The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the Day of Pentecost (May 20, 2018) we considered the ways that Jesus sends his friends to some difficult places… and claimed the truth that when they got there – he was waiting for them. Our texts included Mark 6:45-56 and Acts 2:1-4.
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The official records of Victor Verster Prison in the Western Cape region of South Africa indicate that at 4:14 p.m. on the afternoon of February 11, 1990, prisoner number 1335/88 was released, having been incarcerated for twenty seven years. That’s a fact. That’s history.
However, history is not the whole story in this case. Prisoner number 1335/88 was named Nelson Mandela, and his release marked the beginning of the end of the evils of Apartheid in South Africa.
Closer to home, I can tell you that you won’t find this in any of the official box scores of the game, but during the bottom of the second inning of a baseball game at PNC Park on October 1, 2013 the pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds was so flustered by the jeering of the hometown fans that he dropped the ball. You won’t find it in the official records because it was not a baseball play. According to the rules of the game, it didn’t matter. It might as well not have happened. It is NOT history, in that regard.
But again, the official record is only a portion of the story. On the very next pitch, Russell Martin smacked a home run and the Pirates went on to defeat the Reds and gain access to the Major League post-season for the first time in more than two decades. When Johnny Cueto dropped that ball, the Pittsburgh faithful knew it: the Buccos were back.
This morning, we’re going to talk a little bit about the difference between historyand gospel. History tells us what happened, when, and to whom. Gospel is the message that is conveyed through the means of history. History is a listing of events. Gospel is the meaning that we assign, or the truth that is proclaimed, in those events.
Madiba is free! The struggle may continue, but the battle has been won!
The Pirates are going to the playoffs for the first time in 21 years! The drought is over!
Sometimes when it comes to the Bible, we get so caught up in analyzing the historical perspective of events that we lose sight of the message those events were meant to convey. Let’s look at the Gospel passage…
In the story you’ve heard, Jesus is eager to spend some time alone with God. So eager, in fact, that just after the feeding of the 5000, he packs his disciples into a boat, pushes them into the Sea of Galilee, and says, “We’ll see you later, fellas! I’ll catch up soon.”
The text implies that Jesus knew that his followers faced difficulty, but he sent them anyway. This is where a strict reading of history could lead us to ask, “Just how big a jerk is Jesus, anyway?”
He puts them in a boat, and makes them sail straight into a storm. Later, he goes out walking on the water, only when he gets to where they are, he pretends as if he’s walking further. He scares the crap out of his best friends on what has not been a good day to start with – and then he gets in the boat, laughing, “Haha, guys – it’s only me! We’re all good!” That’s an historical perspective.
But let’s consider the Gospel. First, what is the Gospel in Mark? What is the “Good News” that is to be proclaimed? “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” The Gospel as proclaimed by Jesus to that first community is an affirmation that you are close to the heart, and close to the intentions, of God.
We have come to understand that the disciples are called to carry this message into the world, and I’ve suggested in a previous message that all believers are called to be encouraged by the presence of Jesus in the face of tremendous difficulty. The Gospel in Mark reminds us that Jesus can be trusted. Are you with me on this?
Now, I want you to take a trip into some holy memory with me. Walk with me back into the days when God’s people were enslaved in Egypt. God said, “That is not my intention for humanity! I will deliver them.”
But what does he do? He goes ahead and stands in front of Pharaoh, and he does what God asks him to do, and he finds himself with the Israelites in the wilderness… where the Israelites just cannot help acting like knuckleheads. Time and time again, they disappoint. Moses stands between the people and their God and finally cries out, “Look! This is impossible! I’m never sure that I’m doing what’s right. You’ve got to be with me, God. Show me a sign that you are here, now.” It’s right there in Exodus 33:18: “Show me your glory.”
And this is the part that I want you to remember… God says, “OK, Moses, I’ll do that. You stand here, and the storm will come, and I will pass by you, and you will see my glory; and then I will speak my name to you…”
Do you remember the name of God? YHWH. It means “I am.”
It’s all right there in Exodus 33. God passes by Moses, and shows him his glory while announcing his name. “I am.” The storm passes, and God takes Moses up the mountain and gives him the Ten Commandments, calling people to a new way of life.
Now, let’s go back to Mark. In the readings leading up to today’s, Jesus has revealed much about the Kingdom to his disciples – he’s done so in his preaching, teaching, and miracle-based ministry that leads up to the feeding of the 5000. And just as God had asked Moses to do the impossible (that is, to lead the people to a place he didn’t know, through the desert for 40 years without a visible means of sustenance or support), Jesus was looking at his followers and asking them to stretch beyond their limits: he sent them to preach right after John was killed; he asked them to find food to serve to a hungry crowd; and now he expects them to row across a lake at night in a storm.
Seriously, Jesus? What the heck? Are you some kind of a jerk?
The disciples are afraid, alone, confused, and uncertain. Jesus sees them in the distance, and clearly knows how they are feeling. After some hours pass, he decides to do something. He walks out onto the water and intends to “pass them by”.
Does that sound remotely familiar?
He wanted to “pass them by”, but his disciples freak out, and so he changes his mind, gets into the boat with them, and the storm stops.
Historians have a lot of questions here: how could Jesus see them through the storm at night on the sea? What does it mean that Jesus walked on the water? That’s impossible. Those are historical questions.
But the Gospel message is clear: The kingdom of God is at hand. Right here. Right now. And it includes you. You are close to God’s heart. Jesus is trustworthy.
OK, OK, Pastor Dave, easy now. How do you know that it means all that?
Because of what Jesus says when he gets into the boat. “Take courage. It is I.” In the Greek, he says, “Ego eimi”. That literally means “I am.”
The writer of the Gospel is telling us this story so that we might know something incredible about Jesus. Listen:
Being good Jews, the disciples are already familiar with a story that features a scared, frustrated, fearful and lonely man who longs to experience the Divine presence. They know about a man who saw the glory of God pass by, and who heard a voice speak from the storm, “I am.”
Now, these men experienceall that as Jesus walks out into the midst of the storm in order to pass by them and show them his glory but here Jesus breaks the pattern of Exodus. He does not simply continue – he gets into the boat with them. And then he says, “I am.” It is, to us, unmistakable. But Mark says that they disciples don’t “get it” yet, and before too long they are back on the shore, among the crowds, reacting to the events of this new day.
But one day in the not-too-distant future, these men wouldget it – in a big way. They remembered this day, and the other ways in previous days, when Jesus had been revealing the Good News – the Gospel – of the Kingdom of God. And they probably remembered that almost every time he spoke of that message, they shuddered. It is hard to believe, they thought. It is hard to accept.
It didn’t get easier the day that Jesus marched into Jerusalem and confronted the powers of the religious establishment and occupying government. And it sure didn’t get any easier as he was tortured and killed. While they were joyous when he rose from the dead, they still weren’t quite sure what to do when, just prior to his ascension to heaven, he told them one last time: look, you are my witnesses. You are the Kingdom of God in the world right now.
And, as you’ve heard, they were hiding out in the upper room in Jerusalem that day when the Holy Spirit overpowered them. As the wind and the flames danced around, THEN they got it. Then they were acting like the Body of Christ at work in the world, revealing the glory of God and inviting those around them to participate in the things that God was doing. It didn’t make sense at first, but it registered with them later.
Some of you heard the Gospel being read, and you thought, “I know exactly how it feels to be in that boat. There have been times when Jesus has pushed me where I didn’t want to go; times when the storm was so bad I thought I was going to drown; times when the storm was so bad I was hoping I would drown… And worse yet – there have been times when I’m sure that I can see Jesus, and I know that he knows where I am… and it seems like he is just passing right by me. Yeah, I get that part.”
Beloved, know this: the One who was there to proclaim to his friends, “I am” is the One who calls to you today. The Good News of the Gospel is for you, this day. He is.
And others heard that Gospel, and for some reason you identified with the ending of the story: there was this great and powerful surge of emotion: fear and doubt and awe and wonder… and now, well, all that stuff just takes up too much energy and there’s a world of stuff waiting for you to do today. You’re past the fear and the wonder and the power and you’re mostly just tired.
Listen: the Good News of the Gospel is for you, too. Trust that the Glory of God is all around you, and know that the invitation you’ve been given to bear witness to that is still on the table. The Kingdom of God is at hand, and you know something about that.
These stories of Jesus walking on the water or the explosive power of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room – they are not merely once-upon-a-time historical events that the church is called to remember and maybe even appreciate. No: they are a model for church life now. We can ride out the storm and we can proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom not because it’s what he did – but because it’s what he does. These are not written records of something that happened – they are witnesses that point to what is happening right now.
Sometime in the next couple of days, the official records of this congregation will be updated to reflect that on May 20, 2018, a hundred people or so showed up for worship and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. That’s the history of the day, and it will be published.
I want to know, though: will the Gospel break through? Will the Good News of the nearness of the Kingdom of God infiltrate this community becausewe gathered for worship?
That remains to be seen.
Be the church. Your friends, who are caught in the midst of storms of every kind, need you to be. Speak a word of presence to them. And be the church. Thanks be to God! Amen.