Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today’s Gospel picks up from the account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand that was in last week’s Gospel. You may remember the Jesus and the disciples attempted to go to a deserted spot on the other side of the Sea of Galilee for a little bit of R&R. The crowds figured out where they were going, though. So when Jesus and the disciples showed up, there were 5,000 men plus women and children waiting for them. Jesus taught these people all day and then when it came time to eat, He used what might’ve fed a family to feed the whole group. The lesson informed us that the entire group ate and all were satisfied.
In our culture of plenty, we can’t even begin to understand that in those days, only the very wealthiest people got up from a meal totally satisfied. Although their appetites were probably more modest than ours, and obesity wasn’t a prevalent problem, the average person rarely had enough food to be satisfied at every meal. Most of the time, people were still a bit hungry at the end of a meal. So when Jesus fed them all until they were all satisfied, that was quite unusual. It was so unusual, in fact, that John’s account of the Gospel informs us that the people wanted to make Jesus their king. After all, who wouldn’t want a king who could feed you free food for the rest of your life?
Jesus wanted to get the disciples out of there before they got swept up into the frenzy as well. That is how the disciples ended up back in the boat and back on the Sea of Galilee.
While the disciples set out across the water, Jesus returned to the crowds and dismissed them. After that, He spent several hours up on a mountain in prayer.
When Jesus finished praying, He could stand on that mountain and look down on the Sea. He saw the disciples struggling against the wind. One gets the impression from the text that it took all their effort in rowing just to keep the boat steady and away from the rocks.
It’s interesting that Mark then tells us that it was not until the fourth watch of the night that Jesus came down from the mountain and walked out onto—not into, mind you, but onto—the Sea of Galilee. The fourth watch is the last three hours before sunrise. I don’t care how much experience you have on the water, these fishermen had to be exhausted. They had been struggling hopelessly against the wind for half the night.
Now here comes Jesus, taking a stroll on the lake. All the disciples could see was this dim figure walking on the water. Imagination is a wonderful thing at the right time and place, but after a night battling the wind, when you are sleep deprived and exhausted, the imagination can be very terrifying. The disciples thought that the specter of death was coming for them. They were terrified. This is one of those times where nobody could blame them. Most people would admit that under these extreme circumstances, they too would be seeing visions of ghosts—or worse.
Jesus calmed their fears as He called out to them. “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Then Jesus got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. This is now the second time in Mark’s Gospel account where Jesus demonstrated control over the weather.
Then St. Mark tells us something even more surprising. By now, the apostles have seen that Jesus has control over diseases, injuries, demons, the weather, and even death. Then Jesus delegated His power to the apostles, and they were given authority to cast out demons and heal the sick. Last week, we learned that the disciples witnessed Jesus feed a crowd of more than 5,000 with a few rolls and a couple of fish. Even after all this, though Mark writes that their hearts were hardened. That means that they still did not have an accurate idea of who Jesus was, or have complete confidence in Him. In reality, of course, all four Gospel accounts tell us that nobody fully understood who Jesus was until He died on the cross and rose from the dead. It was only then that the disciples really understood that Jesus is true God who has taken on human flesh for us.
So what can we learn from this event in the life of Jesus and His disciples?
Today’s Old Testament lesson reminds us of one thing we can learn. It is the account of the aftermath of the Great Flood. Ever since Noah took his little congregation of seven other people aboard the ark, watercraft have been a metaphor for the church. Ships, boats, and even floating planks have been used to represent the church at one time or another. Today’s Gospel quite literally places Jesus’ congregation, once again, out on the water. Another thing we can learn is that the Church works a lot better when Jesus is in the boat.
Unfortunately, there are many people who try to “do Church” without Christ—at least without Christ as the scriptures reveal Him. In fact, an author named Dr. Michael Horton has written a book entitled “Christless Christianity.” Within this book Dr. Horton documents and laments the lack of Christ in America’s churches today. He laments the fact that so many churches teach a Christ that can’t be found in the Bible.
Jesus Himself gave us the definition of the Christ when He said, in Luke 24: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.” Nevertheless, many churches teach the Jesus who is a great moral teacher, a fine example of living, a life coach, an advocate for social justice, or merely a noble martyr who sacrificed himself so his friends could escape arrest. They forget to teach the Jesus who died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead.
Many other churches teach Christ crucified in order to bring people into the church, but once people join, they abandon that. Instead, they teach that Christ crucified is just the starting point. After a person becomes a Christian, they say, then it’s time for you to grow spiritually by means of self-improvement.
Then the topic switches from Christ on the cross to your Christian walk, your obedience to God, use of your spiritual gifts, your ministry to others, your efforts, your moral improvement, your choices, your example, your lifestyle, your perfection.
It is as if they believe that Christ crucified gets a person into the Church, but after that, a person no longer needs Christ, except as an encourager and an example. To return to our boat metaphor, Christ puts us in the boat, but then we leave Him on the shore and He waves at us and wishes us well on our journey. When the disciples did that, all they got was a strong head wind. They were unable to get anywhere.
If we try to do Church without Christ, then the Law is all that is left. The Law’s main job is to show us our need for Christ. If we insist on continuing without Christ then all that is left of the Law is its condemnation.
Many people have become experts at hiding the condemnation of the Law. Since it is the nature of the Law to judge, and nobody likes to be judged, other phrases for the law have become popular. People say they are “living the victorious Christian life,” or “living a life of purpose,” or “living the sanctified life,” or any number of other catchy euphemisms for “living by the Law.” All of these phrases sound so righteous, so holy. Whatever people call it, though, it is all about what you do—your testimony, your choices, your example, your lifestyle. And whenever it is about what you do, it is the Law.
Jesus had a simple teaching about how well we must keep the Law in order for this to be successful. Matthew records His words: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Are you as perfect as God the Father in Heaven? If Christ is not in your boat; if you are trying to live by the law, then perfection is all that counts. Adam and Eve only had to commit one sin to let death into the world. If you are to live by the Law, you cannot commit even one sin.
How are you doing on that? Have you ever lied to your mother, even once? Then you are a liar. Have you taken even a pencil home from the office without permission? Then you are a thief. Have you ever hated anyone … ever? Then you are a murderer. Have you ever had a fantasy about someone other than your spouse? Then you are an adulterer. Have you ever failed to protect someone’s reputation when you heard a story about them? Then you are a slanderer.
The Holy Spirit inspired the prophet Isaiah to write: “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Other translations say, “like filthy rags.” If even our righteous deeds condemn us, what chance do we have?
That is why it is so important that Christ be kept in the Church. When Jesus walked out onto the water and got into the boat, the headwind went away. When Jesus is in the Church, He takes away the headwind of our sins. Jesus is the one who is the perfect husband to His bride, the Church. Jesus is the perfect Son who does the will of his Father. Jesus is the one who is perfect, just as His heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus is the one who gives even sinners like us His perfection in baptism. Jesus is the one who takes away the sin of the world with His suffering and death on the cross. Jesus is the one who opens up heaven for us with His resurrection. Jesus is the one who is always with us in His ascension. Without Jesus, the Church is dead. With Jesus, the church is eternal. The Church only works if Jesus is in the boat.
The Law is good. In fact, the Law is perfect. But the Law is incomplete without the Gospel. Without the Gospel, the Law can only condemn. It can show us that we are sinners. It can show us that we need a savior. But without the Gospel, we don’t know who that savior is. Without the Gospel, we are condemned to try to save ourselves. It is only when Jesus is in the boat—only when the Church proclaims not only the Law, but also the Gospel—that we know we have salvation in Christ Jesus, Our Lord.
Ever since the days of Noah, people have compared the Holy Christian Church to a ship. Yet how can we know that we are on the right ship? When the Word of God, both Law and Gospel, are taught in their truth and purity, and when the Gospel is delivered in the administration of the sacraments according to Christ’s command, there is the true Church.
This, then, is the Holy Christian Church—the ship that sails on the smooth waters and gentle winds of forgiveness in Jesus Christ, the Crucified, even when She is tossed upon the tempests of the world around Her. Whenever and wherever you find this, Jesus is in the boat. And we can take courage, and no longer be afraid.
In His holy (+) name, Amen.