During the American Civil War the president, Abraham Lincoln, was in the presence of a group of protestant clergymen. One of the ministers said to him: “Mr. President, let us pray that God is on our side,” to which Lincoln replied: “No, gentlemen, let us pray that we are on God’s side.”
The simple almost witty response brings home an important point. God is the one who knows what is best and he should be the focus, not ourselves. If we want to seek what is truly good and right, it is God to whom we turn for direction, guidance and assistance.
The Gospel and first reading for Sunday’s liturgy remind us of God’s authority and sovereignty in a powerful way.
The first reading is from the Book of Job. The Lord asks Job a rhetorical question: “Who shut within doors the sea, when it burst forth from the womb; when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling bands? When I set limits for it and fastened the bar of its door, and said: Thus far shall you come but no further, and here shall your proud waves be stilled!”
The point is clear, God alone created the world and all that is within it. God is the creator and he is the one who has authority over it (in other words he is the “author” of creation). This is a basic understanding not just in this passage from Job but throughout the Old Testament.
The Gospel passage for Sunday’s liturgy comes from the Gospel according to Mark. The passage recalls the time when Jesus and the disciples were in a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee. The boat would have been one of the larger fishing boats commonly used at that time. Suddenly, as is quite normal for the Sea of Galilee, a violent squall comes upon the sea and “waves were breaking over the boat so that it was already filling up.”
While the disciples react with fear, Jesus is asleep in the stern. Waking him they ask: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus replies: “Quiet! Be still!”
As soon as Jesus speaks these words the wind and sea obey. The “wind ceased and there was a great calm.” Then Jesus asks “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”
The incident makes it clear that Jesus has authority over nature, the same authority over nature that the Old Testament ascribes to God. Jesus shares in the divine authority. The disciples are beginning to become aware of this as they are filled with awe and say to one another: “Who then is this whom even the wind and sea obey?”
The “calming of the sea” is another moment where the disciples are provided an opportunity to further understand who Jesus is and to place their faith in him.
As we reflect and meditate on the Scripture readings for this liturgy, we have the same opportunity to grow in our understanding of Jesus and to place our faith in him. At different points in life we might be “rocked” by the waves that sometimes come up. We might feel like we are being “tossed about” by the winds.
The situations might be shared by many such as the fears that result from heinous acts like the shooting this week in Charleston. We all recognize the terror that results from horrendous acts of violence against the innocent and unsuspecting. The situations may be more personal such as facing a serious illness or the loss of a loved one. Regardless of the particulars of the various situations the resulting fear or sense of bewilderment needs to be addressed. Where do we turn?
Jesus is the one who can calm the storms of life. He not only has the power to calm the winds and seas of nature, he has the power to bring calm and peace to our troubled souls. He is the one to whom we look, in faith, to see us through and to alleviate our fears.
St. Paul provides us with a witness to such faith in the passage from Second Corinthians which serves as the second reading for Sunday’s liturgy. In that passage, Paul writes that “the love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore all have died.” Hence faith in Christ, particularly in his death and resurrection, fills us with the confidence that no power or force of this world that could harm, dismay, destroy or even kill has any real power over us who are loved by God.
The life he won for us through his death is so strong and vibrant that we have become “a new creation.” Fear cannot rob us of this life. War cannot rob us of this life. Terror cannot rob us of this life. Death cannot rob us of this life. All things are new in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Abraham Lincoln’s encounter with the clergyman mentioned above suggested that we might think differently about where our focus should lay when dealing with the troubles in our lives. The clergyman’s innocent statement revealed an underlying presupposition that he was in the right and that God should assist him because of it. Lincoln’s response makes a subtle but all important shift.
In that response is an inherent understanding that God is first; he is the one who knows what is right and good; he is the One who has authority, power and wisdom; he is the one who will see us through so long as we put our faith in him and seek to follow his way.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.