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Don’t Be Afraid: A Reflection Offered on a Healing Sunday

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Mar 15

Text:  Mark 6: 45-50

 45-50 Directly after this, Jesus made his disciples get aboard the boat and go on ahead to Bethsaida on the other side of the lake, while he himself sent the crowds home. And when he had sent them all on their way, he went off to the hill-side to pray. When it grew late, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was by himself on land. He saw them straining at the oars, for the wind was dead against them. And in the small hours he went towards them, walking on the waters of the lake, intending to come alongside them. But when they saw him walking on the water, they thought he was a ghost, and screamed out. For they all saw him and they were absolutely terrified. But Jesus at once spoke quietly to them, “It’s all right, it is I myself; don’t be afraid!” J.B. Phillips New Testament in Modern English


Fun text, right?  Jesus walking on water?  That's where everyone’s attention goes, of course.  Or maybe it’s to the line about the disciples thinking that Jesus was ghost.  Is it a miracle?  Maybe!  Is it a device to catch our attention?  Probably!  Is this story supposed to change the way we look at Jesus?  Perhaps.  Seen from Jesus perspective though, at least as this story goes, the walking on water part was no big deal.  After all, in our J.B. Phillips’ translation I just read, he says, “It’s all right. It’s just me! Don’t be afraid!”  Its almost as if he’s apologizing for having to take some extra measures to get to them when we he sees that they are struggling.  A few minutes ago, they were straining at their oars.  The wind was dead against them.  When he climbs aboard, the wind drops.  If we could set aside the walking on water bit, this passage almost perfectly echoes what happens just two chapters earlier in Chapter 4.  The disciples are there again in the boat, this time with Jesus asleep in the stern.  The winds are pounding.  Mark writes, and I quote:  “They awoke him with the words, ‘Master, don’t you care that we’re drowning?’ 39 And he woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the waves, ‘Hush now! Be still!’ The wind dropped and everything was very still. 40 ‘Why are you so frightened?’ … he asked them. 41 But sheer awe swept over them and they kept saying to each other, ‘Who ever can he be?’”

Who can he be?  That’s been our question this Lent.  I’m guessing a story like our scripture for today makes that a harder question for us.  It may make us want to put some distance between us and the hard-to-believe-in, water-walking Jesus.  Just when we were starting to feel more comfortable with the question “Who do you say that I am?” 

I sometimes wonder if the reason why many of us so resist the idea of Jesus performing miracles is because it’s easier for us to do that than to admit that we sometimes have need for them.  If I’m being honest with myself, and as Jerry Garcia used to sing it, “I need a miracle everyday.”  I need a miracle everyday just to survive parenting two fabulous yet willful teenagers. I’ve also wondered if the reason why some of us feel more comfortable professing Jesus as the ‘center of our faith’ (as we do here on joining Sundays) instead of Jesus as our Lord and Savior is because we are reluctant to admit that we sometimes could use a personal Lord and Savior. 

Throughout the stories of Jesus so-called miracles including the greatest one of all that we will remember in a few weeks at Easter, the response of the disciples is always the same – a mix of terror and amazement and a refrain of ‘Who is this guy? Who ever can he be?’  All the while, his reactions to their responses are remarkably consistent.   “Why are you afraid?  Do not fear.  Peace.  Peace be with you.”  What's more he says this consistently to the at once most fearful and most well known disciple of all, Peter! 

As James Carroll reminds us in Christ Actually:  “Be not afraid was not a magic refrain, a cheap exhortation akin to whistling past a graveyard.  The precondition for the fearlessness he preached was the terrifying brutal circumstances of Rome’s lethal capriciousness, and [Jesus] knew about fear from his own experience – dating back to the Roman legion’s rampages through the territory in which he was raised, climaxing in the cruel fate of his mentor John the Baptist (who we  just learned, by the way, in this very chapter 6 was beheaded!). …if  Jesus found it necessary to say “Be Not Afraid” again and again, it was because there was much to fear in the he and his friends were living in.”

I wonder if part of the function of these miracle stories is to open us to being vulnerable to our own fears, to recognize our need for something larger than ourselves, to help us when we are straining at our own daily oars, when the wind is dead against us, to wake us up from the denial that tells us that we can go it alone, no matter how rough the seas! Are we being invited to fear and stand in awe at the power of God’s love for us and of God in Christ’s presence with us, to stand outside the comfort of our “that’s impossible” declarations and to stand in the midst of a way of making meaning of our real-life fears and pains that are sometimes impossibly difficult.  It’s when our hearts are most broken, harried and afraid, a precondition of life in our own war-torn times, that the refrains of our peace hymns washes over us with relief and resonates in our souls.  We sang it just a few minutes ago.  Peace, love, light and Christ, before, behind, around and within.

Out of his own seemingly transcendent fearlessness, Jesus asks his disciples and asks us:  ‘Why are you afraid?  It’s ok.  It’s just me. Tell me!  I can take it!  Why are you angry?  Its ok.  I walk on water.  I can handle it.  Why are you so harried, why so heartbroken?  It won’t scare me. I promise!  Are you fearing sickness or death, even any of those little deaths that lead us to next steps and new horizons?  Even death doesn’t scare me, not really!  Fear not, beloved!”  And isn’t that the real miracle in these stories: the radical openness and unending forgiveness and complete acceptance Christ has for anyone, and I mean anyone, who needs a miracle?

As the great Thomas Dorsey spiritual goes: “Like a ship that tossed and driven, battered by an angry sea, When the storms of life are raging, and their fury falls on me, I wonder what I have done that makes this race so hard to run, then I say to my soul, take courage, the Lord will make a way somehow.”

For today, even if we are still wondering who ever can he be, even if we’re still fixated on “Whether or not he did or didn’t walk on water” or “did or did cure people” maybe we can at least let this story invite us all to take some quiet moments to reflect, to ask of ourselves, where are we feeling a little scared and amazed or sick and tired and overwhelmed?  Or where are we simple feeling awestruck by the wonder of it all?

Between chapters 4 and 6, Jesus is said to have calmed the storm, to have healed a demoniac, healed Jairus’ daughter, healed a woman with a hemorrhage, taken in the news of his mentor’s Johns’ beheading and fed five thousand people with 3 loaves and 2 fish.  That’s what comes before our text.  Check out what immediately follows, again in J.B. Phillip’s Translation:

51-52 And he climbed aboard the boat with them, and the wind dropped. But they were scared out of their wits. They had not had the sense to learn the lesson of the loaves. Even that miracle had not opened their eyes to see who he was.

53-56 And when they had crossed over to the other side of the lake, they landed at Gennesaret and tied up there. As soon as they came ashore, the people recognized Jesus and rushed all over the countryside and began to carry the sick around on their beds to wherever they heard that he was. Wherever he went, in villages or towns or farms, they laid down their sick right in the road-way and begged him that they might “just touch the edge of his cloak”.  And all those who touched him were healed. 

Maybe just maybe the miracles start when we start to know and name our needs.  Maybe before we can truly open our eyes to see who he was and is, we must first open our eyes to our own hearts, and then maybe even see if there’s room for him to climb aboard. As the text says, ‘It’s all right. It is I myself. Do not be afraid.’ Amen.


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