June 20, 2021
Second Corinthians 4:14-17; Mark 4:35-41
I want to ask a blessing on all fathers today. Ours is a vocation as solemn and important as any other. Through us our children get their first experience of who God the Father is, and that’s an awesome responsibility, at which we often fail. May God forgive us our failures and give us the grace to keep doing the best we can.
Years ago Barb and I spent a weekend on the coast. Our room jutted out over a deep, rocky cove, and there, underneath us and in front of us and all around us, gray whales were rising and diving. We could look down and see them swimming underwater, and from the kitchen table we’d see tail flukes flipping up and over as a whale surfaced and then curved back down.
They were huge. They were whales. And yet this was all very peaceful. Very quiet. It was like the whales were just staying with us. It was like we had these enormous roommates.
You know, some people argue that the miracles described in the gospels are just metaphors, just symbols, and other people argue no, they really happened, and the Church teaches both things are true and yet there’s a deeper mystery still. The people saw what they saw and they believed, they were changed, and these stories were then handed down, and a generation later the gospel writers wove them together with great literary skill to help us experience this mystery, too, a mystery greater than the merely symbolic and greater than the merely physical.
But what has always struck me is that within these stories Jesus really walks on water, he really calms the storm, he really blesses and heals, and the people are impressed, they’re amazed, and in the end they kill him anyway. They kill him. The miracles don’t settle anything, the miracles don’t prove anything, except that something remarkable is going on. The miracles don’t persuade even the eye witnesses that Jesus is the Son of God.
“Who is this?” the disciples say today. Jesus stills the wind itself and all that does is confuse the disciples, is frighten them, because they’re too thickheaded and full of doubt to surrender to the moment. And we are, too. If we could go back in time, if we could see for ourselves what the Gospel describes today, I don’t think it would really change us for very long. I think we’d be amazed for a while, we’d be impressed, and then we’d go back to our ordinary, workaday lives. We’d forget.
I lived for a weekend with whales, I knew them, and I hadn’t remembered that weekend at all, for years, until I started reflecting on this gospel.
The gospel brought it back. The gospel triggered the memory. I felt the joy again.
I’m still struggling with this, with this paradox. I touched on it the last time I preached. I don’t know if it bothers you at all but it’s really bugging me.
OK, so Christ was present from the beginning of time, is the force, as Colossians tells us, through which all things were created and all things continue in being. So. The Cosmic Christ. Christ in the storm itself and in the waves. In the whales outside the window.
So far so good. As 21st century Christians we can sort of handle that.
But then there’s the historical Jesus, the Jesus in a particular place in time, a human being in whom the Spirit was so strong, who was so open to the miraculous, that he could perform miracles, who was the miracle, and that, I think is harder for us. That arouses our skepticism.
How do we put these two things together, how do we understand both the horizontal and the vertical, the cosmic Christ and the historical Jesus?
I don’t know, except maybe to realize that God transcends all time, that God isn’t trapped in linear time as we are, that all kinds of things are true in God at once, simultaneously?
Or as Paul says today, the people of his time knew Jesus “in the flesh,” but now that he has died and risen, we can’t know him that way anymore. We only know him through the Spirit, at work in the world.
Or is it that God is present in nature and through the laws of nature but sometimes violates those laws—does something new? Or is he giving us in those moments a glimpse into the still deeper laws of nature, the laws of his love, of his heart?
I don’t know.
Everything is true. All of it. Continuously.
Here’s how the great Catholic biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson puts it.
For believers the truth is that the living God will continue to manifest his presence and his power within creation. The issue is not that truth. The issue is whether humans will have ears to hear the word that God seeks to express or eyes to perceive the signs and wonders that God uses to draw attention to the truth about humans and their world.
We can’t drain the miracle stories of their power by being all intellectual and literary about them. We need to get beyond all these questions and just surrender to the stories, just believe in them. But at the same time we can’t let ourselves think about them as just things that happened in the past in this one miraculous age through the powers of one miraculous man. That man has risen and that man is here and now and has always been here and now, and the point is to see him, to know him for ourselves.
The roses blooming on the deck. The baby sleeping in our arms. The passage in a book that just stays with us, that won’t go away, or the scene in a movie, or the conversation with a friend.
Or the way sometimes when we’re thinking or praying something will come into our heads, like a sentence almost, and it seems to be in quotation marks, it seems to have an extra resonance or power, as if it’s not just our own thought, not just our own voice, because it isn’t. That’s the Spirit, in us. That’s the miracle now, whatever happened long ago, as something assuredly did.
We all have enormous roommates, rising and submerging all around us. We can all glimpse them from the couch, see the great flukes over the rims of our coffee cups, and we can all be moved, if we let ourselves be, we can all learn to remember these moments, through grace, not to doubt them, not to let them go.
God is with us. He is always rising up before us, then diving back down again.