In Mark 6:45-53, Mark recounts the episode of Jesus walking on the sea. The disciples have been sent to the other side of the sea, but they struggle through the night against an adverse wind. When Jesus comes to them, walking on the sea, the narrator says something very curious, "He intended to pass by." Moreover, the episode ends with a very enigmatic statement. “And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:52). So what's going on here in Mark, and how might it relate to us?
ENSURING THAT CHANGE IS A SUSTAINABLE BLESSING
I have a good friend named Rob Voyle (clergyleadership.com). I first met Rob at the General Convention in Anaheim, California in 2009. We met through a mutual friend, and we both had booths in the convention hall. At the end of the first full day, Rob came by my booth, and said with his New Zealand accent, “Let’s go get a beer, mate.” I was tired, and I don’t actually like beer, but I went along anyway, and I am glad I did because Rob is brilliant. Rob is a priest, a psychologist, and a consultant.
In his work as a church consultant, folks often say to Rob, “People don’t like change, especially church people.” But Rob disagrees. It’s not change per se that people don’t like, but the type of change that people will either accept or reject. “People don’t want to be changed; they want to be blessed” (Dr. Stephen Gilligan). For example, if you get a raise at work, you’re happy; that’s the sort of change you like. So if you have ever experienced a blessing in life, you have experienced some kind of change. And that is Rob’s passion in life, helping people and organizations ensure that the changes they seek to make are sustainable blessings.
The Kingdom of God
When Jesus announced the arrival of God’s kingdom, he was announcing change. “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent—be changed—and believe the good news” (1:15). Now some people experienced the kingdom as a blessing, not least those whom Jesus healed by the power of the kingdom. But others, such as the scribes and Pharisees, opposed the Jesus’ kingdom proclamation, for they did not perceive him or his message as a blessing.
But it wasn’t just religious opponents who exhibited resistance. On occasion, Jesus’ own disciples show signs of resisting the kingdom of God. That’s what we see in today’s gospel. And again, it wasn’t simply that the disciples didn’t like change. After all they gave up their livelihoods to follow Jesus because they believed that life with Jesus was better than life without Jesus. But they did not welcome every change that the kingdom entailed. And that’s what I want us to look at today.
After Jesus fed the five thousand, the disciples picked up the twelve baskets full of leftover loaf fragments. Immediately, Jesus made them get into the boat, and compelled them to go on ahead without him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, to the village of Bethsaida. After the disciples embarked, Jesus dismissed the crowd and went up on a mountain to spend a night of prayer. In the middle of the night, the disciples were struggling against an adverse wind, and they made little headway. By early, early morning, they still hadn’t arrived at their intended destination. Seeing their struggles, Jesus came to his tortured disciples walking upon the sea. That’s pretty incredible, but then notice what the text says: “He intended to pass by.” Now, if Jesus is coming to assist his disciples, why does he intend to pass by? Is he going to lead the way to Bethsaida? Is he trying to show off by beating the disciples to Bethsaida on foot? It’s a strange statement, and many a reader of Mark has stumbled over it. But we have a clue to its meaning in a passage from Exodus 33.
Moses is talking with the Lord on Mt. Sinai. At this point, Moses has brought the Israelites out of Egypt and conducted them safely to Mt. Sinai. There they enter into a covenant with the Lord. But because of the Golden Calf affair, the Lord is having second thoughts about accompanying his stiff-necked people on the final leg of their journey to the Promised Land. But Moses intercedes and convinces the Lord to go with them. Then, Moses seeks a pledge of good faith, a sign that the Lord will really keep his promise. Moses asks to see God’s glory. “Impossible,” says the Lord, “for no human being can see my face and live.” But because Moses has found favor in his sight, the Lord offers a compromise, “I will make my goodness pass before you,” and this is how it will work.
There is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen (Exodus 33:21–23).
So the Lord reveals himself to Moses by passing by him. The same thing happens centuries later with the prophet Elijah. After defeating the prophets of Baal, Elijah flees from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. He travels for forty days and nights through the wilderness, and eventually makes his way to Mt. Sinai. In order to support and encourage Elijah, the Lord reveals himself to Elijah, and he does so by passing by him (1 Kings 19:11). So in the Bible, the language of passing by is often used in connection with theophanies, with acts of God’s self-revelation.
So when Jesus comes walking upon the sea with the intent of passing by his disciples, he is engaging in an act of self-revelation. He is attempting to reveal himself in all of his divine power and glory, for only the Lord could walk upon the chaotic turbulence of the sea. His passing by them is for support and encouragement. Jesus is reminding his disciples that he is with them. Moreover, he is trying to show his disciples that the one who called them, the one who empowered them, the one who sent them on this mission is none other than the Lord himself.
Unfortunately, it is all for naught. Jesus’ attempt to pass by them in an act of divine disclosure fails, for the disciples do not see him as the Lord and thereby find courage and strength. Rather they think they are seeing a ghost, and they become terrified. Jesus tries to calm their fears. “Take courage, it is I.” “Take courage, I am.” But this too fails, for when Jesus gets into the boat and everything calms down, the disciples themselves do not become calm, but are left utterly astounded. Now we might give the disciples a bit of slack here; after all they have just witnessed some pretty astounding things. But narrator doesn’t give them any slack. Listen again to Mark’s explanation of their astonishment. “And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:52). They did not understand about the loaves, because their hearts were hardened? Well, that’s just confusing.
Had Mark simply ended the episode with “and they were utterly astounded,” that would make sense. But he doesn’t. Instead he attributes the disciples’ astonishment to their not understanding about the loaves, whatever that means. And then he attributes their not understanding about the loaves to their hardness of heart. Not only are the disciples confused; we are confused. Mark the master storyteller has put us in the same boat with the disciples because we don’t understand about the loaves either. I wonder if that means that we also have hardened hearts? I’m not sure about that, but I do know this. Mark has left us a breadcrumb trail, and he expects us to follow it.
So what’s going on? What Mark means by “not understanding about the loaves” is uncertain. Clearly “the loaves” is an allusion to the feeding of the five thousand, but do “the loaves” refer to the five loaves that Jesus blessed, or to the twelve baskets of leftover loaves that the disciples collected, or perhaps to the feeding as a whole. We just don’t know at this point in the narrative, and I am not quite ready to let that cat out of the bag just yet. (You are going to have to come back for the next several weeks for that.)
On the other hand, the reference to hardness of heart is straight forward. Hardness of heart is strong language; it’s the language of opposition and resistance. You may recall how Pharaoh hardened his heart against God’s purposes that were being worked out through his servant Moses. And earlier in Mark’s gospel, the Pharisees are described as hard-hearted when they oppose the purposes of God that are being worked out through Jesus. So when the disciples are described as having hardened hearts; it’s a serious condition. The disciples aren’t simply failing to understand something. According to Mark, Jesus’ disciples are showing signs of resistance; somehow they are standing in opposition to Jesus and his mission.
THE SIGNS AND NATURE OF THE DISCIPLES' RESISTANCE
So what are the signs and the nature of the disciples’ resistance? Mark has left us a few clues. The first appears at the very beginning of the episode when Jesus had to compel his disciples to get into the boat and cross over to Bethsaida. They don’t seem to want to go. Second, the disciple make little progress against an adverse wind, despite the fact that seasoned fishermen are among their number. Could it be that their hearts weren’t in it? Finally, even after Jesus gets into the boat and the sea calms down, they do not make it to Bethsaida, but land at Gennesaret. So it appears that the disciples are opposed to going to Bethsaida, but why?
Well, as it turns out, Bethsaida is not in Jewish territory; it’s in Gentile territory. And so when Jesus compelled his disciples to cross over to Bethsaida, what he was in fact doing was sending his Jewish disciples on a Gentile mission. He was sending them out to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom to Gentiles, to cast out demons, to heal the sick, and perhaps even to feed Gentiles. In short, Jesus was calling his disciples to do among Gentiles what they had done so successfully among their fellow Jews. But they resist, and this is why they are characterized as hard-hearted. Moreover, their resistance to Gentile mission is what accounts for their failure to understand about the loaves and also their failure to recognize Jesus in his divine act of walking upon the sea. Because according to Mark, you cannot recognize who Jesus really is if you are fundamentally opposed to some aspect of his mission.
SATISFYING THE DISCIPLES' OBJECTIONS TO GENTILE MISSION
My friend Rob Voyle says that making a change in life or in an organization is simply a matter of getting from Point A to Point B. Point A is where you are now, and Point B is where you want to get to. Point A is your starting point; Point B is your destination. So that making a change is a matter of finding the resources you need to get from A to B.
Jesus himself is overseeing a change; he is trying to get his disciples from A to B. The disciples have just carried out a successful Jewish mission; that’s Point A. And now Jesus wants them to carry out a successful Gentile mission; that’s Point B. Both missions are essential to God’s purposes, but the disciples resist going to B, going to Bethsaida. So notice how Jesus responds to their resistance, to their hardness of heart.
As I noted earlier, when Jesus climbs into the boat, everything calms down; so presumably it should be smooth sailing to Bethsaida. But Jesus does not try to overcome his disciples’ resistance by forcing them to continue on. Clearly, the disciples do not yet have all the resources they need to make it to B; they don’t have all the resources they need to conduct a successful Gentile mission. So, instead of landing at Bethsaida in Gentile space, they return to Jewish space and land at Gennesaret. In other words, Jesus has them regroup at A, the place of success. Jesus does not give up on the disciples, he is simply going to try another strategy. And in the weeks ahead, we are going to see how Jesus responds to their resistance to Gentile mission. He doesn’t overcome their resistance, but by satisfying their objections, by helping them discover the resources they need to be faithful and successful. But will it work? Will they ever understand about the loaves, and will they ever make it to B, to Bethsaida? (Again, you are going to have to come back to find out. Believe me you don’t want me to try to fit all of this into one sermon.)
GETTING TO B
Well, we must stop here, but I have an assignment for you. This next week I would like you to think about your own call to ministry and about your own missionary journeys from A to B. And here are three questions to help guide your reflections.
Where are you now?
Where might God be leading you?
And what resources do you need to make the journey?
Resources could be anything… time, money, vision, motivation, other people. A resource is anything that helps us get from A to B.
As you reflecting on these things, as you reflect on where God wants you to be, if anything in you objects, if you find any resistance in you, do not ignore it; do not try to suppress it. Listen to your objections, pay attention to your resistance, because these are simply pointing you to additional resources that you need to gather.
Finally, as you think on these things, as you gather your resources, and as you travel from A to B, know that the Lord Jesus is with you. He may not demonstrate his presence by passing by on the sea, but he always make his presence known through the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is our greatest resource for getting from where we are to where God wants us to B.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.