In 1986 there was a drought in Israel. As the waters of the Sea of Galilee receded, the remains of a first century fishing boat were discovered. It was 27 feet long and 7.5 feet wide. It had a very shallow draft and a flat bottom, meaning it could get very close to shore. The boat had a mast, so it could be sailed – and spaces for four oars so that it could be rowed. It resembled local mosaics, so archaeologists are confident it was typical of boats of the time.
There’s no suggestion that the boat discovered in 1986 had anything to do with Jesus but it gives some clues to our story today. The boat had a small deck in the stern on which the net would have been placed and prepared. There was a space under this stern deck where sandbags were stored when not being used to trim the boat when under sail. These sandbags would have been the cushions or pillows referred to in our passage today.
Just in front of this deck was a quarter rudder that would have been controlled by the helmsman. So, the helmsman plus 4 rowers meant a crew of 5 were needed to sail such a boat. We know from the historian Josephus that such boats could carry up to 15 people including the crew.
Asleep and curled-up
So, in our story, perhaps Simon Peter is at the helm, with four of the others on the oars. And there was room in the boat for the rest of the disciples.
Jesus was there too. Asleep, curled-up in a tiny, cramped area, on the sandbags under the stern deck. It’s not the normal image of the person who would later command the storm to stop – but there you go. Like us, Jesus needed naps too. Jesus messing with our expectations again.
And he does it throughout Mark. Jesus is continually crossing boundaries or showing up at places of risk or transition. In the next chapter he’s at a graveyard and a deathbed. He stays at socially charged locations like the home of a tax collector. And elsewhere in Mark, he’s on mountaintops and in the wilderness. Or he’s in the cultural melting pots of Tyre and Caesarea Philippi.
Jesus messes with dividing lines. The reign of God extends to places we think are off limits or beyond the limits. No place is too desolate, no one is abandoned. In Mark, Jesus banishes spirits, welcomes outsiders, restores people into community and defeats death. Nothing stops him from doing ministry on the other side. With the recent tension in Israel in mind, we need to pray for all those courageous people today who still cross lines in the sand that divide Israelis and Palestinians. Indeed, we should pray for anyone seeking reconciliation in areas of conflict.
In our Gospel, Jesus is crossing a boundary from the Jewish side of the lake to the Gentile side. He’d spent the day telling parables to the people. The crowd was so large that he went and preached from a boat whilst the crowd were on the shoreline. We’re told that they started to cross the lake and Jesus was ‘just as he was’. Just as he was. I wonder what that means? Was he just tired and hungry from the preaching? Or was he just not dressed appropriately for a night of sailing?
We just don’t know. And we don’t know much about the disciples at this point either. Apart from their calling, Mark has told us very little about them so far in the Gospel. But we’re about to find out a lot more. We’re about to find another boundary – that thin line between faith and fear.
A storm arises
We’re in a boat, the natural home for at least some of the disciples. And we know how the story goes – a storm arises. It’s that bad that even the weathered fishermen amongst them are afraid that the boat with the shallow draft will be swamped and will go down. I’m not great in boats. I get sea-sick even on a ferry. I must be a big embarrassment to the generations of North Sea fishermen in my family tree and I’ve every sympathy with the disciples on this one.
Like Jonah, Jesus is asleep. He’s curled up in the stern. They wake him and unlike Jonah, he’s not thrown overboard but instead he calms the storm. Our Gospel mirrors our Psalm: ‘They cried to the Lord in their trouble and he brought them out of their distress. He made the storm be still and the waves of the sea were calmed.’
Jesus rebukes, he tells-off, the wind. Then he tells-off the disciples: ‘Have you still no faith?’
Mark uses the Greek word ‘megas’, meaning great, 3 times in this story. A great storm, a great calm and then, after the calm, a great fear. The NRSV translates it as a dead calm and a great awe. The disciples were afraid of the storm – but it seems that they were more afraid of Jesus after he calmed it.
Get back into the boat
Mark doesn’t paint the disciples in a great light. Indeed, in the healing stories which come next, the characters involved, that we never meet again, seem to show more faith. If his closest companions can’t put 2 and 2 together, then what chance do we have? Perhaps the lesson is that none of us should be too complacent that we have the inside track on understanding what God is up to, no matter how familiar we think we are.
But despite their apparent lack of faith, those same disciples got back in the boat the next day to do the return journey. They might get told off every now and then, but they kept on getting back in the boat. Do we? Do we keep on getting back in the boat?
It’s often thought that Mark wrote his Gospel around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. The religious and cultural centre was gone. Jews and Christians alike were scattered. Old certainties had evaporated. So, the metaphor of a small group of believers being battered and thrown around in an open boat would have had resonance to Mark’s immediate audience. And the deliverance provided by Jesus would have been a reassurance.
And the parallels to what we have been through in the last 18 months shouldn’t be lost on us. Following Jesus doesn’t mean we’ll be storm-free either.
And, of course, our churches have ‘naves’ – which comes from the latin word ‘navis’ meaning ship. And the ceilings of many of our church buildings are vaulted and resemble an upturned keel. Every Sunday, if you look up or look down you should be reminded of boats and this story.
Other boats were with him
But I keep getting drawn back to the small detail added by Mark: ‘And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.’ Other boats were with him. We’re told nothing more. No word on how many boats there were and who was in them. Did those other boats have other close followers of Jesus? Or maybe it was some of the crowd anxious to hear more.
We simply don’t know. But all those other boats were in exactly the same great storm. Who would they have cried out to in their desperation? Jesus wasn’t in any of those other boats and they wouldn’t know that it was Jesus who stilled the storm. Only that before it was a great storm – and now it was a great calm. How would those others have told their stories? What would be their version of the events that night? The disciples in Jesus’ boat learnt something about Jesus. What would those in the other boats have learnt?
God’s bigger story
I think we need to learn that it’s very easy for us to get narrow and insular and get totally focussed on our own agenda – our own little boat. But other boats are with Jesus as well. We would do well to realise that our story is just a small part of God’s bigger story, God’s larger narrative. That other stories are happening too.
We need a nudge to remember that there are other people in other boats out there when we’re in a storm. And that, whether they know it or not, whether they cry out to him or not, it’s Jesus who calms it for them too. But the only way they’ll know for sure, is if we tell them. Amen
‘Other boats were with him’ was delivered by Ian Banks to an on-line congregation from Bury and Heywood – and then at St James, Heywood on Sunday 20th June 2021. It’s based on Mark 4:35-41 and Psalm 107:23-32.