The Gospel of Mark has something of a split personality. And to read the Gospel all the way through from beginning to end is jarring, because the first half of the Gospel is so different from the second. The first half of the Gospel – the first eight chapters – is set around the Sea of Galilee, with the bulk of the stories taking place on or near the water. These first eight chapters feel green and lush and nurturing – almost womblike. In the last eight chapters the Sea is completely absent. These chapters are arid and stony; and it almost hurts to read them, for Jesus grows more and more isolated as even his friends never really understand him, and Mark’s not one but three passion predictions draw the reader’s attention – force the reader’s attention – toward Jerusalem and the cross.
There are things I like about Mark – Mark is short and to-the-point, for example, and he is a master craftsman at organizing his material to help the reader make associations and draw out meanings. But I find it difficult to read his Gospel all the way through from beginning to end because the nurturing, womb-like Sea of Galilee half so completely gives way to Jesus’ hard, dry march to Jerusalem and the cross. (Even Mark’s resurrection account is hard to read. There is no garden with Mary Magdalene; Jesus does not make his disciples’ hearts burn within them on the Emmaus road. The resurrection account in Mark originally ended with, “They… fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”)
I am helped greatly in making sense of this bi-bifurcated gospel when I consider the context in which Mark was written. Scholars hypothesize that Mark was written for a community experiencing persecution, most likely the Christian community in Rome during the time of Nero. Scholars tell us that Nero’s persecution was particularly harsh, turning neighbors against neighbors, even family members against family members. Roman soldiers went into the Jewish quarter and knocked on doors looking for Christians. Those who confessed Christ were taken away to be killed, either by animals in the Colosseum or by burning. Those who did not confess Christ were ordered to report somebody who would, until a large percentage of the Jewish population had either been exterminated or fled.
Mark custom-fit his Gospel for this community to encourage them during persecution. For example, Mark’s community – its faith stressed by persecution – could take courage in knowing that even the apostles were said to have “no faith” (as in today’s lesson: “Have you still no faith?” Jesus asks them). Mark’s community – for whom belief in resurrection meant fear and flight – could take courage in knowing that, for the first disciples, Jesus’ resurrection was not a joyful experience but a fearful one. And I wonder if, to help sustain them during persecution, Mark made the first part of his gospel warm and nurturing so that it might serve as a source of comfort and renewal for the community.
In the first part of the gospel is a land of water and hills, and Jesus heals and casts out demons. There are rumblings of the “storm” to come, to be sure, but for the most part these first eight chapters are almost idyllic. I can imagine the Markan Christians gathering in secret in small groups to hear these stories read. Maybe they – in a manner common to later communities – would read the stories multiple times, with ample silence in between to meditate. Or maybe there was a community leader who preached on the texts. Or maybe the worshippers took turns sharing what they heard in the text. And maybe they took time in private during the week to reflect on what they had heard, and to draw comfort and assurance from these stories.
For these early Christians savoring the stories of Jesus and the disciples around the Sea, this morning’s story of Jesus stilling the storm must have carried special significance. Here – right in the middle of the first eight chapters, at the end of chapter 4; here – right in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, the “womb” of these chapters; here – happening to the inner circle of Jesus and his disciples – the “storm” strikes. Maybe the “storm” was the persecution that could strike even in places that were ostensibly safe. Maybe the “storm” was the fear of being turned in by a neighbor or family member. Maybe the “storm” was the scattering of the early Christian community in Rome, whose surviving members fled for their lives.
Whatever the “storm” may have been for them, I think that this story would have reminded Mark’s community that – no matter how strong the winds and the waves might be – Jesus was right there with them; “he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.” All they needed to do was to call on him, to pray, to “wake him up.”
In a famous sermon (#13 – and also one of his shortest!), Augustine preached on this morning’s text.
“Christ is asleep in you,” Augustine said. “You have forgotten Christ. So wake Christ up, remember Christ… Let us not despair, [but rather] let us awake Christ, that we may sail on a tranquil sea, and so come to our home country.”
“Wake him up!” preached Augustine. No matter what the “storm” may be in our life, “Wake him up!” Why not pray to him who is right there with us, in the stern of our boat?
As our nation looks to Charleston, South Carolina in the wake of Wednesday’s shooting, I have been struck by the response of those interviewed: again and again, those affected call for prayer. I have a hunch that Mark’s community, during its time of persecution, found solace in prayer. If there is a storm in our life, why not pray? Why not “Wake him up” who is asleep, right there in the stern of our boat? I think we’ll be surprised how close by He is, and how ready and able He is to help. And I know we’ll be surprised by how much He loves us and is willing to give of himself for us.