Friday, June 19, 2009

Crisis in the Church and Our Lack of Faith

Homily on the 12th Sunday of Year B
Mark 4:35-41
June 21, 20009

The Church continues to experience crisis. In some cases, the crisis comes from outside, when the Church, for instance, undergoes persecution by the ruling powers of the state, as in places where Christianity is a minority, and Christians could practice their religion only at their own peril. In other cases, the crisis comes from within, as when the Church of the United States was rocked by sexual scandals of some members of the clergy that scandalized many Catholics. In instances like these, how does a Christian face the crisis of his Church? The Third Reading can shed some light.

In today’s Gospel, we have a story in which the disciples were caught in a storm on the lake of Galilee . Although they panicked in fear for their lives, Jesus was simply having an untroubled sleep at the stern. After they woke him, Jesus commanded the wind and the sea to be calm, and this prompted them to ask: “Who can this be that the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). This narrative is a typical miracle story, but as can be seen from the question at the end of the pericope, it was obviously originally intended to resolve a question on the identity of Jesus: who is he? Since he is able calm the turbulent sea and wind, the Markan community can affirm, and tell those who listen to the preaching of their missionaries that Jesus is the Lord of nature.

But Mark has expanded the original narrative into a catechetical story on discipleship. With the emphasis on the boat and the storm, Mark’s redaction transformed the story to answer the question: how does a Christian follow Jesus in the context of Church crisis? To understand the pericope, it may be recalled that in the Bible, the sea is associated with the place of destructive power: “You stirred up the sea by your might; you smashed the heads of the dragons in the waters” (Ps 74:13). The calming of the sea, on the other hand, is an indication of how God cares for his people: “They cried to the Lord in their distress; from their straits he rescued them. He hushed the storm to a gentle breeze, and the billows of the sea were stilled; they rejoiced that they were calmed, and he brought them to their desired haven” (Ps 107:28-30). With this in mind, it is easy to see how the pericope functions on the question of discipleship.

The early Church oftentimes pictured itself as a boat, and since in today’s Gospel waves were breaking over the boat so that it began to ship water badly (Mark 4:37), we then have a picture of a Church—a Diocese, a Parish—in much trouble. The problem, to be sure, is not that the Church faces a crisis. The truth is, Jesus never said that the Christian community would be shielded from problems and troubles. Quite the contrary, his ministers will surely come to grips with them: “What I am doing is sending you out like sheep among wolves. You must be clever as snakes and innocent as doves. Be on your guard with respect to others. They will hale you to courts, they will flog you in their synagogues. You will be brought to trial before rulers and kings, to give witness before them and before the Gentiles on my account” (Matt 10:16-28).

The problem, rather, is that, when these happen, it seems to many that God does not care at all. As Mark puts it, “the waves were breaking over the boat, and it began to ship water badly, and Jesus was in the stern through it all, sound asleep on a cushion” (Mark 4:37b-38). When persecutions come, and Christians pray to God to rescue them from the crisis, it seems that God is asleep, not hearing the cries of the persecuted for freedom and liberation. Indeed, they are allowed to suffer and die. Churches and Christian ministers are being attacked in India and Pakistan , but no help from heaven looms in the horizon. The American Church is rocked by the scandal of pedophilia, and it is allowed to go bankrupt, while the ministers go to jail or censured in the mass media.

But if God is a God of nature and creation, surely, despite all the crises that the Church undergoes, it cannot be overpowered or overwhelmed. Indeed, we have the assurance that the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt 16:16). This means that no matter how grave the trials and troubles besetting the Church, and even if it seems that God does not care, we are assured that the power of God is there. However numerous may be the troubles in the Church and however deeply wounded may be its ministers and lay people, but in the end, the boat of the Church will not capsize. If God is a God who can defeat the storm and waves, he can surely overcome the persecutors of the Church.

In the end, then, it is really a question of faith. Faith, in the Gospel of Mark, is usually associated with the recognition that he is the Son of God (Mark 5:7); but in this particular miracle story, it is linked with the disciples’ trust in Jesus who is capable of prevailing over the storm. The lack of faith is a Markan characterization of Jesus’ disciples that was not obliterated even after the resurrection (Mark 16:11). Because of their lack of faith, they panicked, and woke Jesus up: “Teacher, does it not matter to you that we are going to drown?” (Mark 4:38). No wonder, Jesus rebuked them for their lack of faith: “Why are you terrified? Why are you lacking in faith?” (Mark 4:40).

In times of crisis, then, the Christian should not fear or be terrified. In the midst of the storm of scandal, persecution and other evils that plague the Church, he can always assure himself that Christ will never abandon his disciples: “Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world” (Matt 28:20). Believing that for those who love God and are called according to his decrees, all things will work together for their own good (Rom 8:28), he can always be confident that abandoning oneself to the Lord, trusting in him is necessary; after all, he is certain of the triumph of God. It would, appear, therefore, that if Mark portrays the disciples as lacking in faith, it is to tell us, the present readers, not to imitate them, but rather to put our trust in him, because he is after all the Lord who can still all kinds of storms in the Church. God does care for his Church, as the fact that it still exist, despite the weaknesses, the sins, and the evils that came into it proves. Once we know this, crises will serve to strengthen our faith, and will make us closer to the Lord.

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