late mid-point of this trajectory, meets us where we are: this deliverance is yet another of the changes rung on the biblical command ‘do not be afraid’.
You’ll remember that there is a later sea miracle, found in Mark, Matthew and John but not Luke, which makes the identification of Jesus here explicit:
When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded… Mk 6.47-51
The important sentence there is the second last verse, rendered rather quaintly to our ears, ‘take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’. We no longer answer ‘It is I’ when people ask ‘who is it?’ In fact Jesus doesn’t actually say that either; what he says is ‘I AM’, identifying himself with the unspoken name of God throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh, the great ‘I am’, the one who truly is, whose being is eternal and full.
And there again is that command – ‘do not be afraid’. We may or may not know our way around the sea very well. When I was last living in Sydney I often went the beach at the end of the day (you can get to the beach from Christ Church St Laurence, in about 20 minutes). One summer evening I came very close to being washed away by what Australians call a ‘rip’, a very strong undercurrent, found quite often beneath the waves on most beaches (one of the death-dealing hazards mentioned in that newspaper article). It was a heart-stoppingly terrifying feeling, an entirely rational terror, a deep and instinctive physically-sensed fear such as we all know when anything in life seems to be going horribly wrong or falling apart: loss of control, fear, disbelief, hopelessness. The disciples in the boat had precisely that ‘we’re all going to die’ moment. And the gospel then tells us that Jesus is present, even when he appears to be absent, asleep, to face that fear with us and help us to conquer it.
Fr Jeffrey John writes this about these sea stories in his book The Meaning in the Miracles,
However used or unused we may be to the ways of the sea, the image of the storm has lost none of its power. These miracles have strengthened countless millions of Christians, whether going through the tempests of corporate persecution … or through personal storms of illness, loss, betrayal, bereavement or breakdown. There can hardly be a Christian who cannot immediately identify with Peter, losing faith in the face of fear and trouble, sinking in panic, then gathered up and rescued by forgiving love. However much modern Christians may wonder what did or didn’t happen on the Sea of Galilee over 2000 years ago; however much we may struggle to understand what it means to say that Jesus was God on earth, as … the early Church was so unshakeably clear he was – it remains a fact of Christian experience that these miracles ‘work’. Their message is true. Not usually, perhaps, in the sense that physical storms are calmed, or that Christians walk on water. But certainly in the sense that Christ’s words still have extraordinary power to bring ‘a great calm’ in times of turmoil and chaos – when we have faith, however faltering, that he is who he is:
‘Peace, be still.
Do not be afraid. I AM.’ The Meaning in the Miracles, p.80
If you haven’t already chosen a book for Lent this year, The Meaning in the Miracles would be another good one to add to your list. I’m going to reread it, as well as Sr Gemma Simmonds’ excellent book, The Way of Ignatius: a Prayer Journey through Lent, which our Lent group is reading.