Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Seeing Through Fog...

FOR THE Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, we again find diversity in the readings offered within the lectionary preaching spectrum for the church. The gospel readings used differ, but to some degree they also parallel. First consider that our reading from the Gospel According to Saint John contains the story of Jesus walking on the water. Next, we find the same story also appears as read from other church pulpits from the Gospel According to Saint Mark (Mark 6:45-52). We find the story also comes to us from the quill of Saint Matthew, but not from Luke. In study here then, we have an opportunity this week, to examine how these two, differing witnesses used the same or similar source materials. This historically may reveal even more from the apostolic record. To begin our study then, from John we read…

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him (Jesus) by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea rose because a strong wind was blowing.
 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat. They were frightened, but he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. (John 6:15-21)

Lighting the Fog of Night…
In this story that related Jesus’ walking on water, we find much agreement between the gospel records of Mark and John. This is largely attributed to the fact that they likely had a common source even though the  two were written in differing decades of history. However, we note subtle nuances exist between the two gospels. If we assume that indeed a common source existed, we need consider that these subtleties can speak to us concerning the perspective of each particular author.
 I offer here that John, as quoted above, is the later dated document. Mark is estimated by most scholars as written about 65A.D., it seems that it predates the writing of John, revealed here by the emerging church across the Roman Empire.
 The date of the writing of the Johannine gospel reveals a process that may have spread over several years, and it is estimated as being written c.90A.D. In reading then, an importance rises as we note that the only two miracle stories are shared by John, that are contained in the other gospels. These include the feeding of the 5000 persons, and our Lord’s walking on water. Therefore we can note that the author saw that these two events helped to focus the hearers. These centered the people on the gospel, highlighting the sharing of a holy meal and the ongoing practices of baptism in the church.
 To examine this editorial progress, first let us consider each disciple’s destination in the story. Mark had earlier written that the disciples went out in a boat first to cross the sea, and then Jesus followed them. Afterward, Jesus walked in the darkness of the early morning, traveling on the water toward the village of Bethsaida (house of fishing).
 John later wrote, however, that the destination was Capernaum. An obvious, but slight difference therefore exists between the accounts. Bethsaida was a village near Capernaum. A small, localized community, it was a fishing village on the outskirts of the larger town of Capernaum. According to the earlier Markan account then, we might think that Bethsaida contained a people receptive to the fishermen's witness from amongst the disciples, and its socio-economic strata of impoverishment and small business was quite receptive to the words of Jesus. It seemed that what was a good evangelical method in one fishing town, would be good in another.
 Conversely, John did not mention Bethsaida; instead he held up nearby Capernaum as the destination. We might then ask “Did they land at one place, then move to another?” I seriously doubt it. I believe John emphasized the greater populace for a reason.
  I offer that blessed John, who wrote some 25 years after Mark… wished to relate to a larger and wider audience. Therefore John may have thoughtfully considered that many in his widely-dispersed audience would not even geographically know of tiny Bethsaida, but instead would more likely identify to some degree the larger-populated Capernaum. This would be especially true if the congregational audience was populated by many persons who were not Jews, but were of various ethnicity and were in house churches in the wider Greek and Roman world.

Lord, Do Not Pass Us By...
Also, in rather stark terms, we see that Mark portrayed the darkness of night, but described the rising waves only in that the “wind was against them”. The scene focused the hearers more on the appearance of Jesus walking on the water. Shimmering as the Light come into the world, Jesus was erroneously thought by the disciples to be a ghost (phantasm). This may reflect that Mark may have fought with the emerging heretical opinion that Jesus was not a human being, but just a divinely glowing phantasm who came down upon earth. The opinion circulated that this "theos-aner" (god-man) was one to roam around and educate simple men, only to go irretrievably back into the heavens. However, I assign this theory concerning Mark’s early motivation purely as guesswork.
 What is more certain is that our Lord’s appearance made the disciples very frightened. It was stated by Mark that Jesus was brightly seen as passing by the boat in his path across the water. While many authorities have said that this is likely a Hebraic way of saying that he was coming “alongside”, I question that assumption. If we look at the Hebrew tradition, we read of a divine “passing by” that was spoken of…

When the waters saw thee, O God,
when the waters saw thee, they were afraid,
yea, the deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
the skies gave forth thunder;
thy arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of thy thunder was in the whirlwind;
thy lightnings lighted up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Thy way was through the sea,
thy path through the great waters;
yet thy footprints were unseen.

                                          (Psalm 77:16-19)

Surely then, the episode echoes to us the “storm god” theophany of Israel, a mythological image also recorded in many other civilizations. In this psalm, we see that Israel trembled as God passed by. So did the disciples. However, recorded here is the reason for the “passing by" of our Lord Jesus. Our author in Mark stated that the disciples had not thought seriously and sufficiently about the full impact of the feeding of the 5000, and were likely rowing across the tempestuous water in rather scattered confusion. They were rightly portrayed then by Mark as in danger of being “passed by”, because of unbelief. We need to remember that Mark often portrayed the disciples as a rather sorry lot, confused in their establishing a working rhythm at the oars of the church.
 I ask then, “Was this story meant then as a warning to the early church, who rowed the tiny ship of our Lord’s church forward in roughening societal seas?” If we may accept this.., then I ask, “Was Mark telling them that Jesus is certainly no ghost... surely not just an evil mirage appearing out of the dark night?” I say, “Most certainly!”
 Mark revealed that God was indeed with them. He warned his churches that faith was given and faith was still needed… for the Lord may yet pass by them by in the early dark hours of church history. Mark’s message was therefore told in this way to those early readers of the church in 65-70A.D., those who were called to place their sights only on the destination before them.
 Now, here we must note that John omitted that Jesus almost passed by. Why so? I believe that guided by the Holy Spirit, the omission was not merely accidental. You see, John addressed a different audience in a different time. In his latter day of writing, his churches were spread widely across the Roman and Greek provinces, and the presence of Jesus in the waters of Baptism and the elements of the Holy Eucharist had been firmly anchored as more certain in their mindset. However, we know that the early church was still casting about, flailed adrift by great and harsh political and religious currents and undercurrents. Thus the congregations who read this message rightly needed a concise, tightly-worded admonition. In these elements of the very same story then, the person of Jesus Christ is pointed out specifically as saying firmly... “It is I, do not be afraid.”
 For John’s churches then, and those floundering in our own day, this stands out as a focused message. For John, the disciples took the Lord into the boat and he proceeded with them. John spoke this good news loudly to his congregations. They were assured that though ghastly and dangerous portents would seem to overwhelm, the early church of Jesus Christ would endure in proclamation of the gospel message. They would not be swamped! Jesus Christ remained amongst them in Word and Sacrament, and each community could reach the firmness of God’s eternal shore. This is the central good news in this story from John. We note also that this rings true across the centuries even to our own pulpits and naves.
 Know this! Let it be known that whichever lesson may be used by your particular congregation during the coming Sunday, the message resounds similarly. Jesus is no bright figment of our faint imaginations. Our Lord comes to us as bread and wine, which is also his body and blood… and he comes to us also on the waters of baptism by the power of the Holy Spirit. He rules eternally over the natural and spiritual forces of all creation. Our sinful and sometimes doubting Christian communities, whether small or large, are then simply called to partake of his divine, forgiving Presence, and keep on rowing… witnessing firmly even though the seas still may be turbulent and the shores seem very distant. We are comforted, for God is most certainly with us.

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