Who Is This?
In Mark 4, Jesus and the disciples find themselves in a boat on the water. Night has arrived, and some stormy weather threatens to overwhelm them.
In the midst of this chaos, a somewhat comic image of Jesus emerges as he is "in the stern, sleeping on a cushion" (4:38). The disciples, with what I imagine to be no small amount of urgency, wake him up. "Don’t you care if we drown?,” they say. They are pretty upset at the situation--both the storm and perhaps that Jesus seems to care little about what to them could be a life or death situation.
Having awoken, Jesus (in what I once again picture as a quasi-comedic moment) commands the storm "Quiet! Be still" (4:39). And it stops. Disaster averted. All is well. Having rebuked the storm, he also then confronts his companions and questions why they had no faith. Could they who followed the miracle-worker not trust in Him now?
The concept of discipleship--what it means to be a follower of Christ--is one of themes of the Gospel of Mark. And, in much of it, the disciples it describes are more like those in this boat. Incomplete. Unsure. Not clear-visioned enough to comprehend who Jesus is or what Jesus is about. They are part of the way there, but miss or misunderstand the larger picture.
For a relatively long-time (and "professional") religious person like myself, it can be easy to look at the sorry performance of the disciples in this boat and mock them a bit. How could they not trust Jesus fully, after all? How could they have so little faith?
Easy words to say as I write sitting in my comfortable chair.
As I write, only one instance where my life was in real danger comes to mind: Letchworth State Park. A gorge. My college-age self, swinging on a branch. Even all those years ago, though, I did not understand the scope of everything until after the moment had passed. My knees nearly buckled when I realized what might have happened. That I could have died. As a matter of fact, the story still fills me with some panic.
The disciples are facing what could here be a deadly situation full cognizant of what is going on. Their sense of panic is heightened, and they are scared. This is a very human--and understandable--response.
To demand that the disciples stoically trust in the incarnate God would preserve their lives is something that is easy for me to say, safe and sound on dry land in the 21st century, Like someone yelling at a television screen, I can indignantly demand that the characters in the story know everything that I seem to know and stop making the same stupid decisions in the face of circumstance I have never had to face. I can certainly do that.
While the disciples are definitely revealed to be people whose faith in and understanding of Jesus needs some work here, I think we should take care before assuming we are nothing like them. Might not we be tempted to reach out to God with similar questions when we face extreme moments? Might not frustration, doubt, and faith mix together when our backs are against the wall? The road of faith does not always follow the clean lines we like to think it does.
Jesus accuses them of "no faith" in 4:40, and I do have a suspicion that this is hyperbole or overstatement. As his followers, they may have had faith enough in something about him. They had taken the first steps on a journey, but still had a long way to go before they reached more solid ground. After all--it is only the fourth chapter of Mark here. And there can be time for them to grow in their faith even after the book's conclusion.
The chapter ends with a terrified set of disciples asking themselves who this Jesus could possibly be. It may very well be that this episode on the lake, wherein they panicked and then witnessed a miracle, led them to begin a rethinking of what following this man was all about. They had not figured out all the answers, but perhaps they were shaken and scared enough to be disrupted from their previous status quo.
Terror in the face of the holy and divine is no deplorable thing, I think. It can simply be an understandable response for a human being encountering the things of God--things far beyond us and our frame in this world. Things that we never before considered. In the disruption of the encounter, a new horizon can present itself--one that is as expansive as it can be shocking.
May we, whatever the shape of our faith (or lack thereof), be shaken and/or let ourselves be shaken enough to ask a question like the disciples'. Because such a thing is worth asking. Because it can lead us on to greater things.