Peace Be Still.
Jesus in the middle of the storm.
Jesus in the middle of the storm is a story that we hear six times across the Gospels.
Maybe, way back when, this was two stories, two encounters with Jesus, one in which Jesus sleeps in the stern of the boat while the storm thunders all around – there are three stories more or less like that preserved in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – and then another in which Jesus walks on the water – those are in Matthew, Mark, and John. Or maybe the story or encounter was one in the beginning, and as memory shifted the way that memory does across the years, the way that stories do as they are told around the campfire, it divided into two strands.
Regardless, Jesus in the middle of the storm is a story that the Gospels tell us six times. It has that sixfold telling in common with the story that we heard last week, the one that we sometimes call the story of the loaves and the fishes. This repetition suggests that Jesus’ first friends and then the early church reckoned that these encounters mattered deeply to understanding Jesus and to following Jesus.
In Jesus’ life, there is a malleable and a permeable border between the literal and the metaphorical. Jesus does things and says things and things happen to him that are real and symbol at the same time. So, last week, we saw Jesus feed hungry people. And way before we look for anything heady or spiritual in this miracle, let’s name and honour the earthy reality that when people are hungry, Jesus feeds them. As Jesus’ followers, we are called to do the same, to feed people when they are hungry.
And beside and within that intensely literal act of service, there are layers upon layers of metaphor. When we are with Jesus, the story tells us, we find creativity, generosity, possibility, compassion, fecundity, the absence of limitation, holy surprise. We are fed in so, so many ways.
This week – Jesus in the storm – is the same. At the story’s most basic level, there is something primal taking place. Heavy rain, high waves, a hard wind, lightning and thunder. Many of Jesus’ followers, most of Jesus’ followers, fish for a living. And if they are afraid of the storm, you know that it’s a bad one. This is a little bit like when you are on a plane and the turbulence gets intense. When that happens, I always look at the flight attendants: if they don’t seem nervous, I’m not going to get nervous, their calmness means that this is merely an unpleasant experience rather than a dangerous one. If they look afraid, by contrast, I’m going to start putting the finishing touches on my will.
And this week, the fishers, those who have logged hundreds or even thousands of hours out on the water, are afraid. Herb O’Driscoll, the wonderful Irish-Canadian preacher, has joked that Jesus’ calmness in the storm, whether that calmness takes the form of sleeping or of casually strolling on the surface of the lake, is proof that Jesus doesn’t fish for a living. Jesus, unlike the disciples, doesn’t know enough to be afraid.
The storm rages. This intense storm, this terrifying storm, this dangerous storm, this storm that may end in drowning rages. This is the sort of awful experience during which someone like you or me might call out God’s name.
God, help me. Please.
And from the deck of the ship, as we call out to God, what do we discover then? We discover that God is there, that Jesus is there. God is not watching from some distant cloud or castle or mountaintop. God is there in the middle of the storm. We see God walking on the waves, being pushed up and down by the swells, now rising, now falling, never breaking his stride, never losing his balance.
This is good news and hard news. It is very good news indeed to discover in the storm that God is not somewhere else. Alleluia.
And it is hard news to discover that God being with us doesn’t mean that there is no storm. The storm rages anyway.
And the storm – here is that malleable and permeable border between the literal and the metaphorical– in addition to being a very concrete and real and dangerous thing, is also this archetypal image for chaos, for uncertainty, for the absence of control, for volatility, for fear.
God is present in these things. And the storm rages anyway.
If the Gospels were a novel – they aren’t, there are a thousand and one ways in which the Gospels resist being classified as a modern book – if the Gospels were a novel, then Peter would be the character whose role is to stand in for you and me. As a child, I adored Agatha Christie’s mysteries and, in particular, I loved her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. And the Poirot books work in significant part because of Hastings, Poirot’s friend and assistant and sometimes biographer, the guy who is amazed where the reader would be amazed, confused where the reader would be confused, who does and says the thing that the reader would do or say.
Peter serves much the same function in the Gospel. At the transfiguration, he says what you or I might say: Let’s build houses and stay here forever. When Jesus says that he will be crucified, Peter, like you or me, takes him aside and says: Lord, you have to stop talking that way. When Jesus nears the end, Peter is the one who swears that he will never abandon Jesus and who then flees in fear – that’s something that I might do and maybe that you might do, no matter how much we wanted to stay.
And today, in the middle of the chaos, in the middle of the storm, Peter is the one who sees Jesus walking on the water, dancing on the surging waves. Peter has one of those bracelets on his wrist that says WWJD: What would Jesus do? This is the question of his life. And he sees that the answer to the question What would Jesus do in the storm? is that Jesus would walk on the waves.
And so Peter kicks one leg over the side of the boat and then the other. He puts his weight down on the water. And for a little while, it works. Peter walk for several steps, getting nearer to Jesus, rising and falling with the swells as he does. But then he notices the danger, the impossibility, the absurdity of what he is doing. I don’t know if you have had the experience of learning to ride a bike, the grown up or older child who was helping you letting go and giving you a push, and you are able to ride exactly as long as until you don’t think about how your balance works and how much landing on the asphalt would hurt.
I think that something similar happens here. Peter starts thinking about what he is doing. And instantly, his leg punches through the surface of the lake as though he were breaking through ice. He is in up to his thigh, suddenly soaked. And sinking.
Lord, save me! he says.
And right away – Jesus does not leave Peter in his fear – Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him.
Oh, Peter, Jesus says. And I imagine that there is a big smile on his face. You almost did it. You of little faith.
And then the two of them get back into the boat, Jesus holding the now sopping wet Peter by the arm. Does Peter walk a little bit on the way back? Or does he kind of half swim? Or does Jesus carry him?
When they get back in, the storm stops. There is peace. And the fishers, they fall down on the suddenly still deck of their boat and worship Jesus.
Truly, they say, truly you are the son of God.
What does this end to the story mean? I’m not sure. But I do know that somehow it is right, that it is true. That in this moment when the real and the metaphorical intersect in the storm, Jesus comes to us and there is peace. Peace be still. I think that this moment is what Richard Rohr is talking about what he says that folks who are in deep communion with God find this okayness with life. Not because the storm doesn’t happen, not because they never experience grief, loss, unfairness, or suffering – they totally do. But because they know in their bones that Jesus is there with us as the storm rages, and that Jesus, always, always, brings us safely home.