The world's storms waiting to be stilled

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
9 Feb 2010

Lectionary readings: Genesis 2. 4b-18, 21-3; Psalm 65; Revelation 4.8-11; Luke 8. 22-25 - Second Sunday before Lent

We will shortly be entering Lent, a period within the Christian tradition which is all about reassessment and renegotiation. What and who are we living for? Where and with whom is the true value of life to be found? What shall we keep hold of and what shall we let go of? What is it that sustains us in the face of want, or of excess?

These are the practical questions we are invited to consider before we confront once more the way Christ’s death exposes the brokenness and violence in our midst, and before we face the corresponding invitation to discover the unconstrained life that is the source of God’s love. The purpose of the interrogation is preparation, let us not forget.

As a prelude to this journey towards hope, we are reminded by the Lectionary, in two highly figurative passages from the books of Genesis and Revelation, of the way in which the whole web of life, what we call ‘the natural order’, proceeds from and finds its fulfilment in the superabundance of God, “who was, and is, and is to come” (Rev. 4.8).

Genesis, we may recall, has not one ‘creation story’, but two; and its purpose is not to propose what in modern parlance we would call “a theory of origins”, a scientific account of the “world process”, but rather to affirm – in moral and spiritual contrast to the prevailing Mesopotamian myths – that the world is fundamentally good; that it is a product of love rather than domination; that humanity and nature are of one stock rather than inherently alienated; and that God is undivided creativity.

As Walter Wink recounts it, the basic structure of the Enuma Elish Babylonian creation myth from around 1250 BCE is that, typically, a male war god residing in the sky fights a decisive battle with a female divine being, usually depicted as a monster or dragon, residing in the sea or abyss (the feminine element). Having vanquished the original enemy by war and murder, the victor fashions a cosmos from the monster’s corpse. Cosmic order requires the violent suppression of the feminine, and is mirrored in the social order by the subjection of women to men and of people to potentates. [1]

In the Genesis story, by comparison, Eden, before its corruption through deception, violence and the lust for control, is a peaceable kingdom in which male and female are helpmates made first of dust and then of flesh. The specific story in Genesis 2. 21-23, whereby the woman is generated from the side of the man, has not fared well in terms of our modern sensibilities. (It looks on first inspection as if woman is the mere ‘spare rib’, as the famous feminist magazine has it). But if we resist trying to render ancient texts by contemporary meanings just long enough to ask how and why they developed their particular narrative form, we might notice that this early Jewish story was intended to emphasise mutuality (“bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”) in contrast to the violent suppression of the female by the male.

For the Psalmist, therefore, there is a direct connection between ‘the God of creation’, who calls a world of abundant potentiality into being as a gift for all people (65. 8-13) and ‘the God of salvation’ who delivers a particular people from slavery and is at one and the same time “the Hope of all the ends of the earth" (65. 3,4). The resulting Davidic song of praise, which we need to remember, sits alongside others of lamentation and frustrated anger, also sees the stilling of the sea’s “roaring waves” as a promise of the stilling of “the clamour of the peoples”, dwelling precariously as they are at “the ends of the earth” (65. 7,8). In short, it is about quelling fear.

This is the context in which we read the Gospel story of the stilling of the storm in Luke 8, which is paralleled by the synoptic accounts of Mark 4. 36-41 and Matthew 8. 23-27. There are some minor differences in the three, but we need not trouble ourselves with those right now. Luke’s version seems to be a later one, and is set in the midst of a chapter that depicts Jesus restoring the sick, the departed and the disturbed to wholeness, life and community – thereby, for example, defying the taboos that saw the woman with an issue of blood (Luke 8. 43) as unclean and suffering disease as a result of sin, an understanding he clearly rejects.

Matthew’s prime concern in telling the same story of the stilled storm, on the other hand, is to ensure that we recognise Jesus as the New Moses, rightful successor (and more) to the one whose Red Sea petition “caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided” (Exodus 14. 21), thereby enabling the Israelites’ liberation journey. In a similar way, Jesus’ admonition of the waves delivers his frightened followers from the sea that threatens to engulf them. As with the link between creation and salvation in Psalm 65 and Psalm 107. 28-9, so for the Gospel writers the action of Jesus in the midst of a physical storm has the effect of reassuring a troubled, clamorous people. Who and what do they really trust? If it is God who holds all things in existence, what is there to fear?

In this way we can see that both the smaller and larger scriptural understandings that give coherence to Luke’s story of those fearful disciples in the wave-rocked boat are shaped by theological concerns that look rather different to the ones that come first to our minds today.

What we tend to ask is, “Did it happen like this? What are the facts behind this story, and what are the implications of regarding it as ‘factual’ or not?” The Gospel writers, on the other hand, seem to be asking: “Who is this Jesus? What impact is he having on our lives, and what are the implications of seeing him as God’s person for us, rather than just another wandering teacher or prophet?”

Are these two sets of questions related? And if so, how and by what? This is a far from academic question when we begin to think of all those in the world who are living with storms that are not instantly stilled, waves (like the 2004 Asian tsunami) that do not abate, and more recently, an earthquake that has wreaked horror, death and devastation on the people – most of all the poor – of Haiti. Where on earth is God to be found in all of that?

In her provocatively constructive book To Work and To Love: A Theology of Creation (Fortress Press, 1984), Dorothee Soelle, writing with Shirley A. Cloyes, suggests that God called the world into being out of a desire for relatedness, and that as a result, we, together with God, are responsible for the fate of the world and the human community. [2] In following Christ in his confrontation with the forces of death, they argue, we are invited to embrace a love that is characterised by ecstasy, trust, wholeness, and solidarity – a love that will fulfil our search for both meaning and relationship.

But in order to grasp and be grasped by this love, and to be strengthened to confront suffering and injustice with deeds of hope and love, we need, says Dorothee Soelle, to face very directly our “problems with praising the God of creation.” In other words, the substantial contradiction between the world as it is, and “the world to come” as it is promised in Christian and Jewish Scripture.

These problems reside in the temptation to render God as supernaturally separate from the world, and thereby to understand God’s action and relation to what goes on in it (and with us) in terms of periodic ‘interventions’ – which in turn implies disconnection, selectivity or partiality at other times. This is a particular problem when it comes to facing up (religiously) to a tragedy like Haiti. It is what leads some, like televangelist Pat Robertson, to characterise natural disasters or their abatement in terms of divine punishment or reward.

On the surface, there is plenty in the Bible to support such a view. But when we probe deeper there is also a very strong counter-narrative, what Walter Brueggemann calls an “evangelical counter-imagination”. [3] In Christ, we learn that “God is not synonymous with omnipotent control; rather, God’s power lies in sharing life with others”, says Dorothee Soelle. The pattern of incarnate love, which lies at the core of the Gospel message, is com-passion, “suffering with”, not the infliction of suffering. This is the interpretative principle that we apply to the other arguments about God’s will and purpose throughout the Bible. Jesus rebukes not only the waves that bring the fear of death, as in Luke’s story, but his disciples when they want to call down fire and brimstone on their antagonists, and the religious teachers of his day when they suggest that sickness is caused by sin.

So God is to be found, if at all, not just in the ceasing of the storm, but in the midst of it, undergoing it – which is what the Passion is all about. That is the mature Christian conclusion. You cannot have one without the other, or you will end up with a tribal deity who sponsors our religious fantasies, bolsters our egos and feeds our desire for control or revenge. That, sadly, can happen as much within Christianity as anywhere else, as Robertson’s remarks about Haiti demonstrate.

The destructive Mesopotamian gods (in both religious and non-religious guises) are frequently at the door begging entry, and it takes some measured thinking, learning, prayer and reflection to learn to thwart them – and instead to direct our hearts, minds and lives towards the kind of inviting, companionable, non-coercive and costly love we meet in Christ. “They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, who then is this…?”

NOTES

[1] See Walter Wink, ‘Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence’, 16 November 2007 - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/cpt/article_060823wink.shtml
[2] Dorothee Soelle and Shirley A. Cloyes, To Work and To Love: A Theology of Creation (Fortress Press, 1984). Other books by Dorothee Soelle are available through Ekklesia here: http://shop.ekklesia.co.uk/search.php?keyword=Soelle
[3] Walter Brueggemann is an extraordinarily fecund prober and interpreter of the Hebrew Scriptures / First Testament. Ekklesia’s online bookstore, in association with Metanoia at the London Mennonite Centre, stocks a large selection of his work. http://books.ekklesia.co.uk/search/node/brueggemann

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article was first given as an address at St Stephen's Church, in the Anglican Parish of Central Exeter, on Sunday 7 February 2010. http://www.parishofcentralexeter.co.uk/

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