November 5, 2014
Dear brothers and sisters,
The good news this morning is in Mark 6:45-52.
Then he made his disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side toward Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And when had taken leave of them, he went off to the mountain to pray. When it was evening, the boat was far out on the sea and he was alone on the shore. Then he saw that they were tossed about while rowing, for the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out. They had all seen him and were terrified. But at once he spoke with them, “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid!” He got into the boat with them and the wind died down. They were [completely] astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened.
Mark’s telling of this story is quite different Matthew’s rendition. Matthew includes the part about Peter also walking on the water toward Jesus and beginning to sink as fear overtakes him. However, the greater contrast is that Mark tells us two things about the disciples. First, they were astounded while Matthew has them proclaim, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” Second, he links this with the observation that they had not understood what had just happened in the feeding of the five thousand and, in fact, that their hearts had been hardened. What’s going on here? Tradition has it that Mark gathered his material from Peter. Peter wasn’t so full of pride after Jesus’ death and resurrection that he would omit evidence of his own weaknesses and failings. More importantly, though, why does Matthew have them recognize Jesus’ true identity while Mark explicitly tells us the opposite? And why does Mark tell us that Jesus intended to pass the disciples by while Matthew implies that he may have been intending to go to them? My commentaries don’t address these differences.
So, what does Mark want me to understand? It may be about fear. I’ve never had a vision of Christ, so I don’t know how I might react. That’s what the disciples may have thought they were seeing — a vision, which they took to be a ghost, all of them. I see ghosts from time to time. It is always a figure and scene of the past. It’s my way of processing feelings and trying to understand what has happened between that person and myself. These visions are usually but not always confrontational. I’m working out my anger or anxiety, I suppose. I’m working out how to transform my hardened heart into one that is compassionate, forgiving, and loving. The disciples had been put out with Jesus. They wanted to share with him their experiences of having been sent to preach and heal; they wanted to spend time with him alone quietly dining and resting, being restored and basking in his love and attention. They didn’t get it; that enormous crowd of hungry people had his attention and compassion. He was giving his disciples commands to feed these people and all they wanted was to send them all away. Of course their hearts were hardened and, consequently, they failed to understand that he was the Messiah, the anointed one of God, at the word and flesh of God.
Jesus understood all of this. He understood that he was a ghost to them; that they were each struggling to figure out just who he was, his true identity. He reassured them in simple words. “It’s just me. There’s no reason to be afraid. I forgive your selfishness and your inability to understand who I am. Just accept what you see and have faith in all I’ve been teaching you.” Then he climbed in the boat. He wasn’t a ghost, but what in the world was he? They couldn’t grasp that yet, but still he calmed their fears just as he calmed the sea.
I think that’s what Mark is telling me. Not to fear; just to take Jesus as I find him. I don’t have to understand completely both his humanity and his divinity. Just trust that it is so and have faith in his compassion and love for me even when I’m fearful, hard-hearted, and selfish. He’s leading me into a different way of living, but he wants me to take courage along the way. He wants me to know that I can depend on him to care for me no matter what, that he can still my troubled waters. I am still too often astounded, though. I shouldn’t be; I should take him for granted — no doubts or questions or fear that he will abandon me. “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid!”