Tag Archives: Mark

Mark chapter 6 verses 45 – 52. Walking on water.

The relationship between Jesus and his closest followers was forged around the large lake called the Sea of Galilee. Several of his disciples were fishermen who knew the lake well. Jesus taught on its shores and travelled on its waters with his fishermen friends. Their experience of Jesus led to the outburst of spiritual energy called the Resurrection. The magnetism of that energy, pulsating through the men and women who had known Jesus, and especially through Paul of Tarsus who had not known him, created the communities which became the Christian church. The gospel writers were each part of one of these communities. What they wrote emerged out of memories of what Jesus had said and done and reflection on all that had happened since his death.

Why do I mention all this? Because I am fascinated by two stories which appear in all four gospels – a rare occurrence in itself. In both stories the disciples are caught in a storm on the lake. In one Jesus is in the boat with his disciples. In the other (here in chapter 6) he comes to them walking on the water through the storm.

I have already posted a blog on September 30th about Mark’s stilling the storm story. (Matthew’s version is in chapter 8 verses 23-27 and Luke’s in chapter 8 verses 22-25). Now we come to Mark’s walking on the water story (paralleled in Matthew 14: 22-23 and John 6: 16-21. Luke doesn’t relate the story). We might ask, are these stories an accurate memory of something that actually happened or are they part memory, part reflection in the light of those vibrant new Christian communities within which the gospel writers lived and worked? Readers of this blog will know what my answer is!

Two things puzzle me about the walking on the water story. In Mark, Matthew and John (Luke doesn’t have the story, remember) the disciples think the figure approaching through the storm is a ghost. Secondly, only Mark ends his story with these words:

And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

What on earth have loaves got to do with it?! Matthew and John don’t mention them, but all three gospels place this story after the feeding of a large crowd with loaves and fish, so there’s a connection somewhere.

For clues to these puzzles let’s look first at some passages from the Psalms:

Some went down to the sea in ships,
 doing business on the mighty waters; 
they saw the deeds of the Lord,
his wondrous works in the deep. 
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
 which lifted up the waves of the sea. 
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards,
 and were at their wits’ end. 
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out from their distress; 
he made the storm be still,
 and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven. Psalm 107: 23-30

18:16  he drew me out of the mighty waters

69:1 Save me O God for the waters have come up to my neck

77:16 When the waters saw you O God they were afraid…. (and verse 19): your way was through the sea.

89:9 You rule the raging of the sea.

Clearly the gospel writers had these passages in mind as they wrote their stories.

My next clue lies in chapter 21 of John’s gospel. In this post-Resurrection story Peter and some other disciples have been fishing unsuccessfully all night. Jesus is waiting on the shore but they do not recognise him. (As if he was a ghost?) He tells them to try once more for some fish and – bingo! – a huge haul. John says, “It is the Lord!”. They come ashore with their catch and there is Jesus, waiting for them with an invitation to breakfast. “Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it too them and did the same with the fish.” Remember the feeding of the feeding with loaves and fishes?

Surely here in all these stories we have recollections of the remarkable presence of Jesus, his utter stillness in the midst of a storm on the lake, his complete trust in the God he called ‘Abba’, his enjoyment of meals as profoundly social occasions from which no one was excluded. Whatever else the Resurrection may have been it was surely a process of reflecting on this real Presence of Jesus. So still, today, when things go wrong, when negotiating a large crowd in a busy city street, at meal times and ultimately facing mortality and death, a Presence arises within us if we are attentive and let it be so.

Mark’s gospel chapter 5 verses 21 – end

I am an old man now so it’s important that I do not try to cross the road while talking on my mobile phone. Multi-tasking is no longer a safe option for me as my senses become duller with age. In any case, doing one thing at a time is, according to Zen Buddhism, the way to enlightenment. For older people it’s also a good way to avoid accidents.

 Verses 22-35. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw [Jesus] fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live. So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who….. had heard about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well .…..Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’…….He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease’.

In this section of Mark’s gospel Jesus is responding to an urgent plea for help from a father whose daughter is seriously ill. He’s on his way to their house, surrounded by a pressing crowd. Among them is a chronically ill woman who reaches out to touch him. In spite of the commotion around him, Jesus notices and feels her touch. I think he’s doing one thing at a time, don’t you? He is not feeling rushed by Jairus’s urgent concern for his daughter. He is on his way to help but he is still aware of the present moment. As the saying goes, ‘wherever you go, there you are’.

Here in central London they have recently started broadcasting a safety notice on the Underground, (the ‘Tube’) reminding travellers that trains run every few minutes so there’s no need to risk an accident by hurrying on the escalators or the platforms. Just the other day a young woman slipped and fell on the platform in front of me as she rushed to beat the closing doors of the train about to leave. Especially in a busy city the sense of not wanting to be ‘here’ because I am desperate to get ‘there’ becomes an ingrained habit.

“It’s all right for him,” do I hear you say? “He’s retired. He’s got plenty of time. He’s got nothing to worry about.” True (apart, perhaps, from the last of those statements) but just consider the widespread popularity of techniques to help people relax, to learn ‘mindfulness’, meditation, yoga and so on. Younger people are clearly not happy with rushing everywhere. They are willing to pay good money to learn techniques that ought to be freely available in any Christian community (though sadly they often are not). Doing one thing at a time requires a basic sense of trust; hard to cultivate if your job is threatened, or you are late to collect the children from school, or money is so short that you have to use a Food Bank.

Right at the beginning of this gospel, Mark summarises the message of Jesus like this:

The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news’. (See the first post of this blog).

It is good that human beings can multi-task with such skill, but when this skill blinds us to the fact that the time (that is each present moment) is fulfilled – filled full of promise – then we are losing sight of what it means to be truly human. There’s a nice touch in a 1960s science fiction novel (Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein) about a human being who has been raised by Martians. Apparently Martians, who live for centuries, know how to wait. When Valentine Michael Smith arrives back on earth he discovers that his fellow humans lack this skill of waiting. To cover up any embarrassment for them he learns to wait faster. He does this so well that there are times when he appears to be waiting at breakneck speed. There’s a difference between hurrying and waiting at speed!

Mark’s Gospel chapter 4 – Storm on the Lake

A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the  boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion (verses 37/8)

Google ‘storm on the lake’ and you find at least a dozen famous artists whose imagination has been caught by this story. (I wish I could reproduce one here but I haven’t worked out how to do that yet!)

Everyone in the boat is terrified but there is Jesus – asleep amid all the chaos. How could experienced fishermen get themselves into such a state? They must have been used to the turbulent winds which suddenly spring up on that lake. So what is going on here? Well, take a look at Psalm 107: 23 – 30 (and Psalms 18:16; 69:1-3;  77: 16 & 19;  89:9;  93:4). There you have it! This is a story about the Presence of God; a Presence deep within every one of us even when things are going seriously wrong. It must have been obvious to those around Jesus: that utter stillness of real, moment by moment Presence which is also dynamic energy.

Notice, I said a Presence deep within every one of us. I know we easily forget it when things go wrong, especially if we haven’t been practicing our gardening. Gardening?!! See my previous blog post on the parable of the sower.

It’s not that there are no storms once we have learned how to rest in that Presence. Martin Laird, in his book ‘Into The Silent Land’, has a moving account of a drug addict who has learnt how to cope with his craving through the practice of the stillness of contemplative prayer. He comments, “Through his own journey of prayer, struggle, vulnerability, and community, he has glimpsed, however briefly, that precious gateway into the silent land. His struggles have not gone away, but he struggles less with his struggle.”

Charles Wesley must have had this storm on the lake story in mind when he wrote his famous hymn,

Jesu lover of my soul
Let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high;

Several years before Mark wrote his Gospel, Paul of Tarsus had written his letter to Christians in Rome. In chapter 8 he wrote:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God….

If you are not convinced try reading Martin Laird’s ‘Into The Silent Land’ or ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle.

Mark’s Gospel chapter 4. Let’s do a bit of gardening.

He began to teach them many things in parables

Jesus taught in parables; no serious scholar doubts that. When we read a parable in the Gospels we are close to the authentic voice of Jesus of Nazareth. As Mark says later in this chapter (verse 34):

He did not speak to them except in parables

 But parables caused problems for his audience. Perhaps he deliberately chose to confuse people. Perhaps they are a bit like Zen Buddhist koans – ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’.  Perhaps both parables and koans are designed to stop people in their tracks and say, ‘Hang on! Wait a minute! I don’t get that!’ That must be what the early Jesus movement churches thought because next in this chapter we have the first of several ‘explanations’ of a parable:

10When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God; but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”

Oh dear! Like I said in my previous blog post, the history of the church (and therefore of the New Testament writings) is the history of ‘broken people’. Here is a writer who, with the community of which he is part, is wrestling with the puzzle, ‘why don’t people get it?’ and ‘why do they persecute us Christians?’ He finds his answer in the words from Isaiah that he quotes in verse 12. It’s a tempting explanation, especially if one has stumbled on the truth that, there is a beautiful, vibrant, joyful reality underlying my brokenness that Jesus called ‘the kingdom of God’ and yet lots of people just don’t get it.

With the greatest of respect to Mark, I want to insist that there is a further lesson to be learned about what Jesus called the kingdom of God. The reality to which Jesus points in other parables is that this beautiful, vibrant, joyfulness is present in every human being, no matter how blind to it they are; no matter how much their blindness leads them into shocking behaviour.

Some of the reasons for our blindness appear in the explanation of the parable, verses 13 – 20:

  • Satan. ‘Satan’ was a neat way of explaining the inhuman depths to which we can sink. Most of us today cannot go along with the idea of an independent being out there somewhere of utterly evil intent. The Jewish philosopher/poet Martin Buber, reflecting on the Nazi holocaust, suggested there are two stages of evil. The first he called decisionlessness; what you might call the, I’ll-get-around-to-it-later syndrome. This attitude can leave us vulnerable to his second stage. Here it is possible for otherwise ‘nice’ people to take positive decisions to engage in destructive activity especially if lots of those around us are helping to make it attractive or even respectable. We are queamish about calling something or someone ‘evil’. Maybe it’s because we don’t like to think that anyone is beyond reform and redemption. Eckhart Tolle writes in his bestselling The Power of Now, “Humans are a dangerously insane and very sick species. That’s not a judgement. It’s a fact. It is also a fact that the sanity is there underneath the madness. Healing and redemption are available right now.”
  • Staying power (verses 16 & 17): people who ‘have no roots’ as the parable puts it. Mark probably had in mind the persecution that Christians were suffering for their faith when he was writing his gospel. But trouble of any kind can knock us off course – for example, illness, other peoples’ cruelty. Or we can behave like children in a supermarket of toys. We get excited about a new technique for meditating but as soon as it proves a bit difficult to keep it up we rush off down the aisles looking for a new toy.
  • Worldly blandishments. They hadn’t heard of capitalism in Mark’s day – consumer, global or otherwise. They weren’t exposed to our daily deluge of television advertising, and celebrity culture. Still the nail is accurately hit on its head here with ‘the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth; and the desire for other things’ (verse 19)
  • Finally the good soil (verse 20). It can take some of us (me for example!) almost a lifetime to realise that there’s ‘good soil’ somewhere deep inside us. The seed has been lying there just waiting for me to do some gardening. The good news is that there are now many people on the planet who realise this and are able to offer help. Eckhart Tolle is one of them. There is an exciting rediscovery of the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer. Here are just a few web sites to visit
  •  http://ecocontemplative.com/index.html
  • http://www.biospiritual.org
  • http://contemplativefire.org
  • http://www.contemplative.org/cynthia.html
  • http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org
  • http://centeringprayer.org.uk
  • There’s a good summary of what is known as ’emergent Christianity’ in the final chapter of Don MacGregor’s book ‘Blue Sky God’.

Mark’s Gospel – interlude

I am a broken man who happens to be a bishop.

One of those present at a gathering I attended last weekend uttered those startling words. Somehow I knew that the speaker knew this was not the ultimate truth about himself. I was reminded of the  story of the Pharisee and the tax gatherer who went to the Temple to pray (Luke 18:10). One boasts of his spiritual and moral practices. The other sees himself as a sinner in need of forgiveness. Jesus reminds his hearers that it’s the second person who is closer to  God.

Christianity and especially the institutional expression of it we call the church frequently gets a bad press. I suspect this is usually because too many of us too often forget what the bishop remembered last weekend. We are all broken people, just like the rest of humanity. And yet – and yet – as I hinted, the bishop spoke his words with an authenticity that suggested he understood an even deeper truth about himself. The church can also get a bad press when its members never get beyond the knowledge that they need forgiveness. Wallowing in the ‘miserable sinner’ syndrome is missing or misunderstanding the good news that Jesus proclaimed, almost as much as boasting about our spiritual prowess.

Now here’s the thing: there never was a golden past in the history of Christianity, apart, that is, from the life, teaching and death of Jesus of Nazareth himself. It was always, from the beginning a history of broken people. I am not one of those who believes that the Bible is the inspired ‘Word of God’ – in the sense that inspiration somehow overrode the ‘brokenness’ of its authors.

Jesus never wrote anything down – so far as we know. If he did, it didn’t survive. What happened around him was an outburst of spiritual energy that has transformed world history, in ways both good, not so good, and just plain bad. From his life, teaching and death has flowed a river that millions of people are part of now.

Things happened because of the energy of this river of life.  Some of them altered the course of the river’s flow – Paul’s letters, the Gospels and other bits of the New Testament (all written by broken people); the emergence of an ordained ministry, priests, bishops, Popes (more broken people, as the current Pope would, I am sure, acknowledge). Every now and then there’s a major upheaval as the river gets forced into a canyon, becomes turbulent, even falls over a cliff; the split between eastern and western forms of the church, for example and the Reformation. Most of these crises happened because broken people either forgot their brokenness or forgot the deeper truth about themselves.

The waters have been getting pretty choppy again over the last 150 years or so as the Bible is subjected to scholarly criticism and scientists begin to describe a universe that profoundly challenges the way we think about God, the world we inhabit and the people we share it with. Think of gay people, the ordination of women, abortion, contraception, the misuse of our home planet, poverty and plenty.

So when, in my next blog post, I return to Mark’s Gospel, please remember that I start from the assumption that I’m reading something written by a ‘broken’ human being who nevertheless was profoundly inspired by all that Jesus of Nazareth had said and done, especially his message of forgiveness and love. Like the bishop, Mark and his fellow New Testament authors could write with an authenticity springing from a deeper place within them

Mark’s Gospel chapter 2 verses 1 -12. Forgiveness

The colours of the rainbow are beautiful but without sunlight they would not exist. The teaching of Jesus is pure, undivided sunlight but it helps if we pass it through a prism so we can see all its rainbow colours. This is what Gospel writers do. In my first blog post I looked at Mark chapter 1 verse 15 which gives us the themes of time, kingdom and repentance. Now, in this story at the beginning of chapter 2 we get a fourth vibrant colour of Jesus’ teaching – forgiveness. The story appears in all four gospels which is unusual. In John’s version the Scribes object to the healed paralytic carrying his mat on the Sabbath. For the three synoptic Gospel writers it’s Jesus’ claim to forgive sins which upsets the Scribes. Here is Mark’s version (which Matthew and Luke have borrowed) but I’ve shortened it for the sake of brevity in this post.

3. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. 4. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and …they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’  …. 10. ‘But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority of earth to forgive sins’ – he said to the paralytic – 11. ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’

Several of Jesus’ parables shed light on the power and primacy of forgiveness. He had infinite compassion for those who felt they were no good at following in his way. Paul of Tarsus understood the power and necessity of forgiveness. “Wretched man that I am”, he writes in his letter to the Romans, “who will deliver me from this body of death?” His answer follows immediately: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

What inhibits my ability to follow the way of Jesus is the power of my mind to drag me away from the present moment in which the kingdom lies hidden. I am booby trapped with land mines of the past and sometimes consumed with fear about the future. I have experienced the trauma of being a vulnerable infant in a world which is blind to the kingdom. Then there is that primitive, animal part of my brain which still, after millennia of evolution, tries to ask of any unknown situation, ‘Do I fight it? Run away from it? Eat it? Mate with it?’

Beset by all that paralyses me, forgiveness is the dynamic key that sets me free to pick up my mat and follow the path that Jesus has mapped out for humanity. Forgiveness has very little to do with the past, except when guilt, resentment, and pain cripple me now in the present and so blind me to the power and Presence of the kingdom. Most writers on the practice of contemplative prayer urge gentleness as we deal with all that distracts us from the reality of the Presence. To observe without judgement but with gentle awareness all the antics of our minds is to practice forgiveness.

Some people, of course, have been so deeply hurt by the brutality of others that forgiveness does not come easily to them even though lack of it prevents them from moving on. The press often suggests that a public enquiry will bring closure for child abuse victims, for example. Of course public enquires into child abuse are an essential tool but they do not enable the victims to move on into abundant life. Only the practice of forgiveness can do that.

And here’s a startling truth. Forgiveness cannot be practiced without confession. What?! A child abuse victim should ‘confess’?!! Yes, if by ‘confession’ we mean a total, unconditional, non-judgemental acceptance of myself just as I am now in this present moment, with all my pain about the past; all my hope for the outcome of an enquiry into the abuse or the trial and conviction of my abuser. When I adopt this attitude of total acceptance of the way things are for me at this moment, suddenly forgiveness is at work. For deeply hurt people the process will take time and outside help may well be needed but sooner or later the truth will dawn that the dynamic of forgiveness is always, unconditionally available. Then the outcome of any enquiry becomes irrelevant at least for the victim’s spiritual and psychological health and wholeness. They are able to ‘take up their mat and walk in the pure sunlight of the Presence which Jesus called ‘Abba, Father’.

Forgiveness is not a mental activity that I can exercise at will, just by thinking about it. I enter into it when I ‘repent’ and discover that it is part of that total, ongoing experience which Christians have called the Resurrection, the ever present, pure sunlight of the Presence.