THE so-called miracles of Jesus can be difficult for 21st-century Christians to understand. The term “miracle” suggests an event contrary to scientific fact, or confounding probability. This sits oddly beside the Jesus who criticises those who ask for a sign (Luke 11.29). Luke’s Gospel contains more than 20 such stories and actions. So we ought to tackle the issue, and not be tempted by fig-leaves of pietism (“Who are we to question?”) or minimisation (“There must be a natural explanation, embellished later”).
Up to this moment, the Gospel has been filled with calling, healing, and preaching. From chapter 3 on, Luke elaborates a crescendo of revelation. The calming of the storm is a further step in Jesus’s journey to disclose his divine identity, as he moves in incremental stages from “simple” wisdom, healing, and teaching, into realms which associate him not only with royalty (as in 6.1-5), but (as here) with divinity itself.
As Luke tells the story (he is redacting an episode in Mark 4.35-41), we observe at almost the same moment Jesus’s humanity and his divinity. First, he falls asleep, probably exhausted by days of teaching. Then, moments later, he rebukes the wind and the waves, and a calm ensues. The ability to calm storms is characteristic of God himself, as Psalm 104.6-7 declares.
It is more than usually difficult to make sense of this episode in isolation from its context. It is followed by the healing of the man with the legion of unclean spirits. Those spirits acknowledge Jesus as Son of God, but the man’s reaction, after being healed, highlights a deeper truth of the Son’s relationship with the Father: “Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him” (8.38-39, emphases added). That is hardly a slip of the pen.
I doubt that the reading from Revelation was chosen for this Gospel simply because it mentions “flashes of lightning, and rumbles and peals of thunder”. This is not intended to be a storm-themed Sunday. There is a connection, though, because throughout Revelation — and, indeed, in the Jewish texts which inspired it — elements of stormy weather are reminders of the primal chaos when God created the world. Loud noise and blazing light stimulate awe and fear, the appropriate response to being close to the throne of heavenly majesty. God has these elements under control, but no other being can wield a like power.
Genesis 2 contains no lakes, storms, or heavenly epiphanies. What we do have is an aspect of the divine nature which appealed to those who wrote our scriptures, and still appeals to us who read them. That is the imprinting of order on the creation, to make it meaningful and explicable to us. It is the man’s task to begin this, under God’s direction. The man’s giving of a name to each creature was a sign of the governance over creation with which humankind was being entrusted (v. 2.19-20).
In Eden, before the Fall, there was no hierarchy; for God created them, male and female, in his image (Genesis 1.27). The man’s act of naming the woman does not create dominance or control between them; for he and she are the same flesh, the same substance: unashamed, because as yet they had nothing to be ashamed of. Our hope for a “help meet” (2.20, AV) of our own is just the same: if it is to prosper, it must eschew hierarchy; for the two ought to be one flesh.
The disciples knew that they and Jesus were not alike in the sense of being equals. He had powers that they did not possess. When they feared for their lives, they cried out “Master, master, we are perishing.” The word that they shouted is epistata: “captain”, “commander”. Jesus our captain is not our hierarchical “superior”: he is not our captain because he is the most assertive, ambitious, or alpha. He is our captain because he alone can save us from the storms of chaos which may sink even the most secure existence.
The old English Hymnal contains a hymn with a tune (White Gates) by Vaughan Williams: “Fierce raged the tempest”. Singing it this Sunday would link Luke’s Galilean tempest to our stormy lives better than any newspaper column.