He intended to pass them by. In the Gospel of Mark, this is the second time that the disciples have been in trouble in a boat. And quite frankly, that’s somewhat ironic. The disciples are fishermen by trade; they are experts in boatsmanship. They’ve got skills and experience that should keep them focused on the task of bringing their boat under control. In all of their years of fishing, they had to have encountered some rough seas and lived to tell about it. And yet, twice in Mark’s Gospel, rough seas have thrown them into a disorganized panic where they find themselves seriously fearing for their lives.
The first time it happened, Jesus was with them; sort of with them, anyway. He was in the boat with them, but he was sound asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat, completely oblivious to the storm that was raging around them. In that story the disciples wake Jesus up, and they pretty much tell him, “Look, if we’re all gonna die, then you’re not gonna have the luxury of dying peacefully in your sleep. You’re gonna die wide awake, and totally terrified just like the rest of us.”
This time, the disciples are all alone. Jesus is not with them. We are still dancing around the story of the Great Picnic, or the Feeding of the Five Thousand as it is more commonly known. This time, the disciples get in trouble right after that. When everyone has been fed, and all are fully satisfied, Jesus puts the disciples into their boat and he sends them across the lake. When Jesus has dismissed the crowd, he goes up to the top of a mountain to pray. While he is up there praying, he looks down on the lake, and he sees that the disciples are in deep trouble. Mark tells us that the disciples are struggling against an adverse wind; that the sea has become their enemy, that they are struggling against an adversary and that they are making no progress or headway. And for now, we’ll just leave it at that. They’re working hard, but they’re getting nowhere. And we’ll leave it there for now, because things are going to get worse, much worse.
There’s a ghost making its way across the water towards them. And if the enemy wind wasn’t enough to terrify them, the ghost is certainly going to push them over the edge. The disciples lived in a world riddled with superstition. In the disciples’ world ghosts were real. And there was no such thing as a friendly ghost. Caspar did not exist in the first century. Ghosts were denizens from the depths of hell, and their only purpose was to terrify and to do harm. Once again, the disciples are going to die, and once again they are going to die terrified and all alone, because Jesus is nowhere to be seen. He’s not around to help them.
And so now, they’re in a hopeless situation, battling an enemy wind, powerless to help themselves, and they’ve got an enemy visitor on its way to do them in. I can’t imagine a more frightening situation. The disciples are totally lost. There is no rescue for them. They’re done for. Where is Jesus when you need him? Why isn’t he coming to bail them out?
Now because we know the story, we also know who the ghost is. And we know that the ghost is not an enemy. But just the same, we ought to know that there is small comfort in that. In fact, there is no comfort at all: not for the disciples and maybe not for us either. And there is no comfort, because Jesus isn’t planning a rescue. He’s not planning on stopping to help out. Mark tells us very clearly that Jesus intended to pass them by.
Now what in the world was Jesus thinking? The disciples are clearly in trouble. They’re deep in enemy territory, they’re losing the battle, they’re accomplishing nothing, they’re beset at every side, nothing good is happening and they’re about to be visited by an evil presence. And Jesus is just gonna keep walking on by oblivious to their need? That’s exactly what he intends to do.
But why? Well, let’s think about the disciples for a minute. What’s their life been like up until this particular frightening moment? What have they witnessed? What have they seen? Well, they’ve heard Jesus preach about the power and the presence of the Kingdom of God. And they’ve seen that power and presence at work in Jesus. They’ve seen him heal the sick, they’ve watched him cast out demons and they’ve seen him raise the dead. They know that there is an amazing and glorious power at work in the world, such that has never been seen in all of human history.
And lo and behold, one day Jesus gave them that same power and authority, and he commissioned them to go out in pairs, and when they went out, they proclaimed the power and presence of the Kingdom of God, and they healed the sick and they cast out demons, all by themselves without the physical presence of Jesus to help them. And they were amazed and filled with joy by what they were able to accomplish, because they had the power to do the work of the Kingdom of God and the work of Jesus. And by now they ought to be realizing that the power and presence of the Kingdom of God and Jesus and his power are one and the same; that they cannot be divorced from one another. Jesus was with them in spirit.
And so after that glorious missionary out reach, Jesus called his disciples away to a quiet place for rest and renewal, but a huge crowd beat them to the punch, and the huge crowd became hungry and what did Jesus say to his disciples? He said “You give them something to eat.” But what did they do? They balked. With all of the power and authority of the Kingdom of God at their finger tips, power that they had used to proclaim the good news and heal the sick and cast out demons, they said that it couldn’t be done. They said that it was impossible. They lacked faith and imagination, and vision. That’s really what imagination is. It’s vision. And so Jesus worked with them. He created and they distributed, and the hungry were fed.
And so in the darkest hour of the night, in a moment of deepest terror, and with an evil spirit coming to visit them, Jesus intends to pass by the disciples. He’s not stopping to help. Why? Because they could have rebuked the angry wind and waves. They could have stilled the sea with the power and authority of the Kingdom of God that Jesus had given them. They could have silenced the enemy. But they did not. Mark tells us that they did not, because they did not understand about the loaves.
There are two reasons that they did not understand about the loaves. The first is that it still hasn’t dawned on them that they could have fed all 5,000 of those hungry people, even though Jesus clearly told them that they could, and had given them the power to do so. And the second is that they haven’t fully realized that they have the authority to do the work of Jesus, even though Jesus is not physically with them. They’ve already done that, of course, but sometimes the lessons of the Kingdom are slow in coming. And maybe those lessons are especially slow in coming in times of deep terror and distress, when faith and imagination and vision are flagging.
And so when Jesus realized that the disciples weren’t going to be behaving in kingdom fashion, he changed his plans. He stopped by. And he spoke to them, and he said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased, and they were utterly astounded. They shouldn’t have been utterly astounded, but they were, because they still didn’t get it.
Our English translations don’t really do justice to what Jesus said to his disciples that night, because it would sound awkward. What Jesus really said was “I Am.” “I Am” is the most sacred name of God. It is the all encompassing, all inclusive, all powerful name of God. In Hebrew it is “Yahweh,” in Greek it is “eigo eimi.” And Jesus knew it was time for his disciples to truly grasp and understand just who he was, and who he had empowered them to be. They needed to realize that he was always powerfully present with them, even though he was physically absent. The first readers of Mark’s Gospel also needed to know this, for none of them had ever seen Jesus, and they were deep in enemy territory, trying to live out the demands of the Gospel in an alien environment. And today, we Christians need to learn this important lesson, for we too, are deep in enemy territory.
And then Jesus said, “Do not be afraid.” I am convinced that “Do not be afraid” is the third greatest commandment. The greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is like it: love your neighbors as yourself. If there is a third greatest commandment, it is do not be afraid. One cannot read very many pages of Scripture without encountering it.
It was fear that kept the disciples from calling down manna from heaven, and it was fear that kept them from rebuking the wind and the waves, even though they had the power and the authority to do both.
I am also convinced that we have that same power and authority. It has been given to us by the great “I Am,” just as he gave it to his first disciples. Jesus never said that the Kingdom of God would lose power and authority over the ages. What he did say was that from humble beginnings that it would continue to grow and grow. He also said, “Lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the age.” Do we believe that? If we do, then nothing is impossible, for Jesus, and his power and authority are right here with us at this very moment.