Why Are You Afraid?
Twelfth Sunday of the Year. fr Fabian Radcliffe uses today’s Gospel reading to help us with the storms that threaten to overwhelm us.
In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, St Mark tells of Jesus stilling the storm on the Sea of Galilee. He and his disciples had spent the day with the crowds out on the hills, and Jesus was tired. Talking to large numbers of people, and coping with the questions and anxieties of individuals, is very draining. So as soon as he got into the boat with his disciples, he lay down on the cushion and went to sleep.
But, as sometimes happens on the Sea of Galilee, a violent storm suddenly blew up. Despite their experience as fishermen, the disciples were terrified. The waves began to swamp the boat, and there was real danger of sinking. But Jesus continued to sleep peacefully. In panic, they woke him, shouting ‘Don’t you care? We’re about to sink!’ Jesus stood up and commanded the wind and the sea: ‘Peace, be still’. At once there was calm. Then Jesus said to them: ‘Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?’ And they were filled with awe. ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him’ – which means: How can this man do the deeds of God?
Their question is left unanswered. But Scripture makes clear what the answer is. In the Jewish biblical tradition, the violent forces of nature – storms, thunder, floods and earthquakes – were all symbols of evil, of Satan and his powers, all hostile to God. Only God, creator of all that is, has the power to control them. And yet here is a man who can command obedience from inanimate nature. Who is he? Can this man be God?
To the first readers of St Mark’s Gospel, this story would have seemed prophetic. At the time when the Gospel was being written, the early Christians were facing just such a storm, a manifestation of naked evil in human rulers. The Emperor Nero was savagely persecuting Christians, and many believers were martyred. Moreover, the war of the Romans against the Jews was building up to its climax, with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. All this was a trial of their faith far more severe than the storm on the Sea of Galilee. To them, it must again have seemed that Jesus was sleeping, and their prayer would have been like the cry of the apostles: ‘Don’t you care? Save us from these disasters!’
The trial, death and resurrection of Jesus had already prepared them for this. The forces of evil had conspired against him, Caiaphas the High Priest cooperating with Pilate the Roman Governor; and the terrified disciples had fled the scene, leaving Jesus alone, passive, like one asleep, to face the ultimate storm of rejection, hatred, torture and death. But when that storm had passed, he was found to have conquered it. The tomb was empty, and he returned to them from the Father and in the power of the Spirit, not just alive but glorified, and saying to them: ‘Do not be afraid, you of little faith. Peace be with you’.
So he comes to us still.
What are we afraid of – now? Can anything happen to us that he cannot share with us? Are there storms today which make us cry out like the disciples in the boat: ‘Don’t you care? We are about to sink’.
Yes, there are. In many places Christians are now being actively persecuted, even to death; and we owe them support, at the very least by our constant prayers. Another challenge we face was described by Blessed John Henry Newman in an amazingly prophetic sermon, in 1873. He said: ‘Christianity has never yet had experience of a world simply irreligious’, that is to say a world that had no religious sense whatever. ‘But’, he said, ‘we are now coming to a time when the world does not acknowledge our first principles’, when the world around us rejects the very possibility of spiritual reality. The values of our world are either indifferent to those of Christ, or directly opposed to them. This is the world which Pope Francis is calling us to evangelise. So we struggle to express our faith in ways that are at least intelligible to the scientific mind. We also have to face the criticism and contempt that has come to us because of the child abuse scandal, and all our other failures to live as true followers of Christ. And we have to live by the true realities of marriage and sexuality that will be discussed in the Bishops’ Synod later this year.
Through it all, the words and the presence of Jesus challenge us, but give us strength. ‘Why are you afraid?’ he says to us. ‘Have you still no faith?’
Readings: Job 38:1,8-11|2 Corinthians 5:14-17|Mark 4:35-41