The Other Side

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost | Mark 6:30-56

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

The Other Side

He was tired. He must have been.

He had tried to take some time off, to lead his friends and followers on a retreat, out in the wilderness away from it all, but when they got to the spot they found that everyone had gotten there ahead of them.

It was a little like going to Yellowstone to enjoy nature only to be followed by busloads of tourists everywhere you go. And these people did not come to look at the bears. They came on the buses with the sole purpose of finding you.

It was the same wherever Jesus went, first one crowd and then another. He took a boat, aiming to land at a nice secluded spot, but it is hard to hide a boat on the water and the people came, a great throng of them, to find him.

I would have been irritable, cross, put out. If Jesus was, he covered it well. He seemed to reflect that while he had sailed to this unplanned rendezvous, these thousands of people had walked the long way round to find him. He saw that they needed it so badly, wanted it so much. So instead of leading a retreat for a few friends, he led one for a few thousand folk, talking to them, even managing to feed them.

Jesus tried again. After he had dismissed the people, some of them no doubt lingering while he urged them to head home, he sent his friends back across the water in the boat.

Painting - Rembrandt's Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee
“Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee” by Rembrandt. 1633. Stolen 1990, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, current whereabouts unknown.

There they were, his friends, out on the Sea of Galilee. The story says that he had gone up on a mountain where he could probably see their progress. He was trying for some alone time. Maybe he got a little rest before the storm rolled in.

He watched the cloud line, felt the wind, watched the waves grow, and he knew that his friends would be afraid. People who know nothing about the water can be afraid of it. People like some of his friends, lifelong boatmen and fisherfolk, know enough to be terrified of what a sudden squall can do to them.

And he saved them, of course. It is a famous story. Jesus walked on the stormy water, in the semidarkness of the early hours, and he calmed the storm and joined them in the boat.

There are some odd details.

For one thing, the story says that he meant to pass them by. We can’t quite tell whether he meant to pass by unseen or to pass by so that they would see him. Never mind how he was managing to walk on the water. For another thing, Mark’s Gospel says that when he got into the boat, the wind ceased, without being clear as to whether it was cause and effect or happenstance, though we are inclined to see another miracle. Of course, this miracle meant that the rest of them had to start rowing.

When they reached the other shore, people recognized Jesus and started bringing crowds and fetching sick relatives, expecting Jesus to heal them. One might imagine a doctor finally opening a clinic in a remote valley of Appalachia. The people brought their sick and put them on mats, in the streets where Jesus would pass, in the marketplaces of their villages. It must have been a sight, and an unsettling one, his path bordered and measured by people who needed him. Some of them wanted more than others. Some only wanted to touch his robe, to make the experience real or let some power move through the touch, and he let them.

Of course, he did.

The people in our path—it’s all so obvious isn’t it?—we help them, though it would be nice if the Gospel were clearer on the whole walking-on-water and calming-storms and healing-people thing. There are no explanations of the mechanism by which it works, if it still works at all. It is a God thing.

Painting by Delacroix - Christ Calming the Tempest
“Christ Calming the Tempest” by Eugène Delacroix

We’re left to do what we do, and we watch for God to do what God might do, and we call the whole experience faith. It is a sometimes unsatisfactory arrangement, depending on one’s expectations.

When God passes us by, for instance, is it to remain unseen or in the hope that we’ll notice? Of course, the atheist would say that nobody is passing by—it is only the wind, or an idea, and no one knows where those come from or where they will go.

Faith is remaining open to the possibilities. It is not being stupid. It is being imaginative, hopeful, open, and humble enough to suppose that we are not the greatest thing in the universe.

The wind doesn’t listen to us, or if it does, it seldom agrees. We’re rubbish at walking on water. That sort of thing is God stuff, and not our job anyway.

Even in matters of faith, we don’t get to do the God things, which is good. We do the follower things. Our hugs do not heal, but they may help. We walk alongside the needy, like a kind non-believer might do, with the difference that we hope God is walking on their other side whether or not anyone notices.

We feed the hungry people, and we talk to the lonely ones, believing that God was already in the business of doing that before we got there. We think that the opportunity to help is also a God thing—not making people needy, but helping us to see them when they are.

Maybe there were no miracles in that story. Maybe there were stepping stones in the sea, and everyone had food stashed away, and Jesus just got them to share. Maybe the storm just ended, as they all do.

Something happened around the shores of Galilee, something different enough that we have four gospels telling the stories. Something happened that makes us look more kindly on one another, something that helps us respond when needier people reach out and touch us.

That’s pretty miraculous. That’s a God thing.