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The presence and absence of Jesus. A talk at the end of the Community of St Anselm year 2023-4

Mark 4.35-41

There is the story told of a millionaire who threw a party.

He takes his guests outside and shows them his swimming pool. He says, “I will give to the person who swims from this side to that side a million pounds, or a share in my estate, or the hand of my daughter in marriage. But I need to warn you that there is a killer shark in my pool who has already eaten two people who have tried.”

There is a splash and a man is seen swimming as fast as he can to the other side. The shark swims towards him and opens its mouth, but as the jaws slam shut, the man is pulled out of the pool.

The millionaire says to the man. “I keep my word. What do you want? A million pounds?” The man says no. “A share in my estate”. The man says no. “Ah. So you did that because you love my daughter”. And the man said no.

The millionaire asks in surprise, “So what do you want?”

And the man replies, “I want to know who pushed me in”.

I suspect the disciples felt pushed in.

There is a large crowd, and Jesus says to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side’.
Maybe they thought that they were going to get a bit of R&R with Jesus, a bit of a retreat

 And look what happens!

1)       There is ‘a great windstorm’

These men are fishermen. They know the sea

We’ve mentioned about the time we took a little boat trip from the coast of West Ireland to the island of Aran. It was terrifying. The boat – which should have been vertical - became horizontal. We clung on for dear life as the Atlantic swell picked us up and then dropped us into the path of the next wave. I was certain we were going to die. But then I looked at the crew. And they were carrying on as if everything was normal – because, in fact, for them everything was normal!

But for the disciples in Mark 5, this storm was not normal – and they were really scared. They thought that they were going to die.

2)       There is the absence of God.

Jesus was with them in the boat. But Jesus was not with them. He was fast asleep.

And when they wake him, they say to him, ‘Teacher do you not care that we are perishing’.
They are pretty blunt: ‘You are meant to be the compassionate one. And yet when we are about to drown you could not care less’.

3)       There is the rebuke from Jesus.

He could have said, ‘Oh I am so sorry that you were scared, and that you thought I had zoned out on you. I’m sorry I didn’t calm the storm an hour ago – so you did not need to be terrified.’

But no, Jesus rebukes them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

And I think that Jesus is challenging them: ‘Why were you afraid when I was asleep. Do you not think that, if there was a very real danger, I would have continued to sleep. There will come a time when there is a very real danger. Then I will be awake and I will urge you to keep awake’.

4)       They do not get their retreat, or more to the point they do get the retreat, their time with Jesus, but not in the place where they are heading, but in the journey.

They get to the other side, and maybe are thinking: ‘Now we can have our rest. But they are met by someone who is possessed by a demon. And within 24 hours they are back in the boat returning to the other side again.

This crossing story is so rich. We have echoes of Psalm 107, of Jonah, indeed of baptism.

But it strikes me that this is a remarkably appropriate passage for this last year for many of us.

We heard the call of Jesus to get in the boat with him, and we’ve all been on a bit of a journey.

There have been the storms, even potentially life-threatening incidents. And even if the roof fell in on only one of us, there have been other difficult moments: moments perhaps when you have cried out, “Jesus, don’t you care”.

I’m sure there have been times when it has seemed that God is here but absent.

We’ve gone away on our retreats thinking that we are going to meet with Jesus, or with particular questions, ‘show me what I should do next’ or simply a desire for him.

And we have come to the prayers, read the bible, talked with our spiritual companion – but it seems he has just not turned up. Or if he has been there, he is asleep.

We speak of our relationship with Jesus as a relationship with a person – and if we use the language of the real presence, then we also, as Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh put it, need to be prepared to use the language of the real absence.

Indeed, I would go as far as to say that most of the time in our experience, Jesus is there with us, but it is as if – to us – he is asleep.   

The point of the retreat is not to have a cosy time, although they can be times of rest. It is often said when you go on retreats that the first thing that many people need is an opportunity to catch up on sleep.

But retreats are dangerous times: we strip away the things that we normally rely on, and it means that we have to face up to all the things from which we have been running away: from our inner demons. The demons that we have met here are the demons that we will need to fight with, by the grace of God, for all of our life. But knowing them is ¾ of the way to victory.  

So don’t let anyone tell you when you came to Lambeth for this year, or don’t let anyone tell you if you have made vows to become a religious, that you are running away from ‘the real world’ – which is what people sometimes say. Far from it. Retreats are not times when we run away from reality, but when we make ourselves open to the ultimate reality, to God.

That happened when Jesus ‘was led’ into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He came out of the desert filled with the Spirit

It happened here when the disciples obeyed Jesus’ call to go across to the other side with him. The people who got out of the boat were not the same as the people who got into the boat. They had a new understanding of themselves and of who Jesus is.

I think that they had to face up to three demons

a) The demon of needing to be in control. 

I mentioned back last September how, on one week retreat that I went on, I ended up going on a walk, coming back past a garage, and buying a car. It was almost as if, after 4 days of doing nothing, I had this inner compulsion that I had to do something.

And I notice when I am feeling a lost, I am drawn to doing something that makes me feel like I am in control: compulsively playing some sort of sorting game – like solitaire, or buying some new tech, which will bring order to my life and make me feel more in control. Or doing accounts, because I can do them, and it makes me feel I’m in control.

It’s all a bit sad!

I wonder whether the boat was the place where the disciples felt in control. I note that after Jesus’ resurrection, but before Pentecost, when they were not really sure about anything, they go back to their fishing. It was where they felt in control.

And yet, here they are, in the boat but completely out of control

b) And then there is the demon of anger

Again, I remember on an equivalent of a desert day that I had when I was a parish assistant, I used to cut the church yard grass. I thought I would feel spiritual. But all I felt was rising anger.

I didn’t think I was particularly angry – but it was obviously there

And here we see the disciples’ anger and resentment against Jesus: ‘Don’t you care that we are perishing?’

In other words, we have followed you, we have done what you asked, and why are you letting this happen to us? 

“God, I’ve come on this year and yet I’ve had to put up with difficult people, with others just leaving, with racism, with building work and roofs falling in, and when I ask for your guidance all I hear is your snoring. It is so unfair. How can you treat me like this?”

The Psalmist says more than once, ‘rouse yourself’.
It is OK. God is big enough to take that!

And Jesus does come to them, he does rescue them in a quite remarkable way. But he also challenges them. He points them deeper: ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ I was with you. If it had been really serious I would have woken up.’

c) In other words, he exposes a deeper demon: that fear which leads to lack of trust in him.

The fear that I am nothing, that I do not matter, that everything is out of my control.

You are the people who have listened to his word and done what he has called us to do. And, at the end of chapter 3, Jesus has called those sitting around him listening to him, his family, ‘his mother and brother and sister’. He says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35)

You are dearly beloved sons and daughters of God. 

And Jesus is here with us.

It was, it has been quite a journey

I love this icon (written by Eleni Dadi): the storm, the two Jesus’s. Which Jesus am I with at the moment? The Jesus who seems to be sleeping, but who is with me? Or the awesome Jesus who rebukes the wind and waves and then rebukes them? And there are the 12 disciples – they respond differently. Which one is me? And notice also that we are in this together.

It was quite a journey and it ended in worship: And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41)

I do pray that, even if you are not able to do this today, you will look back at this year and say that my COSA year was a year when I learnt more about myself, and much about the presence, power and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ.

One final thing:

Jesus does not call the disciples to go to the other side for a rest.

I’m not even sure that he called them to go to the other side because he wanted to teach them more about who they were and who he is - because, if we are open, he can use any experience to do that.

He calls them to go to the other side because he needs to go to the other side to set free one man from the power of Satan, and he wants them to be with him.  

Why has Jesus called you for this year? Why were you ‘pushed in’!

Yes, it may well be for what he wants to do through you.
And don’t underestimate the eternal significance if it is to only touch the life of one other person.

But he has also called you for this year, because even if it seems that he has been asleep, you are so precious to him that he wants you to be with him.


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