On 21st June, the third Sunday after Trinity, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 133, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41.
I remember from my school history lessons the story of King Canute, or Cnut. He was king of Denmark, Norway, England and Scotland. Anyone who has heard of this king will probably have heard of his decision to sit on the shore and tell the tide not to rise. Henry of Huntingdon tells the story in his 12th Century Chronicle of English history in this way:
‘He commanded that his chair should be set on the shore, when the tide began to rise. And then he spoke to the rising sea saying “You are part of my dominion, and the ground that I am seated upon is mine, nor has anyone disobeyed my orders with impunity. Therefore, I order you not to rise onto my land, nor to wet the clothes or body of your Lord”. But the sea carried on rising as usual without any reverence for his person, and soaked his feet and legs. Then he moving away said: “All the inhabitants of the world should know that the power of kings is vain and trivial, and that none is worthy the name of king but He whose command the heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws”. Therefore King Cnut never afterwards placed the crown on his head, but above a picture of the Lord nailed to the cross, turning it forever into a means to praise God, the great king.’
Rather than being a foolish and vain way of behaving, some now interpret Canute’s actions as those of a man who knew the limitations of his power and wished to demonstrate that to those around him. He attributed the power to command heaven, earth and sea to God alone.
Canute was stating what the Bible states about God, particularly in the Psalms:
You still the raging of the seas, the roaring of their waves (65:7)
He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. (107:29)
You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them. (89:9)
There is no doubt in the Psalmist’s mind that the God who could bring order out of the chaos which existed before the world began, continued to have the power to decide what the waves were allowed to do.
When the Sea of Galilee whipped up into one of its terrifying storms, Jesus’ disciples were naturally fearful. As the boat took on water, they expected it to sink. Yet Jesus himself appeared to be totally unperturbed. He slept peacefully through the sound of the weather and would probably have remained asleep had not the voices of the frightened disciples woken him. As if it was the simplest thing in the world, he calmed the storm with a few words. What worried him more than the storm it seems was the disciples’ lack of faith: ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’
According to Mark, the disciples would have seen many people being healed or having demons driven out by Jesus by the time of the boat trip. Although there were no doubt healers around at the time, and perhaps some were successful, the fact that Jesus healed everyone who came to the door of Peter’s home must surely have given the disciples a clue that this was no ordinary rabbi. However, being in a fierce storm with their own lives in danger, they were not just observing people who came in faith to be healed. They needed faith themselves and the storm was just too frightening for them to calmly wait while it blew itself out.
Having observed the storm responding to a brief word, the disciples then had to ask themselves, ‘Who then is this?’ Who could do such a thing? Who is it that we are following? A rabbi? A healer? More than that? Of course King Canute, centuries later, had the right answer: only God could do such a thing. Yet the one who had stilled the storm was a man like them. He ate. He drank. He got tired and hot and dirty. Perhaps this was the first time that the disciples realised that Jesus was indeed a man, but more than a man.
Jesus knew that one day he would not be around. The disciples needed to carry on his work. The only way they could do that effectively, in the face of the inevitable opposition, was if they truly believed that Jesus was God. By doing what only God could do, Jesus was demonstrating that he and the Father were one and the same God. Jesus was not doing this as a party trick, but ensure the survival of the church.
Think of the list of hardships St Paul lists in his letter: calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger. Whatever life threw at Paul and his companions, the outcome was not as might have been expected. They triumphed over everything. They could not have persisted in spreading the Gospel at such cost had they not been able to ask ‘Who then is this?’ for whom we are working and known that the answer was ‘This is none other than God, who died for us.’ For much of the time, as the storms of life raged around them, Paul and his companions could well have thought that Jesus was doing as he had done in that boat, sleeping and unconcerned. However, they had faith that Jesus was always in the situations with them. There was no need to be afraid.
For us it’s much the same. When the storms of life come along: illness, bereavement, unemployment, relationship problems, financial troubles, we can concentrate on the size of those storms and fear for our lives. We can feel alone, abandoned, as though God does not care for us. Or we can have faith that Jesus is there in the situation with us and will keep us safe, even if he doesn’t do it the way we would choose.
For the people of Charleston as they mourn the nine dead church members; for those in the Middle East who have witnessed fellow Christians murdered for their faith; for those who face discrimination and prejudice because they are Christian; for those who have become refugees due to war; the question for each of them may be ‘Who then is this?’ whom we have chosen to follow. If life is to make sense in the midst of so many tragedies, the answer needs to be that Jesus is indeed God, as proved by the fact that ‘even the wind and waves obey him’.