(Modified 2021-06-20: Added audio recording of sermon)
Third Sunday after Trinity, June 20, 2021. St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Regina. Nathaniel Athian Deng Mayen
Brothers and sisters, I submit to you a brief overview of the interpretation of suffering and loss of different kinds from Apostle Paul’s teaching before we can spend some time with the Gospel of Mark in some kind of Bible Study preaching.
The greatest distortion to the gospel message comes from the ‘prosperity gospel’ preachers who teach a misguided view of Christianity that the individuals who have been blessed by or have faith in Christ do not (should not) suffer. In this context, God’s blessing for and faith of the believers are sold as some kind of commodity whose outcome is individual ‘happiness’, good health, and prosperity.
Consequently, those who experience loss and suffer in our community are boxed in to feel shame and guilt because they perceive their own suffering and loss as a result of their own sin or punishment from God. No time has this misunderstanding of suffering been prevalent than during the pandemic. We hear pop culture talks about the lack of God’s presence and the reign of Satan (evil) all over the world.
Luckily, the readings (Job 38:1-11; 2 Corinthians 6. 1-13; Mark 4:35-41) this Third Sunday of Trinity challenge the heresy of the prosperity gospel. God is always a glimpse of hope in times of suffering and loss. Who has ever walked obediently with God and practised a humanely possible righteous life more than Job? Yet Job’s suffering and loss are unmatched in human history! Who have ever come closer to God’s presence and protection more than the disciples of Jesus? Yet the storm of the sea troubles the disciples in the boat with Jesus Christ.
We should stop traumatizing individuals who experience suffering and loss with the accusation that they have not given their lives to Jesus enough and that is the reason something bad, such as pandemic, poverty, war and displacement, or death, has befallen the beloved brothers and sisters.
For Christians, suffering or subsequent loss is a gateway to the grace of God and culminates in hope for participation in the glory of Jesus Christ, the Suffering Messiah and the Son of the living God. Suffering results in spiritual growth and character formation according to the teaching of Apostle Paul to the Romans (5:1-5): “…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Our response to suffering transforms not only our character, but also our understanding of the mission of God for the world. God can use our particular situations for his glory. Reconciliation with God is a complex process of character transformation and spiritual formation with some bumps on the road. This complicated journey explains the purpose of suffering—to travel with just about the right speed, on the look for God’s grace, and in the company of Jesus…
“Let us go across to the other side,” Jesus advises the disciples (Mk.4:35). This instruction signalizes a drastic change of mindset from ‘normal’ preoccupations of worldly life with its entitlement to things of another world where Christ reigns.
The ‘other side’ should be understood to mean a different sense of place, where only Christ is the master and controller of the events in our lives. The ‘otherness’ of the place symbolizes the wilderness for the Israel. It is where the people of Israel encounter God in his holiness and divine providence. It also symbolizes preparation for the servants of God for a kind of ‘burning bush’ experience similar to that of Moses, whose task becomes deliverance of God’s people from slavery.
Then comes the windstorm: “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped” (Mark 4:37). This windstorm is a test for the faith of the disciples who have just been chosen for this task. The storm is also a divine communication from God for his special manifestation. Compare the windstorm rocking the disciples’ boat with the whirlwind out of which the Lord answered Job (Job 38:1).
We can interpret the windstorm metaphorically because Mark reminds us that Jesus speaks to the crowd in parables, as much as they are able to hear him, but Jesus explains everything in private to the disciples (Mark 4:34). It makes sense the storm comes when we are in the boat with Jesus Christ. It would have been worse if the windstorm strikes the boat when Jesus is not with us. We should have Christ, and him alone, as the answer to our problems, sufferings, and needs.
Now that Jesus and the disciples are in the boat and the windstorm has hit them. What do the disciples do? They woke Jesus up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38).
Give the men some credit. They are aware of the powers of the Son of Man among them. They consult Jesus to bring solution to the problem. The only problem is that their reasoning is limited. This is their main failure to realize their test is higher than the average listener to Jesus’ parables. Privilege comes with responsibility.
As we realized above, ‘this other side’ is a place for refining, to train the disciples about the next step: the identity of the suffering Lord is to be revealed. Jesus acts immediately by waking up and rebuking the wind, “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39). Jesus, the master and the teacher, proves to the disciples that he surely can not only solve their problems, but also command respect from the universe, the created world. This is the mystery that the disciples are yet to figure out.
Then comes a reminder about validation of faith as the solution to problems. Jesus said, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). The last part of this question, “have you still no faith”, is a reminder to the disciples of what Jesus has just done to the disciples and they still have fear and no trust in his presence.
The reaction of the disciples is our final section for this reading: “And they were filled with great awe (fear) and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41).
This question is the climax of the Gospel story. Mark’s central theme has to do with the identity of Jesus, the suffering Messiah and Son of God, and our participation in such suffering through witnessing his suffering.
As you might have realized, only in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus Christ bursts onto the stage without his identity being announced through background narrative of virginal birth or incarnation (Word becoming flesh and living among us) to orient readers to the identity of Jesus and provide outline of the narratives that follow. Mark’s Jesus is a mysterious personage whose revelation creates excitement and stirs up controversy as his suffering becomes explicit.
Given this great interest in Jesus’ suffering identity and its implications for the readers, it is not surprising that most characters in the Gospel of Mark begin to ask about Jesus’ identity. The question “Who is he?” or its equivalent is voiced out and guides our understanding of who Jesus is on three specific occasions:
- By the crowds: “What is this? A new teaching-with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27).
- By the scribes: “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7).
- By the disciples: “Who then is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41).
Exorcism of the unclean spirits, forgiveness of sins, and calming of the windstorm at sea are various answers suggested for this question of identity. These examples involve some kind of suffering and the solution comes from God in each case. The disciples are the target to ‘see’ and learn about the identity of Jesus, whose suffering is the central theme of the entire Gospel. God chooses a particular place or individuals or group of people for the purpose of the universal blessing. This is the privileged position that the disciples have found themselves in Mark’s reading.
We can prove that Mark’s narrative reveals different scenes in which the disciples “see” Jesus clearly, that is, the disciples experience Jesus’ glory clearly, especially as Jesus nears death and draws the disciples closer to the grace of God.
The first scene is the transfiguration (Mark 9:1-9), in which Jesus is revealed in glory and identified by the heavenly voice as “my Son.” The event puts emphasis on seeing: “Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus” (9:8). And again, “he (Jesus) ordered them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (9:9).
The second place where the disciples ‘see’ Jesus clearly is in Galilee, after the resurrection. When the women arrive at the tomb and find it empty, the young man who meets the women at the tomb instructs them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee; “there you will see him, just as he told you” (16:7).
The example of the windstorm troubling the boat in which Jesus boards with the disciples is a special instance where ‘seeing’ Jesus requires the disciples to ask him for help. In their suffering, the disciples have come to see Jesus’ glory and God’s grace at work. Suffering opens up an opportunity to understand vulnerability. In vulnerability, we experience and understand God because we no longer depend on our money and intellect for blessing and protection.
Suffering brings the best out of our human frailty and enables us ‘see’ Christ in our midst. The boat is the church, and the water surrounding the boat is the world to which we will return and with which we will interact after worship today. Without Jesus in the church with us, our faith is futile and we are at risk of perishing. With Jesus with and among us in the church, our faith flourishes. We have come today to encounter the Lord at the altar, where we bring all our hurt and suffering in a joint declaration of vulnerability and humility: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, Trusting in our own righteousness, But in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy So much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table” (BCP 83). May God give us strengthen to dwell in his presence. Amen.