Monday, 15 June 2009

crossing to the other side Mark 4 35-41

It is generally thought that Mark’s gospel was written between 65 & 70 C.E., probably either in Rome or in the north of Palestine. This was a time of crisis for both Christians and Jews both in Rome and in Israel. In Rome Nero’s persecutions were in full swing until he died in 68; during his reign the two great leaders of the church, Peter and Paul, were both martyred. Utter chaos prevailed from 68-69 with 4 emperors taking office in that year. The situation in Palestine was even more fractured: the Jewish revolt was being bloodily put down: in 70, Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple plundered and burnt under the orders of Titus, and eventually the religious and political fabric of the Jewish nation was to be totally dismembered. Whichever provenance we choose for Mark’s gospel, the background against which it was written was stormy and dangerous, particularly for Jews and Jewish sub-sects like the Christian church. At the same time we know from Paul’s letters that the church was rapidly reaching out from its Jewish roots into Gentile communities. This trans-cultural movement in itself caused pain and soul-searching within the more conservative Jewish-Christian groups; this pain could only have been exacerbated by the persecutions in Rome and war in Palestine.

In the early chapters of Mark’s gospel Jesus frequently withdraws to the lake or the hills for prayer, for respite, for thinking-space, or even to coach his team in discipleship. Right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus establishes a rhythm of frenetic activity and withdrawal. From time to time the order is given to cross to the “other side” of the lake for mission. The gospel stories of journeys to the other side are fraught with danger, difficulty, feelings of alienation and the seeming absence of God: the stories are of headwinds, rough seas, storms and sinking boats. When Jesus is in the boat he seems ineptly unaware and unconcerned: sometimes he is not even in the boat at all.

On the first occasion a huge storm descended upon them in the night: even the experienced fishermen thought the end had come, but Jesus was asleep in the back of the boat. It is not difficult to imagine the first hearers of this gospel listening knowingly to this story. Here they were seeking to take the word of life to other side and yet whenever they did so they encountered trouble: persecutions in Rome and hostility at home. Major figures of the church had been killed including both the radical Paul - the apostle to the Gentiles and the more conservative Peter, with whom Paul had had stand-up rows about circumcision and gentile dinner parties. This going to the other side was indeed a dangerous and lonely business.

The early church had been given courage by the assurance that Jesus would return in triumph. Indeed Jesus’s promise is recorded in the gospel: And he said to them, "Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power." Yet here these leading figures were tasting appalling death while Jesus seemed to be either asleep, or worse, absent. The outcome of the story, however, was that Jesus silenced the storm and then rounded on the disciples for their lack of faith. They then, in their turn, are more amazed than ever at the authority of the man they are following.

On another occasion they found themselves rowing into a headwind that was so strong that they feared they would die of exhaustion before they reached the shore. This time Jesus was not in the boat; he had sent them on ahead while he went into the hills to pray. Then he came to them walking across the water; the result was the same. The wind dropped and they reached their destination safely.

Journeys to the other side are implicit in the work of the kingdom. Indeed there can be no kingdom without them. Invariably they are going to be hard. In the time of the gospels it meant engaging with the Gentile population on the other side of the lake. In our day they may mean crossing equally deep cultural divides: engaging with youth culture, the homeless, those living in tower blocks and neglected housing estates, people of different colour, different religion, crossing into the world of commerce or industry, or entering into politics. While it may seem on the whole easier to keep to what we know, to be settled within the small circle of our own fellowship, the call is always going to be to take the risk and go to the other side whatever that might mean to us in our situation. Obeying it will undoubtedly lead to difficulty, mistakes, the feeling that we are up against it, sometimes even the sense of the absence of God. It will frequently seem that the hostile elements have the advantage over us. Yet if we are called to do this work then it will not fail. Lack of faith is a greater enemy than the forces ranged against us: for lack of faith may cause us to sink untraced into the sea, though even then, despite appearances, the Lord is close by to save.

In understanding the power of these stories it is helpful to know something of the immense fear and respect Jews had for the sea. They left love of the sea to their neighbours; in earlier times, the Philistines, more recently the Phoenicians and Greeks. They took delight in a God who had closed the sea in behind fixed boundaries. The sea was the unstable and untameable domain of Leviathan; a place of storms and unpredictability. Sometimes that capriciousness worked in their favour as when the waters of the Red Sea came tumbling back and engulfed the pursuing Egyptians. But a huge bronze representation of the sea was kept in the temple as a sign that even those things over which man had no control lay within the reach of God. Job cries out, “Am I like the sea that you have to set a guard over me?” When prophets like Isaiah wanted to proclaim the cosmic breadth of God’s salvation it was to extend it to coast-lands and islands. And here was Jesus able to sleep in the height of a storm at sea, while
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their calamity;
they reeled and staggered like drunkards,
and were at their wits' end.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he brought them out from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.

On another occasion, even more powerfully, he was able to stride across its unstable waters with all the security and control of one walking up a country path. The Jesus who was at peace in a wilderness of wild beasts, is equally at peace in the midst of a stormy sea. Clearly there were not any no go areas for him. It seems likely that it was to point up such theological points as these that Mark referred not to the Lake of Galilee, its usual title, but the Sea.

These stories of crossing to the other side, however, show the disciples in a far less favourable light. Jesus had failed to find faith in the religious establishment and had only just chosen this group to be a new symbolic Israel through whom he could work. He had begun to instruct them in the secrets of the kingdom and now put them to their first test. How would they manage without him? They had panicked and shown themselves to be no more full of faith than his own family: they had rounded on him, accused him of not caring, lacking compassion and being lazy. Above all they demonstrated that they were ultimately just as prone to despair, to give up, to let the sea of evil overwhelm them as the religious establishment had been. This failure at the first test was sadly to be replicated several more times before those shocking last hours when all forsook Jesus and fled, the last of them disappearing naked into the night losing his last vestige of respectability and dignity in the melee of the Jerusalem streets on the night when he was betrayed.

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