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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

Easter 5 B

The Other Side of Life with Jesus


By The Reverend Terry R. Pannell

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church

Monroe, Louisiana

June 25, 2006


There is an African proverb that says smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.  I believe this proverb captures the essence of today’s Gospel reading.  It’s a story about being transported to the other side of life with Jesus. 


After a long day of teaching a crowd of people about the Kingdom of God, Jesus invites his disciples to get into the boat with him.  Soon after leaving the comfort and safety of dry land, the disciples encounter a fierce storm, the boat begins to take on water, and fearing for their lives they look to Jesus to save them.  Jesus responds with the word peace and life forever changes.


Anyone who has survived a storm cannot help but be changed by the experience.  People along the Gulf Coast who survived last year’s devastating hurricanes can attest to this.  Generally speaking, storm survivors are affected in one of two ways.  The first has to do with fear.  Even though the storm may have long passed, the memory of it can have a lasting and sometimes paralyzing effect, preventing one from moving forward in the midst of adversity.   The other way storm survivors are affected is that in the midst of chaos they encounter an unexplainable peace that empowers them to navigate the troubled waters they encounter in life.  


Now it is no coincidence that the story about Jesus calming the sea is found in all four Gospels.  Early Christians took the story to heart in ways that we cannot fathom because we live in different times and different places.  We know from early church history that Christians from time to time were victims of persecution.  Roman officials would sometimes punish Christians to set an example for those who would not tow the party line.  Perhaps more common though, in a time when people equated abundance and fertility with divine favor, Christians were more likely to became scapegoats during times of famine or disease.  Because Christians would not make public sacrifices to pagan deities, their neighbors concluded that Jesus’ followers had angered the gods.  Being blamed for hard times, Christians lived with the prospect of being attacked or killed by fearful and angry neighbors.   


Fear is perhaps the greatest motivator when it comes to making scapegoats of other people. It is all the more palatable when religion can be used to justify it. Whenever fear prevails rational thought and common sense are always the first casualties.  Our shared humanity and respect for others follows closely behind.  Fear in its most insidious form depletes the compassion people once had for others. The fact is that ethnic cleansing cannot take place unless there has first been an ethic cleansing, and that is fear’s greatest accomplishment.    


It is often in the darkest and most chaotic moments of life that one’s faith is tested.  Given this perspective, having Jesus in the boat with you has less to do with being delivered from danger and more to do with finding faith in the midst of it.  When it comes to faith, the Apostle Paul eloquently described how an encounter with God’s grace results in what he called a new creation.  What Paul, like his Hebrew ancestors who wrote the book of Genesis understood, was that out of chaos God brings forth a new creation.  Creation continues.  God continues to speak.  The question is, who hears God?  


On May 10, 1748 a young Englishman who had spent most of his life at sea found himself in the midst of a violent storm.  As the wind and the waves grew fiercer John Newton began to realize how futile his efforts were to steer his ship to safety.  Finally, when all seemed lost, he cried out, Lord have mercy upon us. Long after the storm had subsided Newton began to contemplate what had happened and he realized that what had happened had less to do with the wind and sea and more to do with him.


For the first time John Newton realized that God really did exist and that God cared.  In the midst of chaos and fear, the God of mercy had spoken and Newton had found what Paul referred to as “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.”[1]   This eventually led Newton to abandon his reprehensible occupation of transporting enslaved Africans and in time to support the abolition of slavery.


In crying out to God, John Newton was looking to be saved but he found a different kind of salvation.  He described it in the words we’ve come to know in the beloved hymn Amazing Grace.  It is a peace that speaks of a profound encounter with a merciful and loving God that leads to the other side of life, the side where new life emerges in the midst of death.   


Newton was sailing home to England when the storm struck that fateful day.  Less than 200 years later another young man was traveling by ship, this time in the opposite direction.  He was sailing directly into the storm.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was serving as the pastor of a Lutheran congregation in London in 1935 when he made the faithful decision to return to Nazi Germany, against the advice of family and friends.  He was stunned to find Nazi flags prominently displayed in houses of worship and he coined the term religionless Christianity to decry how the integrity of the German church had been corrupted by the fervor of nationalism.  His public opposition to Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies, his role in helping to fund the smuggling of Jews into Switzerland, and his part in a failed plot to overthrow Hitler brought about the wrath of the Gestapo and he was executed.  


So here you had two people who found the peace of God when they most needed it; one who turned away from a life of transporting Africans into slavery and another who helped in transporting Jews to freedom.  One sought safety from the storm; the other abandoned safety to sail into the storm.   On their respective journeys they each discovered a profound faith that liberated them from fear and empower them for greatness in their service to God.


Now lots of Christians like the idea of being in the same boat with Jesus, as long as he doesn’t venture too far away from the comfort and safety to which we have grown accustomed.   It can be quite lovely cruising along through life with Jesus.  That is until things begin to get dicey.  That is when anxiety takes hold and people begin looking backward and wishing for the safety of dry land instead of looking forward and learning from Jesus how to navigate troubled waters in order to reach the other side.


Sadly far too many times we choose to settle for short lived tranquility over the kind of peace that Jesus offers.  The reason of course is that the kind of peace Jesus offers doesn’t come with the promise of a life free from adversity, controversy, or danger.  What Jesus does promise us is that fear and anxiety will not have the last word.


Living in tempestuous times is like being in the middle of a storm.  There is always a great deal of wind involved.  These days most of that wind is generated by corrupt politicians and mean spirited religious groups who know that fear is the most effective tool in manipulating people.  Taking a page from Pavlov’s experiment, these extremists know that they can trigger knee jerk reactions from people when they scapegoat certain groups.  During the first two or three centuries it was Christians.  Today’s scapegoats include immigrants, poor people, Muslims, uppity women, and people from the gay community.


It is easy to lose faith given what is going on in the world today.  However, while the world may be engulfed by darkness we would all do well to remember these words from the Gospel of John.  “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness (does) not overcome it.” [2]


What the first disciples learned from their experience of sailing with Jesus is what disciples of every generation have had to learn.  To find peace, one must first make a sacred journey.  To do that, you have to get into the boat with Jesus and go where he goes, out among the poor, the persecuted, the despised and the marginalized of society.  And if you are going to do justice and practice mercy like Jesus, you will have to use compassion to keep you on course because ultimately it is the most useful tool for navigating fear and anxiety.


With life on the other side with Jesus as our destination, we need to remember that African proverb I told you earlier.  Smooth sailing does not make skillful sailors.  If the first disciples and the earliest Christians can learn to navigate the kind of turbulence that challenges faith in the midst of persecution, if John Newton and Dietrich Bonhoeffer can find faith that liberates one from fear in the midst of danger and death, then what have we to fear?   Nothing!  Because on this sacred journey with Jesus we can be assured of one thing:  tis grace that brought (us) safe thus far and grace will lead (us) home.







[1] Philippians 4: 7  NRSV

[2] John 1: 5 NRSV

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