by Bill Carroll
On an end table in my office, there’s a photograph a former parishioner took and gave to me. It shows the altar of a church I used to serve blazing with fire through the night. The altar is lit up with maybe ten dozen candles for Compline. The photograph is a quiet image of peace and love. When I look at it, I sense the presence of God.
The caption under the picture comes from the ancient liturgy of Compline–the final prayers of the day. Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace. Compline is a time of preparation and letting go. In it, we bring the day to a close by examining our conscience, confessing our sins, and handing the things that trouble us over to God. The words in the caption are an antiphon that’s supposed to be sung or said before and after the Song of Simeon, a canticle taken from the Bible (See Luke 2:29-32) that has been part of the evening or late night prayers of the Church for centuries.
Simeon, who appears only in Luke’s Gospel, is an old man and a prophet. He has been praying day and night in the Temple as he waits for God’s Messiah. Simeon is likely one of the people known as the Anawim, or the poor of the land. He is one of the little ones who have God alone for their helper. Many of these poor people flocked to John the Baptist and then later to Jesus. Some of the Old Testament prophets are also described as Anawim. As Luke tells the story, there’s a poor, old woman there too—also a prophet—named Anna.
When Mary and Joseph arrive on the scene, they are there to bring the baby Jesus into the Temple, present him to the Lord, and offer the appointed sacrifice. They offer turtle doves, the sacrifice of the poor. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are themselves poor. Simeon and Anna see this and realize what’s happening. Simeon responds with a prayer that we still use in our worship today:
Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.
These poor, old prophets have been waiting for a long, long time. Filled with the Spirit of love, they have been longing for the coming of Christ. They see Jesus and know he is the Anointed One—God’s chosen prophet, priest, and king. Now they can rest in peace, because in the presence of Jesus the things that divide and frighten us lose their awful power.
Jesus is the presence of God on this earth. He is God’s “perfect love, who casts out fear,” (1John 4:18) and, in his presence, death itself loses its power. As William Stringfellow once put it, “Death has no dominion!” for Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, having conquered death and the fallen powers, once and for all. At Compline, we remind ourselves of the decisive victory of Jesus, as we give up control, close our eyes, and go to sleep. At other times, we remind ourselves of his victory, in order to rouse ourselves to action on behalf of the little ones he loves.
In our Gospel this Sunday, Jesus is asleep. He is sleeping in the back of a fishing boat, while the disciples weather a storm. The boat is an ancient symbol of the Church, and we still call the part of the church building where we gather for worship a “nave.” This comes from the Latin word for ship or boat—from which we get words like navy and nautical.
And so, in the Gospel, we see the gathered Church terrified by the storm and the waves, but Jesus resting fast asleep and undisturbed. But the disciples are not at peace. They do what we might do: they wake Jesus up. They speak to him in language filled with accusation: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Like Israel in Egypt and throughout the Psalms, they are not afraid to cry out to God for help.
Jesus hears our cries, but he refuses to share our anxiety. He knows the storm and its terror far more deeply than we do, but he also knows the power of the living God, who will not be mocked: Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a DEAD CALM.
Some of us may wrestle with the miraculous dimension of the story (Did it really happen that way?), and miss what it’s trying to tell us. I, for one, have no problem believing that Jesus was a healer and an exorcist. I also believe he walked on water and stilled the stormy seas. But what is far more important than any of these miracles is the Person of Jesus himself. He is God-with-us in the flesh. He is God walking beside us, accompanying us in our struggles, giving us peace, creating a new community of brothers and sisters, and liberating us from evil. That’s what the Gospel is trying to tell us about Jesus. The early Christians did their theology best by telling and retelling stories about Jesus. It’s through what he did and suffered, as well as what he taught, that we come to confess Jesus as Savior and Lord.
Jesus is the Creator and Liberator God of Israel. He is the God of Genesis, who separates light from darkness and the dry land from the watery chaos that surrounds it. He is God of the Exodus, who parts the waters for us as we journey out of bondage into freedom. He is the God of love and life and RESURRECTION—and, in his presence, we need NEVER be afraid.
That’s actually my favorite verse of “We shall overcome, “ the one that starts:
We are not afraid.
We are not afraid.
We are not afraid today.
As William Sloane Coffin and others have noted, fear is the great enemy of love. Fear is also the enemy of justice and human dignity. The enemy of our human nature uses our fears to divide us and keep us afraid. The enemy also uses fear to get us to surrender our freedom. Fear holds us back from putting our whole trust in Jesus and the Kingdom he brings. Fear silences us and prevents us from living in solidarity with our neighbors. Fear obscures our vision, so we don’t see who counts as our neighbors. Fear holds us back from what our faith tells to do: risking ourselves (and our lives if need be) for the people Jesus lived and died for.
Jesus is Lord of sea and sky. He is Lord of life and death. And he is not afraid today.
True, Jesus knows our fears. Having lived and died as one of us, Jesus knows our fears from the inside. He knows deep, agonizing fear both in the garden and on the Cross. He knows the worst terrors that the powers of this world can inflict. After all, he was hauled off in the middle of the night, tortured, put on trial, and murdered by the occupying imperial power. He knows the worst of our fears yet does not consent to them. He overcomes the fears that hold us back from committing ourselves to God’s Kingdom. He conquers these fears in the Spirit and power of love. He conquers them by dying and rising again.
And so, in his strong embrace, there is nothing to fear. And, even if we do become afraid sometimes, we don’t have to give in to our fears. For we have been baptized in the same Spirit that rests on Jesus. The very same Spirit of love who hovers over creation in the beginning. The very same Spirit who “spoke by the prophets.” And we are part of a community with Jesus and his love at the center, where we learn to love each other and ALL the neighbors he gives us.
Jesus is the friend and Savior of the whole human race. He is a friend and Savior even to those who consider themselves his enemies. As Pope Francis once said, God has no enemies, only children. Jesus is the friend and Savior especially of the oppressed—of the poor ones, who have God alone to help them. Himself poor, Jesus is the friend and Savior of those who mourn or suffer in any way. He is the friend and Savior of those who struggle with mental illness or addiction. Of those who hunger for bread or for justice. Of those who are homeless, unemployed, poor, or in prison. Of all who are forgotten, lonely, or estranged from those they love. He is the friend and Savior of those who bear the scars of war and other forms of violence. Of immigrants, refugees, and vulnerable children. Of ALL of us, but especially the “least of these,” who are “members of his family” (Matthew 25:40).
Jesus is the Prince of Peace. But the peace he gives us isn’t passive. The peace that Jesus brings is, as Martin Luther King taught us, “not the absence of tension but the presence of justice.” Jesus came to invite us to join a Movement, so that we might serve as signs and heralds of God’s coming Kingdom.
In the words of a beloved hymn, “The peace of God it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod. Yet let us pray for but one thing—the marvelous peace of God.” (Hymnal 1982, #661)
Biblical peace means right relationship—with God, our neighbors, and the earth. This is the peace that Jesus brings to the earth. That is why he also said that he came to bring “not peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). We are sometimes in love with the things that are killing us. And so, when Jesus invites us to move toward right relationship, we often resist, sometimes violently. He still has the scars to prove it.
Jesus can sleep in the back of the boat, while all around us rage the storms of life—not because he doesn’t care, but because he trusts in the goodness of God and is already at work to save us. Jesus has come to join us in our flesh and even to undergo the worst violence the world can dish out, in order to turn our hearts back to each other and back to God. God’s Kingdom is coming. The victory of God’s love is certain. Jesus and the apostles (and many prophets and martyrs since) gave their very lives for this Kingdom. Again, in the words of Dr. King, one of the great martyrs of the last century, many of whom died struggling for justice and human dignity: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
As I think about Jesus asleep in the boat and stilling the storm, I think of the final solemn collect in the Proper Liturgy of Good Friday, also appointed for ordinations:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP, p. 280)
I also think of the words of Jesus himself as he prepared his friends for his violent death at the hands of the powers of this world: “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Death has no dominion. Do not be afraid.