“Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mk 4:40).
“Keep the faith”: these are words we use to encourage one another in difficult circumstances, when there isn’t much else about the situation that calls for optimism. Those who “keep faith” when the going gets tough discover a bond between them, through sheer perseverance in a common cause. Adversity would seem to be the natural testing ground of faith, the place where the tensile strength of our commitment to each other and to a shared purpose is revealed.
Some of this same sense of “faith” shines forth in our Gospel reading today. The boat carrying Jesus and his disciples is overtaken by a storm; the waves breech the boat and it’s in danger of capsizing. Jesus is asleep, so they wake him up. Isn’t he concerned that they’re in danger of perishing? Jesus immediately calms the wind and waves and everything is still. “He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” (Mk 4:40).
You see where he’s going here: don’t they trust Jesus to “keep faith” with them? It’s not so much that they thought he was powerless. Their lack of faith is not about doubt in his ability to calm the storm. It’s really about whether he is trustworthy; whether he cares for them enough to wake up and do something. They don’t ask, “Are you able to help us?” Or, “Aren’t you going to do something?” Instead they ask him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mk 4:38). They’re worried about their relationship with him. Their fear and lack of faith is all about their relationship with Jesus.
Faith is a relationship word. The disciples’ question reveals their own inability to keep faith with him in the face of adversity, in the face of the storm. They have not kept the faith. They have forgotten about their relationship with him, the bond that links them together. They can’t run away because they’re in the boat together, but their fear and their question reveals that their faith has been found wanting. In the face of adversity their faith has snapped.
The most basic understanding of faith, in terms of the ancient Hebrews, is trust. Those who are faithful are trustworthy, reliable and sure. To believe in God, to have faith in God, is to trust that God is able to save. In the story of the storm on the Sea of Galilee the most basic understanding of faith is acted out. The disciples fear for their lives. Their lack of faith is revealed in their lack of trust in their relationship with God.
I suspect that there’s not a single one of us today who can’t identify with the disciples in our reading. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mk 4:38). I’ve heard these very words on my own lips. As we encounter adversity our faith is tried. We wonder where God has been and why he’s taken no notice of our struggle. Is God really in relationship with us? Are we able to “keep the faith” in spite of the evidence to the contrary? Some of the trials before us are terrifying, and fear is natural. Faith in this context means believing that God loves us and is powerful to save us, no matter what the challenge.
This brings us to Christian faith itself: that is, faith in Christ. We know that God is trustworthy because of what God has done in Christ. For us, faith is not a generalized trust in God but a particular faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection. God was faithful to him in raising Jesus from the dead, and through our faith in Jesus he becomes the source of life for us. God’s particular action here in Christ, his favor toward him, is for our sake. We believe that God is trustworthy because of what he has done in Christ.
We are in relationship with Jesus because we are members of his Body through the grace of Holy Baptism. In the sacrament our faith is pledged. We keep faith, and God keeps faith with us. Sunday by Sunday we recite the story, in the Creed and in the Eucharist, of what God has done in raising Jesus from the dead. We eat and drink the sacramental signs of his death and resurrection and discover new life within ourselves through grace, through God’s gift of faith. Remember the words of invitation to Communion: “Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”
– The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee