June 26, 2011
David A. Davis
The Sea of Galilee is stunningly beautiful. Because of the geography, a visitor’s first view is from a distance and way up high. The bright blue in the water does this dance with the cloudless sky. From the top of the switch backs on the highway, you can almost see the entire perimeter of the water. The landscape rises quickly from the water’s edge, almost all around; to the north, the Golan Heights, to the south, the city of Tiberias, to the West the Mt of Beatitudes and Capernaum. When we arrived in Galilee just a few weeks ago, it was a three day holiday in Israel. Folks were water skiing and jet skiing and swimming in the Sea of Galilee. Various beaches around the lake were crowded with vacationers. Cars were pulled over along the road at favorite swimming holes and springs. For two days or so, there was constant beat of music coming from an outdoor club somewhere on the other side of the water, techno beat that never changed. We heard it during the day, at night, at dawn, during our worship, and at various biblical sites along the way. During our stay there at the Galilee, a full moon came to stand watch over the sea.
Late one very hot afternoon I was returning to Pilgarhaus, the place where we were staying which is owned and operated by German Benedictines. I was coming back after a long trek up to the Church of the Beatitudes. Walking down the driveway I heard all this noise coming from the water’s edge. The sound was of laughter and shouting and splashing. I recognized the voices coming from my traveling colleagues; 17 pastors from Mercer County, half from the city of Trenton, half from the surrounding communities, multi-denominational, multi-ethnic, multi-personality, multi-theology…multi-just about everything. My view was blocked by some trees, but I could hear them. And as I passed by and continued up the driveway, I heard, “Marco…Polo…Marco….Polo.” A group of disciples at play in the Lake of Galilee.
On a couple afternoons the wind really picked up and you could see white caps out there on the water. Our guides told us that in the middle of the lake the water is 150 ft deep. Others here this morning would know better the perils of sailing on a lake, or the challenges that come when a sudden storm comes up. Some can imagine better than I what it would take to maneuver a boat in antiquity as conditions suddenly turn perilous; as a few try to manage the boat while one sleeps effortlessly smack in the middle as the waves splash in. But I have to tell you, after spending a week along the shore of Galilee, I can’t read the story of Jesus calming the Sea, Jesus and the calm, I can’t read it the same way anymore. My understanding of the disciples and their fear, I’m thinking about that fear in a different way.
Our group was actually in a boat on the lake when Professor Shane Berg, our leader read us this passage and shared some teaching about it. The engine was turned off, all the pastors fell silent to listen, the wind blew softly, it was remarkably calm. Shane started to read from Luke. “One day Jesus got into a board with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘let us go across to the other side of the lake.” And we all turned to look at the other at the other side. You know the story. After they put out and were sailing on the lake, Jesus fell asleep. A sudden windstorm blew up, and according to Luke, the boat was filling with water and they were in danger. They The disciples went to Jesus, which given the size of the boats back then, means they turned to him, or maybe someone knelt down…we’re not talking a lot of room here. They woke him up, shouting, “We are perishing here!” That’s what they shouted but they must have been thinking a whole lot more; how can you sleep through this, aren’t you going to do something, whose idea was this anyway. “Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased and there was a calm.” Matthew and Mark describe it as perfectly calm. Completely calm. A dead calm. There on the Sea of Galilee, there was a calm.
The reader keeps going at that point. The narrative moves on after the calm. But there had to a pause, a rest in musical terms, a long breath, a dramatic moment, a linger silence, a perfect calm. If you were directing the play, the stage direction would call for Jesus go back and lie down before speaking the next line. If you were writing the score, you would leave the conductor’s baton up in the air while the orchestra and the chorus anxiously wait for the down beat. There was a calm….and Jesus said to them ,“Where is your faith?” And then, according to Luke, then after the calm came, amid the calm, in the stillness there on the lake, then they were afraid; afraid and amazed, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”
Clearly, the disciples didn’t make the storm up, they weren’t exaggerating or overreacting; according to Luke the boat was filling with water. They thought they were perishing. But the fear doesn’t come until the calm. In Luke’s telling of the story, fear comes after. After Jesus calmed the wind and stilled the waves; then they were afraid and amazed. Afraid. It’s like a technical term in Luke and it doesn’t come until after the calm. When the angel appeared to Zechariah telling him that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son and he should name him John, the angel said “Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” The angel to Mary, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.” The angel to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid…” Jesus to the disciples, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.” And “even the hairs on your head are counted. Do not be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows.” And “do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Fear, being afraid, Luke doesn’t use the term loosely. Just after this story of the calming in the sea, after Jesus arrived on the other side of the lake, that’s when he came upon the Gerasene demoniac in chains living among the dead. “My name is Legion; for many had entered him.” Jesus healed the man, sending the demons into the pigs who rushed down the hill into the lake. Fear, being afraid, doesn’t come into that story until all the people came to see what had happened and they saw that man, clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus. Then they were afraid. It was another calm, after that calm, after another calm, that’s when the people were filled with a great fear.
The disciples thought they were perishing but according to Luke, fear didn’t come until Jesus made the calm. Fear didn’t come until Jesus asked, “where is your faith?” Here somewhere in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, the opposite of faith isn’t questioning, the opposite of faith isn’t cynicism or skepticism, the opposite of faith isn’t unbelief, the opposite of faith is fear. They weren’t afraid because he asked them “where is your faith?” They were afraid because of the calm. They were afraid because of his rebuke to the wind and the water. They were afraid because of his command over the primordial powers of the sea, over the ancient forces of evil, over the dark and nameless chaos that works for destruction, this foreshadowing of his power even over the forces of death. They weren’t afraid of the Sea of Galilee, they were afraid of the calm offered by the Lord of Life.
Some preachers are experts in marketing fear. Hellfire and brimstone, turn or burn sermons, if you were to die tonight what about your soul kind of stuff. As a teenager, I remember listening to a former professional athlete turned evangelist who was trying to scare the daylights out of a bunch of high school football players at a gathering of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I decided right then that to turn to Jesus to avoid burning in hell was the epitome of spiritual selfishness. The opposite of faith is fear.
Politicians and campaign managers and consultants have majored in fear over the years. Case studies abound. Examples only multiply on every side of the aisle. Start a list now and who would know where to finish it. Fear must get votes and win elections and elevate the polling data. But there’s no place for fear when it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The opposite of faith is fear.
Right after Easter this year a large group of Presbyterian pastors wrote an open letter to the Presbyterian Church (USA) that started with the assertion that the Presbyterian Church was “deathly ill”. It is now referred to in the larger church as the “deathly ill” letter. The signers of the letter represent a particular theological position in the church. They raise several matters worthy of urgent conversation in the church about what denominations should and will look like in the years to come. But according to statistics, the Presbyterian Church reached its peak of membership when I was 3 years old. Using language like “deathly ill” and threatening to leave the denomination, and pointing out that you represent some of the largest churches, and concluding that the current “plight” of the church is directly related to opinions or positions or understandings or votes in the church that you disagree with, well that’s just stirring up fear. In our tradition, we affirm that Jesus Christ alone is head of the church, and that the church is called to carry out its mission even at the risk of losing its life, and that as the Belhar Confession from South Africa puts it, “true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership in this church.” The opposite of faith is fear.
Last week in Bethlehem we met with the pastor of the Lutheran Church. His name is Mitri Raheb. The pastor is one of the most notable voices for Christians in the Middle East. Palestinian Christians now make up only 1.5% of the population in the region. For more than an hour we listened to Mitri tells about the congregation’s community development work, the college they have started, the arts classes they offer, the theater they operate. Near the end, one of our group asked how fellow Christians in the US can best help Christians in the Israel/Palestine and how best to work for peace. You can imagine, it was a long, impassioned answer. But what he said first, was this. “Please, go back to America and in your ministries and from your pulpits, challenge the idolatry of security and the theology of fear that is so much a part of American Christianity today.” The opposite of faith is fear.
We all have our fears. I don’t at all mean to discount yours or mine. But out there on the Sea of Galilee, for those disciples in the boat, it wasn’t the storm that brought fear. Fear arrived amid the calm that Jesus created. The calm Jesus offered. The calm Jesus gave. Do not be afraid. Do not fear. May the Lord of life, Christ Jesus, the Son of God, fill you, fill your world, fill your heart, with such a calm, such a peace, such life….that you may rest now and forever in the sure and certain knowledge of your place in the heart of God.
When it comes to your life in the presence of God, there is no room for fear.
I come that you might have life, and have it abundantly, Jesus said.
Calm. A perfect calm.
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