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The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Fr. David Curry

St. John’s, Shaughnessy, Vancouver, BC  AD 2006

7:30am Holy Communion


“Master, carest thou not that we perish?”


Today’s gospel abbreviates the classical Epiphany teaching for this day. For centuries the gospel that was read told not only the story of Jesus rebuking the wind and calming the sea, but as well the story of the Gadarene swine. Jesus exorcizes the demons from two men possessed and sends the demon spirits into a herd of swine which then rush headlong over a cliff and perish in the sea below The point was sufficiently clear. The teaching is that Jesus is the Divine Saviour who protects us both from the sea-storms of the world and the sea-storms of the heart - the demons of our fears and anxieties which can so easily possess and control us.


The question is whether we are awake to his presence and whether we actually want him in our neighbourhood. The disciples who awaken Jesus from his sleep accuse him of not caring about whether they perish. They are, we may say, totally asleep to the meaning of his presence with them. It is altogether because he cares. And the people of the country of the Gadarenes who are so terrified about what Jesus does to remove the fierce demons which had previously terrified them beg him to leave their neighbourhood.


In the face of the light of God’s glory made manifest in Christ Jesus there is the darkness of our ignorance and our fears. And it is our darkness, to be sure. At best, we could say that we are slow to learn and sleepy-heads about what Christ would have us learn.


Yet even in its abbreviated form the lesson is powerfully present. The storm at sea does reveal a sea-storm in the hearts of the disciples. There is in them a winter-storm of discontent, of doubt and anger and anxiety. Is Jesus in the boat the Saviour or is he a Jonah-figure who must be thrown out of the boat in some sort of propitiatory act to the gods of the storm? At the very least, there is that kind of ambiguity in the question of the disciples at the height of their fear. “Master, carest thou not that we perish?”


“Master”, they call him, actually, teacher. What sort of master or teacher is it that doesn’t care? One that is not worthy of being called Master or Teacher. Jesus does care. And he cares that we should learn what he has come to teach. It is not only the wind that is rebuked and the sea that is calmed. The storm winds of doubt in the disciples are rebuked and the sea waves of fear in their hearts are calmed. They are awakened to holy awe and wonder. By what he has said and done they are forced to consider ‘who is this?’ “Who is this that even the wind and sea obey him?” In short, there is an epiphany.


They feared exceedingly in the face of his saving action. Literally, they were afraid with a great fear. In short, they were filled with awe and wonder. They sense something of the fuller meaning of the teacher who is with them. It means more than mere sympathy with our condition. Battered about in the storms of life, we will, it seems, take solace in the company of others as miserable as ourselves. But Christ is something more. The presence of Christ is salvation, not the cold comfort of shared misery. He rebukes the wind; he calms the sea. They are subject to him and so are we.


And so are we. But how easily and frequently do we miss the point or even refuse the meaning of his presence. Time and time again in the pastoral ministry, we encounter people in their grief and misery and pain who refuse any teaching that would place their suffering and affliction in connection with the gospel of Christ. They would prefer to cling to their misery and to hold onto their grief, whether it is the grief of a widow who keeps on weeping endlessly or the sad misery of parents and grandparents worried sick about their children, grandchildren or whatever else it may be.


The sympathy which is wanted is perfectly deadly. It is a sympathy which keeps us in our griefs and our misery and our pain. It means that you’re dead before you’re dead with a death which is worse than death itself. It denies the hope of salvation. It denies the presence of the Saviour. It refuses the comfort of his eternal word.


To be sure, the griefs and miseries and pains which people experience are very real and they are not to be trifled with or passed over lightly. Yet the empty clichés of our common discourse are but the poor palliatives for the winter-storms of our hearts.


They can mean what, at the very least, is suggested by the disciples in this gospel. “Master, carest thou not that we perish?” is not a request that he do something about their situation. It is more like, ‘come and be with us while we all perish’. ‘Come and join your voice to the howling chorus of our poor-me’s’. They are not awake to the truth of his presence with them - that in the midst of the storms of the world Christ is our salvation. In him is the calm and peace of our souls.  Our salvation is to be with him who is our Saviour.


Christ does not come just to share our sorrows and to join our miserable company. He comes to do something about the condition of our storm-tossed, sin-wrecked hearts. He comes as Saviour. He goes to the cross for us and for our salvation, not to be another statistic. Epiphany would awaken us to the radical nature of his being our Saviour, even to the truth of the cosmic Christ.


It means that we, too, are to be rebuked for our faithlessness. For we have failed to acknowledge the truth of who he is and what he means for us. He comes to teach us who he is for us. Sometimes it means gentle rebukes, strong admonitions, quiet encouragements, but always faithful teaching and faithful praying. It means being awake to Christ our Saviour. He comes to be with us as Saviour because he cares.


“Master, carest thou not that we perish?”