The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
A gale arose on the lake, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but Jesus was asleep.
The boat was being swamped by the waves.
You get the picture, they were inundated.
For the person of faith, it's intensely difficult to express the emotion you feel standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. I'm really not one of those 'following in the footsteps of Jesus'-type pilgrims. It honestly doesn't matter to me whether Christ walked along this side of the bank or the other; whether it was this particular village or that.
For some this will be of central importance, ascertaining with some precision the historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts.
But even me, even for me, waking up in the hotel part of the Ginosar kibbutz, you are right on the bank of the Sea of Galilee. The museum displaying the unique archaeological find of a fishing-boat preserved from the time of Jesus is just down the road. A long day ahead, so an early morning dip was called for: the waters of Galilee nicely cooled by snow-fall on Mount Hermon. It was January.
But looking out on the complete calm of the sea—the lowest freshwater lake in the world covering an area equivalent to that from here in Westminster to London City Airport in the east and towards Enfield in the north—it is very hard not to enter in some imaginary way, some deeply spiritual way into the gospel narrative and to feel yourself there.
Of course, the story doesn't really begin just there on the bank. Rather, Matthew has Jesus immediately before this up on what's now the Mount of the Beatitudes, perched up above the Sea. It is where Jesus sat down with the crowds and began to teach: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Read about it in Matthew 5–7.
Even there, on the modern-day Mount of the Beatitudes, you get a flavour that all is not idyllic calm. There are bold red notices saying: no dogs, no short, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no guns! This is Israel after all.
Coming down from teaching on the mountainside, Jesus makes his way to the port town of Capernaum where he heals the centurion's servant—'Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed'—and Simon Peter's mother-in-law.
But to return to inundation, being overwhelmed, it seems that the hordes of people might have begun to be oppressive: 'When Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side'. He was being swamped and needed some space, some time to withdraw. After the success of his teaching and the fame of his miracles, it wouldn't have taken long for word to have got around.
But it's just at that point that there is the second inundation, the one we hear about directly in the gospel: 'a gale arose on the lake, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves'. On this vast lake, well-known for sudden squalls and storms, a small fishing-boat would soon have been overwhelmed, the Greek literally means 'hidden in the waves'. It must have been terrifying.
And Jesus, what does he do? He is asleep, perhaps exhausted by the intensity of attention he has been receiving. But he is awoken, he stirs and after rebuking the disciples, he then rebukes the storm. 'What sort of a man is this that even the wind and waves obey him?'
So this was a miracle to challenge and inspire the faith of his disciples, those who doubted Jesus' authority over creation. Even when he was escaping the crowds overwhelming him, the fishing-boat became swamped.
But perhaps there's more to this than meets the eye.
To those who came after Jesus, the Christians of the early centuries, this became a central text in a time of persecution.
Let me explain: the best-known Bible story about a ship was of course Noah's Ark. The tale of how humankind along with the animal kingdom was preserved, saved from the flooding, as the waters inundated the earth.
The early church spiritualised this understanding of the Ark into a doctrine about the Church itself. The Church became the Ark of Salvation, the protective home in which souls were saved from the storms and waves outside. The name we use for the central part of a church—the nave—is simply the Latin for a ship or boat.
Now let's read Matthew 8 again with the eyes of the early church: a gale arose on the lake, inundating the small boat. Well the gales, the storms which the early church faced were very real indeed. Successive waves of persecution decimated the Christian community, many were forced to recant on pain of death.
'Lord, save us! We are perishing!' is the cry of distress by those whose lives were truly threatened. And Jesus response? Keep the faith, persevere, don't take fright. Because Jesus is Lord not only the wind and waves, but will also calm the storms which threaten the church. Lord of sea and sky, Lord of the kingdoms of earth. And there was a dead calm.
And, of course, we don't have to look very far to see inundation in our own days and its tragic consequences. The small boats and vessels making their way across the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, literally inundated, covered by the waves. Similarly, many of those countries receiving thousands of migrants express themselves in precisely those terms, inundated. Our own Prime Minister has been criticised for using the language of a 'flood' to describe the migrant crisis.
And at a more personal level, we can ourselves feel inundated: perhaps returning from holiday to find hundreds of emails waiting for us in the office; hoping for a brief respite from family responsibilities, or the burden of financial worries. It's very easy to feel overwhelmed.
And perhaps, too, we sometimes feel that God is asleep on the case; Jesus taking a nap in the hold, while we are being buffeted by forces quite beyond our control, forces which threaten to overwhelm us.
If that is your experience of life at the moment, then let this brief episode in Jesus' life be your source of inspiration.
From my days working with the Missions to Seafarers, I recall that the American President John F Kennedy had a small wooden block on his desk in the Oval Office. On it was inscribed the Prayer of a Breton Fisherman. It is memorable, simple, one to cherish:
Dear God, be good to me;
the sea is so wide,
and my boat is so small.