The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Precentor
The images of water which have perhaps most recently been laid before our eyes by the world's media have been the immensely distressing and tragic sights of boat-loads of refugees fleeing homes which have been destroyed by terror, war or poverty. For these countless thousands, as for the first readers of St Mark's Gospel, the sea is a symbol of chaos; something uncontrollable, threatening and terrifying. That's not, of course, how we tend to picture the Sea of Galilee, which is the stretch of water referred to in this morning's Gospel. Especially perhaps if you, like me, have been taken into the middle of the lake by a pilgrimage boat, improbably flying the Red Ensign, to sing the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind! But nevertheless, it is to the Sea of Galilee that we are transported this morning, a site (in the story we have just heard) of both peace and chaos at the heart of the Lord's earthly ministry, around which Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, healed the sick, and performed miracles.
One of the best-known of these miracles, recounted in two chapters' time in Mark's Gospel, is the multiplication of loaves and fishes, where Jesus fed thousands with five loaves and two fish. Very ancient tradition records that this happened at Tabgha, on the north-western shore of the Lake. The story, so familiar to us, is a vibrant sign of the abundance of God's love and generosity for the world, and a prefiguring of how Jesus himself—the living bread—would feed all those who follow him. A basilica has been there certainly since 350AD, and although rebuilt many times, the famous fifth-century mosaic of a basket of loaves and two fishes in the floor before the altar reminds the pilgrim of God's faithfulness throughout history.
But several days ago, the Sea of Galilee became once again a site of terror and fear for those who live at Tabgha. The Church, cared for by the Benedictine monks of Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion, was set alight in a horrendous arson attack, widely believed to have been perpetrated by extremist settlers, who left threatening and offensive graffiti scrawled all over the remaining walls. Two members of staff were hospitalised, millions of pounds-worth of damage was inflicted, and the community of prayer and hospitality shaken. The wonderful Abbot, a Belfast-born scholar and pastor, has spent his time mediating between groups, comforting his community and their very many local friends, and appealing for peace. Violence against religious minorities at the Holy Sites has been seriously increasing over the last years, with very few convictions. This, when seen alongside the horrendous persecution currently inflicted on Christians in Iraq and Syria, makes it an extremely uncertain and troubling time for Christians in the Middle East. And yet, from running refugee centres to education networks, it is often the Christians who are the mediators, the bridge-builders, witnesses to the potential of God's peace. They make their own the words of St Paul in today's Epistle, "we are treated an imposters, and yet are true; as dying and see—we are alive; … as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything."
Why is this, and why does it matter? A hint towards the answer to this question lies back at the Church in Tabgha. Despite the attack, the ancient mosaic of those loaves and fishes, was not damaged. At the heart of a raging fire of aggression, the symbol of God's limitless love in Christ remained. This story, and above all the story in today's Gospel refocus our minds and hearts on the transformation which comes about when people commit their lives to Jesus Christ, whose death has trampled down death itself. The light, which as St John of the Cross says, shines most brightly at the heart of the darkness.
In today's readings there are two fundamental questions which open up the way of discipleship. The voice of God rhetorically asks the Prophet Job in the first lesson, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding!" Job has suffered much, and seeks just a glimpse of understanding and reason for himself and for his family, to make some sense of what has been happening. The reply he is given is simply an overwhelming surge of the majesty and creativity of God. The context of Job's own peril is immeasurably broadened by the limitless sense of God's own capacious glory. Now, we must not make the mistake of reading scripture in our own image—this is an ancient text, and crude conclusions about our own suffering, or our own place in the world cannot be made. Job's suffering is not to be instrumentalised any more than the current suffering of Christians should be. But the role of Job, as indeed also for Christians today, is to be witnesses. Witnesses to God's glory, God's beauty and God's inexhaustible love. The American theologian Stanley Hauerwas reminds us that we Christians are not called to be successful, simply to be faithful.
The second question is asked by the disciples in the boat with Jesus, "Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" The question of who Jesus really is stands before us most intensely at times of chaos or uncertainty. It was CS Lewis who wrote that Christianity, if false, is of no importance; and if true of infinite importance. "The only thing it cannot be", he wrote, "is moderately important." The disciples, through their experience of walking with Jesus, including facing up to his own arrest, torture, death and resurrection, learn that Jesus is the incarnation and embodiment of God's own perfect peace. His body is the site of God's reconciliation with the world, the limitless life and energy unleashed through Christ's resurrection is what is remaking the world and unveiling the new Creation; it is what allows the families of the victims of the Charleston church shooter to forgive him, it is what encourages the Christians of the Holy Land and the Middle East to remain and to remain faithful.
"Why are you still afraid?", Jesus asks those in the boat. Isn't it obvious, they must have thought, as we may well reply now? But slowly, the life of Christ, if we allow it, will transform us, will re-energise us from the inside-out, from the heart. How? Because when we focus on the inexhaustible love symbolised in those loaves and fishes, we see that there is more than enough for everyone, more abundance than the world could ever need, more forgiveness than ever thought possible, where even the darkest, most violent site of fear and horror can be redeemed.