Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for the Third Sunday after Trinity (20th June 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

Jesus had finished a long day of teaching beside the Sea of Galilee. He had been teaching about the Kingdom of God in parables, such as the farmer sowing seed and the growth of the mustard seed. In the evening Jesus and his disciples set off to cross by boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, leaving the Jewish side for land occupied by Gentiles. Suddenly a great storm broke out, a type of storm for which the Sea of Galilee is well-known, and the boat and its occupants were in peril of their lives. As usual Mark the talented storyteller describes the event both succinctly and dramatically.

To be in a storm can be an invigorating experience. Recently I travelled to Akdamar Island on Lake Van in a fierce storm, in which the waves broke vigorously over our little boat as we went up and down in the water. The storm stilled dramatically as we arrived and the sun came out. On the other hand storms can be genuinely frightening. Some of Jesus' disciples were professional fishermen well-used to the Sea of Galilee. If they were terrified they probably had good reason to be! The boat was soon being swamped by the waves. The disciples' anxiety reflected that described into today's psalm reading, where the sailors were "carried up to the heaven and down again to the deep; their soul melted away in their peril."

The disciples were terrified but Jesus was sound asleep. After all he had a hard day's teaching behind him. The disciples woke him up and not unnaturally asked him, "do you not care that we are perishing?" Jesus indeed replied, but not by reassuring them that everything was going to be all right. We read that Jesus "woke up". The original Greek says "arose" in a neat linguistic anticipation of the Resurrection. He turned to the wind and rebuked it, and commanded the sea to be still. The words used are exactly the same as those used to describe Jesus casting out demons. To silence the forces of nature, the wind and the sea, is beyond the power of mortals. Only God can do that. The wind ceased and there was a dead calm, or as the Greek original has it, a "great calm", to balance the "great gale".

Afterwards when the storm had stilled and calm had returned to the Sea of Galilee Jesus turned to his disciples and asked them "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" The disciples were "filled with great awe", a rather sanitised translation of the Greek "they feared a great fear." Their terror at being confronted by the storm had passed, but now fear of a different sort had taken its place. One of the themes of Mark's Gospel is the inability of the disciples to recognise Jesus for who he is. After all the teaching and healing that they had witnessed, miracles aplenty, they had still not recognised who Jesus was. They were so amazed at what they had witnessed in their boat that all they could do was to ask "Who then is this?" Gradually they would come to know that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Son of God. Their slowness may be an encouragement to those of us who have difficulty in appreciating the full dimensions of the Good News we proclaim. In the Gospel it is usually outsiders rather than the disciples who confess their faith in Jesus. Indeed Jesus himself is often unwilling to let his identity be disclosed. As we read this Gospel passage it is for us the readers to recognise who Jesus is when the disciples fail to do so.

Today's Gospel passage described a real storm with dramatic detail, but its message can also be taken metaphorically. We do not need to travel to Lake Van in order to experience a storm. Sometimes the sea of life is very rough. Storms happen. All of us will have had moments when our lives are disrupted by a telephone call or a doctor's visit or some unwelcome news. Sometimes these storms seem to come from nowhere and take us by surprise. On other occasions we watch helplessly as they build up in strength. 

We often turn to God in the same way that the disciples turned to Jesus. "Do you not care that we are perishing?" It is natural to be upset when our lives are in turmoil. Just as the frightened disciples turned in distress to the sleeping Jesus so we turn to God in disappointment that he has allowed the situation to develop and hope that he can resolve our problems for us. God's reply will assuredly echo the words of Jesus, "Have you still no faith?" Faith will not change the storms of life but it will change us, allowing us to pass through the storms with that inner peace which comes from knowing that God is with us and that the power of God is stronger than any wave that appears to swamp us and that the love of God is deeper than any water that threatens to drown us.

Mark records that other boats were with Jesus. It is easy to forget that the disciples in their boat were not not alone in the storm. As on the Sea of Galilee so in the tribulations of life, storms affect many more than Christian believers. It is worth noting that although everybody may in the same storm we are not necessarily in the same boat. We rejoice that we are in the boat with Jesus. The boat is a traditional symbol of the Church, reflected both in the current logo of the World Council of Churches and in the use of the term nave (from the Latin navis, meaning a ship) to describe the main body of a church building. One of the helpful features of the use of a boat as a symbol of the Church is that a boat is something designed for movement. With the exception of houseboats one would always expect a boat to be used for moving somewhere, whether across a lake or round the world for trade or exploration. The boat is thus a very apt form of transport for the people of God as we make our way through this life to the heavenly Jerusalem. It is worth observing, however, that the boat of the church is not designed for passengers. It is a boat intended for crew.