Who Is This?

So, this could be seen as yet another in the many stories of the disciples, as Mark presents them for us. That is, they are the clueless disciples—the ones who never seem to know what’s going on, who don’t seem to understand what Jesus is saying or teaching or doing at any given moment. In fact, they have already, by this point in the narrative, seen him perform some pretty miraculous healings, cast out some demons, and some other pretty impressive feats. We’re still getting to the Gadarene demoniac and the feeding of the 5,000 and so on, but they should, at this point, if not know who he is, have at least an inkling.

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
June 23, 2024—Pentecost V
Mark 4:35–41
Text transcribed by YouTube, Reconstructed by ChatGPT. Please forgive any typos.
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Now, some point out, I among them, that Mark uses the disciples as a kind of literary foil. He uses their lack of faith and their fearfulness as an occasion for Jesus to comment on what it means to be a disciple—that is, to be faithful rather than fearful, to open your hearts rather than close them, to be thoughtful and read the signs around you. Some have pointed out that they are used also as a kind of negative example, the way that in a scary movie people will split up to go find out what’s going on and wander on their own through the haunted house, all the while the audience is screaming, “Don’t go in there alone!” It is a way of drawing the reader in, saying, “Well, I know what to do. The disciples are being silly. What you’re supposed to do is this.” For various reasons, Mark likes to present the disciples as being kind of clueless.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), Rembrandt
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), Rembrandt van Rijn

Now, we know that they can’t have been that way, at least not forever, because we would not be here if that were the case. We would never have gotten the gospel message because they would never have figured it out. But this is very common as a motif for how the disciples are presented. Here they are in the boat, Jesus is sleeping when the wind comes and tosses the boat around. They wake him up, completely fearful: “How can you sleep at a time like this? We’re all about to die!” And Jesus just turns to the wind and goes, “Settle down, wind,” and it does. Then they all turn to each other and they say, “Who is this who can do that?” They should know, or should they? They should have a suspicion as to who he is.

So, part of the story functions as yet another instance of the disciples not understanding, but the reader being clued in as to what’s really going on. But there is also something about this story that is emblematic for what it means to be a Christian. Because, in my mind, what Christianity as a whole is, is a response to and reflection on who Jesus was and what he did. That is, we first must know who Jesus was and what he did, and then we must reflect on it and respond to that.

The question of “Who is this?”—who is Jesus and what did he do?—is the topic of what is called by theologians christology. There are two kinds of christology: there’s the “what did Jesus do?” kind of christology and the “who is Jesus?” kind of christology. Interestingly, the “what did he do?” kind was the first one that the church really wrestled with. We see this a lot in the writings of St. Paul and the early church and those epistles where Paul tries to figure out: How exactly is it that Jesus saves us? What are we being saved from, and what is the manner of salvation? By faith, by works, by—is it by ransoming us from death? Is it by dying for us? These were the questions that the first-century church wrestled with. They knew that somehow Jesus had saved them, but how, and from what, and to what end? That was that first question.

Then, as the centuries wore on, the church began to wrestle a lot more with the “who was he?” How do we understand who it was who did these things for us? These questions of christology saw themselves in debates about Christ’s divinity versus Christ’s humanity and the nature of the Godhead and the Trinity and how could Christ reconcile both being human and divine. What was his relationship to God the Father and the Spirit and all of it? A lot of this gets worked out and written down in the creeds that we know: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed especially, the other writings of that third, fourth, and fifth-century church as they tried to hash out the theology of who exactly this had been that the disciples had encountered in that boat on the Sea of Galilee.

But there’s a temptation. There’s a temptation for us to think that they worked it all out back then and that the answer in the Nicene Creed or in the Apostles’ Creed or in the writings of Eusebius or Athanasius or Origen or any of these guys or the reflections in the epistles of Paul—that that is the settled thing, and there’s our answer. But, as I said earlier, in my belief, Christianity is the reflection on and response to who Jesus was and what he accomplished, and that reflection and response is ongoing. St. Paul and the early church fathers and the bishops who gathered at Nicaea were also themselves part of that process. The Bible itself is part of that process. Mark is part of that process. Matthew, Luke, John—all of them are part of that process of trying to figure this out. It is an ongoing question. Who Jesus is and what he did is an ongoing question. It is not settled, it is not static, and it is most certainly not a question whose answers lie in the past alone.

This point was made very, very clearly by the 20th-century German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was part of a movement in the church that was horrified to see how Christianity was embracing a dictator and a tyrant, and how so many people were lifting up Adolf Hitler as a model of Christian piety when he was nothing of the sort—obviously nothing of the sort. How the church was deferring, in a way, its understanding of Christ onto this person. If you were to read some of the things that the German church published in the 1930s about Hitler being God’s chosen one sent to rescue the German people from the horrors of the Treaty of Versailles and all of the things that had befallen them after the First World War, it would make your skin crawl to think that any Christian had ever believed such a thing.

The reason for this, as Bonhoeffer and his contemporaries saw, was that the church had lost sight of who Jesus was. What Bonhoeffer said was the Christian’s duty is to ask the question, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” That he is not merely some figure in the past. He is not a mascot to be name-dropped but not otherwise followed, not simply a figure who you claim to identify with but then ignore literally everything he had to say, everything he ever did, and everything he stood for. For Bonhoeffer, it was important to look at what Jesus had said and done and who he was and then say, “What does that mean for me?” It is not enough to simply claim that I am a Christian. It is not enough to simply claim the grace that was bestowed on me at baptism. I must be a disciple of Christ. In order to do that, I have to know who Christ was, and I have to ask: Is that Christ on the side of the powerful or the powerless? Is that Christ on the side of those who have it all or those who have nothing? On the side of the very center or the people on the margins?

If we look at the life of Christ and if we ask ourselves that question honestly and sincerely, we can conclude that this Hitler cannot be it. We have to conclude, rather, that where the church ought to be is on the side of the Jews and the Gypsies and the homosexuals and the Poles and everyone else that the powerful are saying is less than and just marginalizing and just persecuting. That’s who Jesus Christ is for us today. That’s where Jesus Christ would be today. That was Bonhoeffer’s point. Not “Who was he back then?” You know, okay, great, he healed lepers, but we’re not worried about lepers today. We’re worried about the Jews, we’re worried about the Poles, we’re worried about all these people on the margins. That’s the question we are called to ask. Who would it be who Jesus would be hanging out with today, upsetting us because he’s doing it, challenging us because he’s doing it? Who are those on the margins? Who is the equivalent of a Samaritan woman or a leper or a Phoenician woman? Who is the equivalent of the Roman centurion, reviled and hated? Who are those people? Who are the voiceless?

I’m pretty sure—I think I got a lot of scripture to back me up on this—that he would be with the poor, that he’d be with those trans teenagers whose parents had thrown them out of their homes, that he’d be with the migrants seeking to make a better life, that he’d be with everyone on the margins and not with the powerful who keep invoking his name as a way to perpetuate other people’s suffering. That is the question that we have to ask. When we relegate Christ and Christ’s identity to the past alone, we fail in this task. We fail in the task of asking, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”

So, this is the Christian discernment. This is at the heart of discipleship. When Bonhoeffer asked that question, it’s because he understood that it has always been thus. That in every age, the church must ask itself, “Who is this who can command the wind and wave? Who is this who speaks to the storm and it is still? Who is this who commands the paralytic to rise and walk? Who is this who, through simple touch, gives sight to the blind and heals the hemorrhage of this foreign woman? Who is this who raises the daughter of the synagogue leader? Who is this who heals the slave of the centurion? Who is this who brings Lazarus forth from the grave? Who is this who casts out the legion of demons for the demoniac in Gadara? Who is this who hangs upon the cross and declares forgiveness for us? Who is that, and how do we follow him?”

So, it may be that the disciples asked that question in ignorance, but they asked the right question. They ask the question that should define our entire lives as disciples of Christ.

The Text

Mark 4:35–41

That same day, after evening had come, he said to his disciples, “Let’s go to the other side of the lake.” They left the crowd behind and took him in the boat as he was. Other boats went with their boat. Then arose a huge windstorm, and waves were battering the boat so much that it was starting to get filled with water. Jeshua was in the back of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, doesn’t it bother you that we’re about to lose our lives?” Now awake, he reprimanded the wind and said to the sea, “Be quiet and muzzle yourself.” The wind stopped, and a great calm came. He said to them, “Why are you fearful? Don’t you have any trust yet?” They were really afraid and said to each other, “Who is this that even the wind and sea obey him?”
(Schaefer Translation)

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