On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” 41 And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Matthew 8:23-27, Luke 8:22-25
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Third Sunday after Assumption, Feast of the Discovery of the Belt of the Mother of God), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Discovery of Mary’s Belt
Have you ever held onto a family heirloom or keepsake, or associated an object with a memory of someone, perhaps once owned by an ancestor, family member, close friend, or even someone famous? Church relics are similar, but they are more than keepsakes or associations with memories. Relics are holy. In the Old Testament, we read about the holiness that resides in objects after someone has died. Try to imagine the following scenario:
So Elisha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year. And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet. (II Kings 13:20-21)
The veneration of relics in the New Testament Church isn’t a new practice. In fact, it’s one of the earliest historical Christian practices of which we know. As Jesus was no longer physically present, items that his body touched were sought after, such as his garments and the cross upon which he died. The earliest Christians gathered the remains of martyrs, as well as other objects associated with them, and preserved them for honor and devotion. For example, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, written approximately in the year 156, recounts how Christians gathered the remains of the martyred bishop and placed them in a location accessible for the Christian community for the purpose of regular memorials:
So we later took up his bones, more precious than costly stones and more valuable than gold, and laid them away in a suitable place. There the Lord will permit us, so far as possible, to gather together in joy and gladness to celebrate the day of his martyrdom as a birthday, in memory of those athletes who have gone before, and to train and make ready those who are to come hereafter.
In the 4th century Church, when St. Cyril of Jerusalem was teaching converts about Christianity before they were to be baptized, he lectured about relics. He wrote,
Though the soul is not present, a power resides in the bodies of the saints because of the righteous soul which has for so many years dwelt in it, or used it as its minister. (Catechetical Lectures 16)
Certainly the body of the Virgin Mary was carefully safeguarded after she died, but since she was assumed into heaven as the Church teaches, her personal belongings soon became holy relics to be venerated within the Church. According to tradition, her belt, an important article of clothing and decoration for Eastern women was discovered in Jerusalem in the 5th century. Imagine the excitement of those who discovered the articles of the Mother of God, how their faith was affected. They held that which was touched by the power of the Virgin Mary’s righteous soul, her purity, the holiness of the “Tabernacle of him who cannot be born,” and the “Carrier of him who carries all beings” (Զերծո զիս Շարական). These same holy relics are cherished and venerated by the Church until today.
Bailing Out Water
Place yourself in the boat with the disciples as they are crossing the Sea of Galilee. It’s dark, everyone is exhausted from ministering to the crowd with Jesus, and before you reach the other side a great storm arises. The strong gusts of whipping wind render the sail useless and the waves beat the sides of the boat so much, the boat begins to fill with water. Not atypical weather on the Sea of Galilee, but still not a good situation. Panic ensues and everyone in the boat begins to work as a team, bailing out water, fixing the sail, anything to weather the storm and just stay alive. It’s exactly what each one of us would do. Meanwhile, the person whose idea it was to cross the water in the first place is asleep on a pillow! Why isn’t he helping? The disciples wake Jesus up and one of them screams above the noise of the wind and the storm, “Teacher, don’t you care if we die??”
And [Jesus] awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”
Jesus tells the wind and the sea, “Peace, be still!” In classical Armenian, the phrase is, «Դադարեա, կարկեաց:» In other words, “Cut it out, settle down, quiet the noise,” as if he was telling unruly children to behave themselves. The awesomeness of who Jesus is was unleashed in front of them, and in that moment the storm became the least of their fears. Instead, it was directed toward Jesus. They have never witnessed anything like this. Who was Jesus, really?
Why did the disciples wake up Jesus in the first place? Did they expect him to calm the storm? Judging by their reaction, probably not. In fact, we can imagine what was going on in the minds of the disciples when he asked if they had any faith. “Faith?? We just wanted you to help us bail out water! We were going to die and we needed help! And by the way, what did you just do? You stopped the storm by telling it to be quiet?? Who are you??” By calming the storm, Jesus demonstrates to his disciples that he is more than a faith healer, more than a prophet, not just any teacher, but God himself! This is the Lord of all creation! (See Nahum 1:4, Psalms 65:6-7, 89:9, 93:3-4, 107:23-30, Job 38:8-11)
Seeing an opportunity to teach his disciples and reveal who he really was, with a compassionate voice Jesus elevated a survival situation to one of faith. The same way he wanted them to see the world from a new perspective, he also wants us to see a world with him at the center, with all creation under his domain and care. Essentially, Jesus is telling his disciples, “You’ve seen me heal people, that power has been made clear, but there’s more, it’s even bigger than that. I have power over all creation, even the elements. Now you’ve seen this power demonstrated, while the only thing you were going to ask of me was to help you survive the storm. I’ve provided you with a new way to live through any storm, a new way to view the world, all of creation, with me in the center of it all – calm, confident, and able to provide peace. With me, no storm will ever cause you panic. I didn’t come to bail out water, and bailing out water is not what I called you to do. That is for those who don’t believe. I’m raising the bar. This is why I asked, “Have you no faith?” Look at the world through the eyes of faith, look at and live in the world through me.”
Who other but God himself could control and calm nature? And who other but Jesus can calm our storms, whether it be forgiving the evil we bring upon ourselves or the circumstantial trials and unfortunate events that arise, seemingly out of nowhere? Job loss, divorce, abuse, parenting issues, financial difficulties, feelings of failure, suicidal thoughts, and even the trauma we carry from past events such as the Armenian Genocide. Perhaps we or someone we know received news of poor health or terminal illness. Storms come in all strengths and sizes. Perhaps we create storms for others through disputes, arguments, insensitive comments, or bad counsel. Do we give into temptations or feed addictions and habits that draw us away from God and the Church community? And in response to these storms, to what do we regularly turn in order to “survive?” In other words, how do we merely “bail out water” instead of practicing faith? Are we drawn to temporary fixes such as entertaining or numbing ourselves with television shows, partying and socializing, alcohol, or buying things we don’t need with money we may not have? Maybe we work extra hours, start new businesses, immersing ourselves in our respective vocations.
After having witnessed many miracles, the disciples still didn’t expect Jesus to do what he came to do in this world, and often we are the same, screaming above the noise in our lives, “Jesus, are you going to let us drown?” St. Cyril of Alexandria writes about the smallness of the faith of the disciples in order to inspire us to a greater level of faith:
The exclamation “save us” is commendable, since it shows faith. But to say “we are perishing” brings a charge of littleness of faith against those who were in deep distress…They were not totally faithless but were at that point “of little faith,” since in their danger they did not take courage from the fact of Christ’s being with them.
Jesus has the same power that made the world in the first place. Do we not trust him to calm our storms? Are we not confident in his power, his love, his forgiveness? Do we insist on managing our own affairs because we don’t trust God to do it himself? Is our faith at the level of only bailing out water or do we believe on a much larger scale? When our faith is only at the level of asking Jesus to help us bail out water, let this story be a reminder that he came to do more. As John quotes Jesus in his Gospel,
I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (16:33)
Are we, as the Armenian Church, operating at the level of bailing out water, preoccupied with things other than faith? Do our lives invite people into a life of faith, or do we deflect people from Jesus and the Church? Based on what we are doing in the name of Jesus, do others look at the Armenian Church or our local parish community and ask what the disciples asked about Jesus: “Who are they? What sort of people are Christians? I have never seen anything like the Armenian Church.” Instead of waking up Jesus and praying with a small vision as did the disciples on the boat, with the little faith we have, pray knowing that the same Lord, the same God who calmed the storm that day on the Sea of Galilee is present with us everyday, present in Badarak as we share the kiss of peace with one another, present in and through the Gospel reading, and present in his Body and Blood. Perhaps to train us how to pray in faith, whenever we find ourselves in the midst of a storm, repeat the words of St. Gregory of Narek:
May the severe winter winds become tranquil air,
the gusty storm become a pleasant breeze,
the misgivings of fear become great confidence,
the meting out of punishment turn into bliss,
the perils of grief become spiritual rejoicing,
the tossing waves calm into placid water,
the arm-wrenching helm turn toward a safe harbor,
the harvest of heavy sin be transformed into a stipend of grace. (32D)
The Storm and the Cross
When Mark tells the story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee, any reader from the first century would have recalled other places in Scripture where the sea was mentioned and what it represented. The story of the exodus when the Hebrews passed through to the other side of the Red Sea on their way to the Promised Land would have come to mind, as well the story of Jonah, and not to mention the story of creation itself in which the world emerged from the dark chaos of the waters (Genesis 1:2). The sea then, was considered a place of darkness, chaos, and evil. It represented death and sin. Even the hymns of the Armenian Church maintain this imagery:
The sea of my sins tosses me about. You, the good Captain: grant me a harbor, O Father almighty. (Զերծո զիս)
And so, through Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee, a storm that threatened the very lives of the disciples with death, we see the Cross. Through the Cross, the power of darkness, sin, and death has been broken. Out of chaos, Jesus brings healing. Out of sin, he grants redemption. And out of death, he gives eternal life. Stepanos Siwnetsi commenting on the cause of our storms wrote,
The movement and turbulence signifies the turbulence of the souls and the tempest produced by Satan…the sea agitated and shaken by impiety and idolatry.
Thankfully, the Church, with Jesus as the Head, or Captain, directs us and gives us the means of stilling the storm, through repentance and the sacraments. And so we must confess our sin as did St. Gregory of Narek when he prayed, “Calm my stormy seas with your tree of life, the cross.” Also, prayerfully reflect on the following words from one of the hymns of the Armenian Church:
The sea of my life ever tosses me about. The enemy rises up against me like violent waves. Good Captain, be a refuge for my soul. I am about to go under; help me, good Captain. For the burden of sin has grown heavy upon me. God, hurry to help me! For the depths of evil are pulling me down the abyss. But you, be my Captain and stretch out your hand to me. Save me from danger, from the ship breaking up in the waves of the sea. For I am perishing from the error of my sins. (Ծով կենցաղոյս)
Training in the Storm
Why do we go through storms? We may never know. It’s a natural question that is perhaps part of the process of enduring a storm, but one that will remain a mystery in this life. What we do know, however, is our Captain on the boat and what he is capable of producing in and through us as we weather the storm with him at our side.
St. Cyril of Alexandria explains the benefit of the storms and the character and faith they build in us as individuals and as a community:
When Christ calmed the storm, he also changed the faith of the holy disciples that was shaken along with the ship into confidence. He no longer permitted it to be in doubt. He worked a calm in them, smoothing the waves of their weak faith.
He further writes,
And so he sleeps, leaving them in fear, in which their senses would be sharpened to perceive the significance of what was to come. For no one feels what takes place in another’s body as acutely as that which happens in his own.
Another Church Father respected and deeply influenced by the Armenian Church, St. John Chrysostom, when he preached on the story of Jesus calming the storm said,
When trials and terrors were rising, he took with him none but those he was training to be champions of the gospel.
He went on to say,
[Jesus] sleeps to give occasion for their timidity and to make their perception of what was happening more distinct…He permits the storm, that by their deliverance they might attain to a clearer perception of that benefit.
Also from the epistle reading for this Sunday (II Corinthians 1:1-11), we read how our own afflictions and storms serve as a platform to minister to others. Jesus desires to make us more like him, and just as it is difficult to build character in a child by spoiling him or her, Paul reminds us that our trials strengthen and equip us to heal others, to point them to the one who holds nature, the whole world, including our suffering, in his hands.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (verses 3-4)
God both permits storms so that we can see him more clearly, so we will eventually be unshaken by temptations and sinful desires so that we will rely on him for salvation, healing, and forgiveness. The story of Jesus calming the storm should affect our faith. It should remind us that he will calm the storm, perhaps not delivering us from it, but walking with us through it.