Scripture notes – 12th Sunday of the Year, B – 23rd June 2024

As I write these notes, a thunderstorm is predicted for tonight, and usually that is not something to fear in London, but at many times and places wind, torrents of rain, high waves at sea still put human lives at risk. We can therefore easily imagine the reactions of Jesus’ disciples caught up unexpectedly in a wild storm while rowing in a fishing boat.

The readings are available online here.

Job 38:1-8, 11
The first two readings give us some background for the belief that only God can control the seas with all their elemental power, choosing from a large number of texts in the Bible. The central section of the book of Job has a long poetic speech of God stressing the role of God in creation and therefore in human lives. This short selection does not give us much sense of the whole text, in which Job questions why he should suffer when he is innocent. God’s answer in essence calls him to understand that no matter how difficult life is and how hard it is to accept, God is in charge with a loving care for his people.

Psalm 106/105:23-26, 28-31
This pictures well the fear of people caught up in a dangerous storm, followed by a calming of the seas, and a safe haven, mirroring the details in the Gospel section.

2 Corinthians 5:14-17
As often the second reading takes a different tack. St Paul writes in an almost mystic sense of excited happiness rather than presenting reasoned discussion. That poetic style guides us to look for such deeper meanings in our own lives. Instead of the power of the present natural world, we are invited to meditate on ‘the new creation’ we live in spiritually through the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. We are offered a different view of the world and humanity because we have a totally new life in Jesus, and share that with other disciples, so that we do not pass human judgment on each other.

Mark 4:35-41

This follows on from last week, when we had a sample of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God and how it works secretly in our lives, with its promise of growth in understanding and behaviour. Now we have a dramatic example of how challenged the first disciples were to appreciate this, to see that they are to let the power of God, shown in the life of Jesus, change their views of living in all life’s happenings, whether we like them or not.

At the beginning of the section of his teaching day, Jesus had asked that a boat be standing by, and with 4 fishermen among his first chosen followers, we can imagine they had access to a boat and well knew how to manage it. Jesus seems tired after this day of teaching, and when evening comes, he wishes to escape the crowd. His disciples then help him into their boat, ‘just as he was’ – which indicates they made no special provisions for the trip – but set off at his command to cross to the other side of the big body of water that Mark calls ‘the sea of Galilee’. Those familiar with that lake tell us that sudden storms can sweep down from the hills, and that is what happens now as they are well out on the water.

Mark vividly describes the scene, the strength of the wind, the height of the waves, which start to pour into the craft. Experienced sailors though they are, the men see that they are in real danger of capsizing and being drowned in the wild waters. When they see Jesus, fast asleep, with his head on a cushion, seemingly unaware and comfortable while they are struggling to stay afloat, they wake him up. Their question does not make a lot of sense, as they are apparently not expecting him to manage better than they are, but in such circumstances people want the companionship of everyone sticking together. Jesus however acts with a power they have never seen before. He speaks to the storm ‘like someone calming a boisterous dog’ (as Nicholas King puts it). When there is an immediate change to calm seas and no more danger, Jesus turns to them, and rebukes them as he had the wind and water, asking why they have no trust. Although he does not lay out his reasoning, he seems to expect them to have the faith he himself has in his Father’s care.

As they witness what Jesus had done, the disciples are drawn to a deeper grasp than before of who Jesus is and the power he can command. Their reaction is literally in the Greek, ‘feared with a great fear’ – and is the usual reaction in the Bible to a sense of something beyond common experience, a ‘numinous’ feeling of God’s presence. Because in modern language, ‘fear’ is nearly always thought of as a negative emotion, the translators use ‘awe’ to give us the sense of their astonishment. They seem not to have gone to a full understanding of Jesus as God, but they express their first steps towards that faith, in the question, ‘What kind of person can command the wind and sea?’ That something, their lives and scriptures have taught them, is the power only God can display.

Mark leaves us to come up with our own answer to the question.

Reflecting on this selection combined with the points made in Job can ask us to go more deeply into the kind of faith and trust we ourselves have in God, in Jesus. Do we react with the kind of worry and anxiety that Jesus described as ‘cowardly’ or ‘fearful’ when he rebuked the disciples in the boat? Can we look on natural dangers and spiritual trials, with confidence that a loving God will take care of us in everything, although often in ways we did not anticipate and may not even want to endure?

Mark throughout his Gospel, shows the disciples on a hard journey to understand and accept Jesus in his death and resurrection rather than in the earthly solutions they preferred. Many of us too may need to grow towards living fully in the ‘New Creation’ Paul tells us of. We can do so with the assurance that Jesus is always with us, even when our ‘boats’ feel fragile.

Joan Griffith

Suggestions for prayer or reflection:

    • Do you have a personal ‘storm’ you would like Jesus to rebuke and make still? A conflict? A serious practical problem? Or inner anxiety that you would like Jesus to command, ‘quiet – be still’ ?
    • Praying with the arts: here is a poem by Mary Oliver – I am struck with the idea that Jesus being able to still the waves was more unsettling, even frightening, to the disciples than the storm was itself:

‘Maybe’ –

Sweet Jesus, talking
his melancholy madness,
stood up in the boat
and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry,
So everybody was saved
that night.
But you know how it is

when something
different crosses
the threshold — the uncles
mutter together,

the women walk away,
the young brother begins
to sharpen his knife.
Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes
like the wind over the water —
sometimes, for days,
you don’t think of it.

Maybe, after the sermon,
after the multitude was fed,
one or two of them felt
the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight
before exhaustion,
that wants to swallow everything,
gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy,
as they are now, forgetting
how the wind tore at the sails
before he rose and talked to it —

tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was —
a thousand times more frightening
than the killer sea.

+ Mary Oliver