This morning’s Gospel reading describes a short interval in the life of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus has been teaching, and healing and ministering to the crowds as they have followed him from village to village on one side of the Sea of Galilee.
We know that when he arrives at the other side of the lake that ministry will immediately begin again as people become aware of his presence amongst them. But now, for a few hours (even though it appears to us as readers of the Gospel to be just a few seconds, such is the brevity of the description) Jesus is alone in the boat with his disciples. The crowds that he has been ministering to, can no longer reach him. The requests for healing and for his wisdom are silent. He is out on the water in a fishing boat, and as his disciples take turns to row in groups, Jesus falls asleep.
The Sea of Galilee – on which this boat is travelling – is of paramount importance to the telling of the story of Jesus for the writers of Luke’s Gospel. According to these writers, it is in this region that the first half of Jesus’ ministry takes place – with the Sea of Galilee as its back drop – before he turns his face to Jerusalem, and begins the journey (at the end of Chapter 9) which will lead to his death and resurrection and ascension.
In the Old Testament the lake is called Kinneret. In the New Testament it is referred to as the Sea of Tiberias, the Sea of Gennesaret, the Sea of Chinnereth, and, of course, the Sea of Galilee. When we hear those names they are all referring to this same expanse of water. Because the lake was surrounded by so many small villages and hamlets, each of which depended upon the lake for their survival, the lake becomes named (and therefore owned) by these different communities. It would be rather like Lake Macquarie being known as Lake Charlestown by those of us who are gathered here this morning, and Lake Belmont, Lake Swansea and Lake Toronto by other communities around it.
The Sea of Galilee in modern times spans a distance of twelve miles in one direction and six miles in the other, but it would have been even bigger in the time of Jesus. We would do well in this Season of Creation to stop for a moment to reflect on the fact that this lake, which figures so prominently in the ministry of Jesus, is, in our own generation being systematically depleted of water and fish, and destroyed because of human activity. That means that the Sea is literally shrinking every year, and one day its existence will survive only as a story.
At any rate, the point is that the lake is big. It is not a duck pond, it is a substantial body of water, and therefore a significant challenge to cross even for well-practised fishermen. In other Gospel accounts of this or a similar event the indication is given that it took the disciples all night to row from one side to the other.
As I imagine this story in my mind, I suspect that Jesus isn’t the only one who is tired on that boat. The disciples have also been ministering alongside him, and that has been costly for them in terms of their energy and their emotions. Almost all of the disciples (I think Judas Iscariot is the only exception) are local boys. They come from the villages around the lake. As they assist Jesus in his ministry, they are coming into contact with people that they have known for many years – members of their extended families, friends, people that they have worked alongside. And whilst that can be joyful, it can be exhausting as well.
If I can speak very personally, it is always a challenging reminder to me, given that the context in which I minister now is totally dis-located from the communities in which I grew up, and in which I was encouraged and discerned, that Jesus, with his disciples, spent over half of his ministry in the neighbourhoods and communities nearest to where he and his disciples were naturally from. Not only is the first half of his ministry based around this lake, but the people who share this ministry with him are all local people from that region.
My guess is that for these disciples, even though they are in the presence of Jesus, to be sharing the news of their commitment to him with their friends and neighbours, was probably as exhausting and difficult for them as it is for us when we intentionally share that good news with our neighbours today.
As I read the reflections in the Gospels of the encounters between Jesus and his disciples and their neighbours again and again around this lake, I am reminded and challenged that whatever else God has called the congregations of this Diocese to do, our primary calling is to both worship the God who loves and creates us, and to share the good news of God’s love with those who live in our immediate vicinity. That is true for us here in the Parish of Charlestown as well. We continue to believe that it is worthwhile having a physical presence in this area because we are committed to the ministry of being present here, not for ourselves but so that our neighbours might experience all that we have experienced through us, and may come to know the good news which continues to nourish each one of us.
For us as Anglicans when we ask the question, ‘where are our neighbours?’ we are able to turn to a map of this parish’s boundaries and to find out exactly which homes and schools and places of work have been entrusted to us for this task of local mission. At the heart of the vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission, which we are growing in to here in this parish, led by Father Peter and the Parish Ministry Team, is our awareness of this call to re-connect with the local community around us and to make local mission (mission within our neighbourhoods) our first priority.
I do not think that I am alone in finding that task of local mission hard work. I am more comfortable sharing what God has done for me with people who I will never meet again. I am more threatened when I am called to do that with the people who live next door to me, and who have the opportunity to observe me every day – when I want to be observed and when I do not. So as I imagine this story of Jesus and the disciples in my mind, it isn’t only Jesus who is tired, as he sleeps in the boat, but the disciples are tired as well as they navigate from one side to the other.
The last thing that they need is any obstacle which will prevent them from finishing their journey. But a storm comes down upon them, and tosses them to and fro, and up and down until they are disorientated in relation to the direction that they are heading in, and drenched as their boat begins to fill with water. And so in a moment of desperation these fishermen-disciples come to the end of their own resources and they turn to Jesus.
I do not think that they want to awaken him, they love him, they know that he is exhausted (they feel some of that for themselves) but they need him, because despite all of their collective experience of working on that lake they cannot survive this situation without him. I am conscious that when everything is calm and going well in my life it does not matter all that much if God seems to be asleep. I am in control, I can cope with what comes along, in fact in many ways I perhaps prefer it if God seems to be snoozing and does not interfere.
This Season of Creation which we are celebrating in these Sundays of September invites us to step back and to be amazed by the power and beauty of storms in our natural environment, and to marvel at God our Creators hand in them. Some of you may (like me) really enjoy watching storms, and experiencing them from the comfort of your living room, as you look out of the window. Enjoying the spectacular images of a storm from the distance and in safety, is quite different from being in a small boat in the middle of it all!
I know for myself that one of the most decisive moments in my own life was when someone shared with me that being a follower of Jesus was not so much like being a spectator at a football match but a player on the pitch. If I had been brought up in a fishing community (like many of the first readers of the Gospels), rather than in a city, perhaps the more pertinent image about the Christian faith would have been the invitation to get into the boat.
Certainly throughout the history of the Church, the idea of Christian communities like this one, being like passengers on a boat or a ship has been a continual image – linked on the one hand to the story of Noah and the Ark, and on the other to this story of Jesus and his disciples out on the lake. There are ancient drawings that depict this graphically. When the Early Church set out on its tasks of Christian witness, it frequently encountered the storms of persecution, but nevertheless the Church continued to believe that Jesus was present with it in its endeavours.
In the Gospel account the disciples cry out to Jesus, and wake him from his sleep. And in a moment the storm is replaced by calm, and the journey to the other side of the lake continues.
All of us in different ways will have experiences of living between the beginning of the storm and God’s response. For some of us that will be a personal reality at the current time. We are facing storms in our own lives right now: financial, emotional, physical, spiritual. The last thing that we need at this moment in time is a storm, but that is what we are living through. If we can acknowledge those storms nowhere else, then I want to suggest to you that this Eucharist is the place that we can. As we come to be physically present with Jesus this morning around his table, we can inwardly cry out for his presence to calm the storm in our own life.
If we have the strength then there is the opportunity to reach out to others in this church family who can pray with us this morning. We may just need to know this morning, the assurance that other members of this Christian family are in the boat with us. Just like those first disciples in the boat on the lake we are faced by storms that seem to come out of nowhere, just like them we can feel (as individuals and as a Church) that we are being tossed to and fro by forces around us that are more powerful than we are.
In this Season of Creation we worship and celebrate the God who has lovingly created the world and each one of us within it. And we give thanks that in all that God calls us to be and to do, that in all the storms that we face, and the opportunities, we are not alone because the Spirit of Jesus is here with us this morning and every time we gather to hear his Word and to break bread together.