Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Rembrandt Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Gallilee

The brief but striking episode recorded in Mark’s Gospel for this Sunday -- in which Jesus appears to control a storm at sea with a simple command -- is usually referred to as a ‘nature’ miracle. But, as so often in the Gospels, this ‘miracle’ should be understood as a ‘sign’ rather than a ‘wonder’. What matters is what it says, not what it accomplishes.

Storms are natural metaphors. They easily transfer from the world of nature to the concerns of human life, and can thus be used to signify, and communicate, a climax in the strains and stresses of human life. This use of the image is common in the Bible – in the Psalms – for example -- and sometimes the metaphor and the literal event are inextricably interwoven – as in the story of Jonah, for instance.

In either case, the natural event of the storm is to be read as a symbol. It reveals something about Jesus and his relationship to God. The punch line of the story, of course, is the stilling of the storm, at which point the terror of the disciples is changed, not into grateful relief, but into ‘awe’ at the person of Jesus – "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?".

But in a way, the key moment is to be found a few verses earlier, when Jesus lies sleeping on a cushion. It is in response to their frightened accusation "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" that he stills the storm. The enormous gap between his relationship to God and theirs, however, is revealed not so much by his extraordinary power over the storm, but his ability to sleep in the midst of it.

Monday, June 11, 2012


Vincent van Gogh Harvest in Provence (1888)

Many of Jesus’ parables appear in all of the first three Gospels. In this week’s Gospel reading, however, there is a parable unique to Mark. It comes at the end of a chapter that begins with the well known parable of the sower, a parable that Matthew and Luke also record. Mark then uses the same image of seed planted in the ground to turn in a different direction. ‘The kingdom of God is like this’, Jesus says, and invites us to dwell on something both utterly familiar and deeply mysterious. We plant seeds, and after a time we harvest the crop that they produce. Sprouting and growing is essential to our success, yet though we are wholly reliant on this process, it happens quite independently of our labor.

The sower in Mark's parable is anonymous. He represents everyone and anyone. What matters is the seed, and its mysterious power to produce grain. The message seems clear. Christians believe that in the age-old struggle with ignorance, evil and death, truth and goodness will be victorious in the Kingdom of God. The life and death and Resurrection of Jesus guarantee this. In the ‘present dispensation’, however, we have to await their final triumph, and while we do, our task is to witness to that hope by simply‘sowing the seed’ in our own time and place.

In our spiritual ‘labors’, as in all our other endeavors, is hard not to look for tangible evidence that our efforts are bearing fruit. Yet Mark’s parable aims to stop us thinking in just this way. We should be content to be sowers who can ‘sleep and rise night and day’ confident that the ways of God, which we cannot fathom, are always at work in bringing our witness to fruition. As St Paul tells the Corinthians in the Epistle -- ‘Walk by faith and not by sight’. ‘From now on’, he says, ‘regard no one from a human point of view’ as regards success and failure, because ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


The Prophet Samuel -- Claude Vignon (1593-1670)

At this point in the year the Lectionary offers a choice between ‘continuous’ and ‘thematic’ readings from the Old Testament. The thematic readings are intended to fit better with the New Testament readings, while the continuous readings allow us to follow a rather longer story over a number of weeks.

This year the continuous readings take up the long story of the Israelites problematic relationship with their political rulers. It begins with the celebrated 8th chapter of the first book of Samuel in which the elders ask Samuel to find them a king so that they can be ‘like other nations’. He warns them about the dangers of kingship, but they persist. And so the stage is set for the turbulent saga of Saul, David and their many successors.

The passage leaves out the verses in which the Israelites' demand for a King is interpreted as a rejection of God. Yet this conflict between divine and human sources of hope lies at the heart of the whole story, and provides the background against which Jesus’ messiahship has to be understood. Jesus emphatically rejects ‘the nation’ as a focus of hope and salvation. More troublingly, the Gospel passage suggests that faith in God requires us to reject the family too, since Jesus appears to disown his ‘mother and brothers’.

This is one of those passages known as the 'hard sayings' of Jesus, and indeed it is difficult to interpret properly, even allowing for the exaggeration typical of middle eastern thought. But however we interpret it, this implication seems inescapable. God demands, and requires, and rewards, a devotion far deeper than any human being – king or parent -- could warrant.