A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 29, 2023 at Holy Communion
Jesus says, “Peace! Be still.” In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
Today we have another famous Gospel reading. Jesus calms the storm with a word. And although we could spend the next several minutes spinning that out, I think that we understand the point: Jesus calms the storms of life. That preaches. We get it.
But is it true? Does Jesus calm the storms of life?
Because it seems pretty clear that Jesus does not calm all the storms of life. We’re just about to enter Black Heritage Month and yet we just heard on the news about another Black man dead, beaten to death by police in Memphis while he cried out for his mother. So Jesus hasn’t calmed the storm of police violence yet.
But this isn’t a sermon about that—it was just a visceral reminder that sometimes our expectations about the peace Jesus brings can be a little quaint. Jesus will return at the end of days for vengeance to establish a peaceful kingdom, but until then, there are many for whom the storm of tragedy will not be calmed.
So how do we understand Jesus calming the sea? As always, we should follow the early church. They didn’t think that the raging sea represented the circumstances of their lives. They lived in a raging storm of persecution; their circumstances were not peaceful, and they did not imagine that Jesus ever promised to make their circumstances peaceful. Instead, they understood the raging sea to represent the passions.
That term needs some explanation. “The passions” refers to our feelings. But not all of our feelings are bad and are “passions.” It is normal and healthy to feel happy when there is a cause for celebration, or sad when there is a cause for mourning. So “the passions” are feelings which overwhelm us, disturb us, and make us disconnected from reality. The passions are ways that we give into feelings which go beyond healthy emotion, and take away our stable centre where we experience the peace of God.
I’ll give a few examples. “Anger” is one of the easiest passions to understand. When something bad happens to us, it is normal to feel sad. The healthy way to address that emotion is to acknowledge it, to identify its cause, and if the circumstances require speaking to someone who has caused us harm to reconcile the situation, we do that. Anger is not required. But we are all, to some degree other another, addicted to the passion of anger. We stop thinking, and let our feelings run away with us. We strike back with unkind words, or we hold our anger inwardly and grow cold and uncommunicative. None of that is helpful—anger is a passion, an emotion that has gotten out of touch with reality and overwhelmed our ability to think straight about a healthy and reasonable path forward through whatever is distressing us.
For another example, which is perhaps more complex, despair is a passion. Again, sadness is natural when our lives are difficult or full of tragedy. Sadness can be healed. But when we let our sadness overwhelm us and become our whole world, we can shut out the possibility of healing. We begin believing things that are not true, like, “You can’t possibly move through this.” But you can. Despair is a passion: it is a feeling which has expanded until it shuts out the rest of life.
For a final example, all sorts of things that we normally think of as “vices,” “bad things that we do,” have their root in the passions. Greed is a passion: it is a desire for the good things of the world which sustain us, but blown up into a force that alienates us from our neighbours and the better things in life.
A priest friend of mine says that he often tells his congregation that sin isn’t just about “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” If that were all that sin is, few of us would be sinners. In fact, it’s deeper than that. We sin when we give into the passions, when our thoughts and feelings get out of touch with reality, and with the grace and goodness of God. Sin is alienation of the inmost spirit from God.
The Christian picture of wholeness is that our emotions should be moderate and stable, should respond reasonably to the world around us, and that they should be rooted in the peace of God. The ideal of many ancient spiritual writers is that we become “unperturbed”: we become so rooted in God that, although we have normal and healthy emotions, we cannot be disturbed by anything that happens to us. This gives us the freedom to be wholly devoted to prayer, to praise and thanksgiving, and to joyful reflection on the goodness and mercy of God—even in the midst of whatever is happening to us.
That is a high calling. I, for one, have a long way to go. And that is true of all of us. So no wonder that the early Christians thought of the passions when they heard about a raging sea! The passions threaten to overwhelm us, to flip our boat, drowning us as they constantly swell up within.
To the raging sea of the passions, Jesus says, “Peace! Be still!” and the waves are calm at the word of Jesus.
Remember that the passions all have lies at the centre of them. The lie is this: you should be angry, you should be despairing, you should be fearful. Against those lies, Jesus speaks the truth: “Peace.” God has created us for peace. He blesses the human spirit undisturbed by the passions with his own presence, and this presence brings peace and contentment. The waves of the sea may rage, but it’s just that: rage. It is not reality. The passions of anger, despair, laziness, boredom, fear: they are all lies. And what good news that is! It means that Jesus can ask a simple question: “Why are you still afraid?” “Why are you still despairing?” Peace. Be still.
Overcoming the passions is a lifelong struggle, but it is also simple. It is the struggle to finally and fully have enough faith in Jesus to believe him and to hear him when he says, “Peace! Be still.”