One of the most frequent observations people make about this building is “What a lovely ceiling”. And what they often assume is that the work on the ceiling was done at the same time as the re-ordering; largely, I think because it`s such a good match. But I have to tell them “No, the ceiling was actually replaced following the dreadful fire we had some years before…” and I`m told that much of the credit for its design goes to the late Jack Connell, a very committed member of our Church family.
But I`m always keen to take people beyond the splendid design to what it`s there to teach us. For example, I find children are especially good at looking at the ceiling and seeing what we`re ALL invited to see… namely, the shape of a boat. You might be aware, that`s why this part of the building is known as the Nave. The reference to the Navy should be obvious; so, as we arrive this morning we come into the boat of the Church and what`s going on is that we come into a visual representation of the Gospel story we heard a moment ago. (Mark 4.35-41) “When evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was”.
Now, throughout Jesus`s ministry there is a pattern of engagement and withdrawal; activity and reflection. We see how he ministers to the people but then we see how he also knows his need to step back. And this story is one such moment. At the end of a very busy time of preaching and teaching he withdraws… and he takes the disciples with him… `leaving the crowd behind`. So, the first point I want to do is to underline the point this ceiling makes… This sitting here in the Nave is a self-conscious gathering in the presence of Jesus. Something we deliberately do. This is what the people of God do.
I`d like to make two observations about this. Firstly, what might you do … and how can we help one another really register that point as we come through that door? That we come to be with him? I`m not talking about po-faced `Shushing`.. simply the question; “How would we deport ourselves if we were more aware that this is what we`re doing?”
Secondly, there are times in the Gospels where Jesus invites his friends to come and rest a while (Mark`s Gospel is actually case in point mark case in point Mark 6.31) but the significance of this passage is not so much the `resting` as travelling with him; journeying with him.
In other words, we mustn`t confuse Worship with leisure or the kind of refreshment we gain from entertainment. No, our gathering is an illustration of Jesus`s own insistence that we `do not live by bread alone… but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Luke 4.4). No, we gather around him, we feed on him in the eucharist and by our listening to him in order to be re-shaped and re-directed. So, we gather in the presence of Jesus… But secondly, we re-affirm our trust in Jesus. Again, the boat of the Church is going somewhere. It`s sometimes said that “a boat is at its safest in a harbour… but that`s not what it`s for”.
In the same way, the boat of the Church is not one of those rather glossy Gin Palaces down on the Lake; a rather ostentatious hobby. No, the boat of the Church is like the one in the Gospel; a fishing boat. We gather around Jesus with a purpose. It`s not a retreat from the action; it`s where we sign up for the action.
So this Gospel story mirrors and illustrates what we know to be true….. that when we`re faithful to him, life for the Church, the people of God is all too frequently quite a stormy affair. It`s in the boat of the Church that we learn to accept that this goes with the territory.
This also has two sides to it. Firstly, Mark is telling us that in getting mixed up with Christ we`re in the presence of the Lord of all creation. The storms stand for the primeval chaos we hear of in the Book of Genesis. This is his way of painting the big picture; that in Christ we see a new creation coming into being. Secondly, we who occupy the boat of the Church have first hand experience that this is not plain sailing… it`s often a painful process. I mean, that the Christian life will somehow give us immunity from the storms is the lie peddled by charlatans.
I reflected a couple of weeks ago on what a mystery this is to us but it`s irrefutably true. We pray each week for our brothers and sisters who face the storms of overt and deliberate persecution. Our own storms may be for now, rather less severe; but they are no less real and frightening. Someone described our situation as “Death by papercuts”.
So, by gathering around Jesus in the boat we acknowledge the storms we face and we pray for the grace of trust. I`m reminded of a meditation by Cardinal Newman which includes the words: “I will trust Him. Whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about”.
We gather in the Lord`s presence… we affirm our trust in him… and then thirdly we learn to live in awe of him. I don`t know about you but I don`t feel I`ve ever been very good in a crisis. At least, not compared to one of my best friends. He was so cool it really didn`t surprise me when he told me that he`d joined the Bomb Disposal squad… Not that his mum was very pleased!
No, I`m far more like one of his colleagues in the Bomb Disposal Squad. He said they`d given him the nickname `Biscuit` because he always crumbled under pressure! But, we have to wonder don`t we at the reaction of the disciples? On the face of it their sense of panic was all too understandable. After all, there was the Lord fast asleep on the cushion. Notice it says `the cushion… The Lord was resting in the equivalent of the Captain`s chair and as such they expected leadership… a bit more of him!
This is where the disciples sense of terror and their complaints echo our own confusion that whilst the Lord may not be absent… sometimes he certainly seems quiet; if not asleep on the job. Well, this Gospel story gives us permission to pray with all of this. To ask ourselves, “Where are the storms in my life and in the life of the Church just now and what do I want to say to the Lord about it all?”
Put it this way; When he says, “Why are you afraid?” How would you answer? And, then what happens when you hear him saying to our storms, “Peace! Be still!” I wonder, having gathered in his presence… Having affirmed our trust in him… Can we go our way with our vision of God enlarged… and in awe of the one who commands even with wind and the waves?