A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on Sea Sunday, 12 July 2015, at Christ Church Cathedral Oxford:
I bring you greetings from St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne, the seat of the Primate of Australia and the metropolitical Cathedral of the Province of Victoria. Thank you, Dean Martyn Percy and Sub-Dean Edmund Newey for your kind invitation to preach this morning: It is a joy to be back at Christ Church, the place of my ordination 14 years ago, and before then the place in which I sang regularly during the summer months as part of your voluntary choir – the Cathedral singers.
This morning’s reading speak of the awe-inspiring nature of the sea, and assure us that the God who, at the beginning of time, made the sea and the dry land is master of the oceans, seas and rivers of our world. They tell us that, at the end of all time, God will gather in his people from all directions of the compass, ‘gather them out of the lands, from the east, the west, the north and the south’ (Psalm 107.3). They remind us that, even though God brings in entire nations and people, he knows each one of us individually and personally, ‘calls us by name’, and makes us his own (Isaiah 43.1). And, in the light of that knowledge, they invite us to place our own trust in the One who commands ‘even the wind and sea’, our Lord Jesus Christ, and to find our haven in the vision of the kingdom of heaven to which he calls those who know him (Mark 4.41).
I encountered the majesty and treachery of the ocean during my formative years on the Atlantic coast of the British Isles. For some two years I served as a helmsman of an Atlantic-class Inshore Life-Boat patrolling a thirty-mile stretch of the coast of South Wales. It was at once exhilarating and awe-inspiring to cut through the gale-swept waves at a speed of more than 25 knots, as our crew responded to the maritime emergency call ‘Save Our Souls’. Those in peril on the seas ranged from small sailing vessels to large commercial craft, included children caught in the tidal change on their rubber dinghies and beachgoers caught out at the bottom of steep cliffs by the high tide. It was a privilege to be able to contribute to ensure the physical safety of those threatened by the elements, and it gave me a first hand insight into the challenges and dangers faced by those serving on the seas on a daily basis.
During my time as part of the Royal National Life-Boat Institution, I learnt as much about saving souls as I have learnt since in my ministry as a parish priest and Dean; and learnt about giving thanks for missions accomplished successfully: bedraggled children returned to their anxious parents, shivering day-trippers restored to safety. At the same time I had my first encounters with violent deaths, as the sea claimed and did not return those we set out to rescue: learnt about the pain and the cost of souls lost at sea. It was at times like these, I now know with the benefit of hindsight, that I began begun to grapple with the challenge posed by the Christian assurance of resurrection: how could it be that there was a life for those who had died? When faced with those we brought back drowned, when faced with an unsuccessful rescue, I began to ponder the hope for souls lost at sea, and all other departed.
The question of the resurrection of the dead and the hope for all souls—not only those lost at sea—is addressed by our first lesson, from the Prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 43.1-7). The prophet assures those who fear their own future and, as part of that future, their own future mortality, that God has ‘redeemed them’ (43.2). God has responded to his people’s call, far away from safety, in a foreign land of exile and oppression, and he promises them a future: ‘I have formed you; I have redeemed you’, God tells through the prophet (43.1). God cares so much for the people who call on him in their distress, that he knows each individual plight, each individual challenge, we read: ‘I have called you by name, you are mine’ (43.1).
And God promises them safe passage to the safe haven he promises them: the place of safety and protection, where God will be with his people, where ‘everyone who is called by God’s name, whom God created for his glory, whom he formed and made’ will dwell forevermore: the eternal haven of heaven (43.7). God not only promises a place of safety and refuge at the end of our journeys through life: he also promises safe passage to that haven, the prophet Isaiah foretells. Neither the natural environment nor people and nations hostile to God’s people shall, ultimately, be a threat to those whom God calls his own: ‘when you pass through the waters I shall be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you’, we heard (Isaiah 43.2).
Life’s journey may lead through turbulent waters, Isaiah prophecies, but God will walk with his people: ‘do not fear, I am with you’, God speaks to his own (43.1). Even should God’s people face life in subjection to a harsh taskmaster and overlord—as during their exile in Babylon, the context into which Isaiah’s words were spoken—God has ultimately won the liberty of his people, has ransomed them and set them free: ‘I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life’ (43.3). The physical freedom and life of his people has been won by the ransom of ancient superpowers, our reading knows: ‘I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you’ (43.3). The everlasting freedom and life of his people has been won by another ransom: the life of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, ‘as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10.45).
Giving entire nations as a ransom so that one people—gathered from all nations—may live in freedom is a steep price to pay. Giving the life of God himself as a ransom so that all people may live forever is an even more precious price to pay. Our second reading, from the Holy Gospel according to St Mark, introduces us to the One who would be given as God’s ransom to ensure that death will no longer imperil God’s people (Mark 4.35-41). We meet the disciples and Jesus towards the very beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ followers do not yet know his true identity as Son of God: at this stage in the story they only know him as a healer and an inspiring teacher. As they cross the Sea of Galilee, a ‘great gale arose’ (4.37).
The disciples knew the Sea of Galilee like the back of their hands: most of them had run their own fishing business, and had navigated its waters on an almost daily basis. Between them, they had had many years of sailing experience, had steered safely through many a sudden gale on the Sea that provided their livelihood. Yet this storm is beyond even their extensive experience: they struggle for control of their sailing vessel: the waves break into their ship, and swamp the hull. Their teacher remains oblivious to his disciples’ danger, ‘asleep in the stern’ as the gale roars and the waves threaten to sink the ship (4.38).
At this point, the disciples acknowledge their failure to control the vessel and send out one of the first recorded ‘SOS’ calls in naval history: Save our souls—‘we are perishing’, they cry out waking their teacher, who rebukes the wind and commands the Sea: ‘Peace! Be still!’ (Mark 4.39), Jesus calls on the elements, and the elements obey and are still. Where only moments ago the chaos of gale and flood threatened the lives of those aboard the fishing vessel, now there is a dead calm, as the water and the wind are at peace. This sudden peace is clearly not human work—the disciples drew on all their skill as seafarers to navigate through the gale, and failed—but God’s gift.
And for the disciples it is indeed the ‘peace of God, which is beyond all understanding’: ‘they said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him”,’ our reading questions (4.41). Where human efforts and skill fail, it is by God’s command and through God’s gift of peace that the waves are stilled and the crew is safely brought home to their haven. ‘Who then is this?’, Jesus’ followers ponder, and fail to draw the conclusion that the One who commands the elements to share in God’s peace is also the very One who called them to being at the time of creation, the One who by ‘his word called the stormy sea, which lifts its waves in power’ (Psalm 107.25).
At the end of the story of Jesus and his disciples, his friends know him to be not only the teacher who saved them from drowning at sea, but as the ‘one Mediator between God and humankind, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself a ransom for all’ (1 Timothy 2.5-6). They had seen him as he gave his life on a cross, and saw him again risen from the dead, saw him as a pledge of the life that is forever, for all. They knew him to be the One whom not only the winds and the sea obey, but whom death and life obey. They know him to be the source of their peace now, and the hope of their eternal rest. They know him to be the One who heard their SOS one gust swept night, and has saved their souls forever; know that the One who brought them to the safe haven when they were perishing as their vessel was swamped will also bring them safely to their eternal haven. And they know the cost of that rescue operation, that salvation: the life of the Son of God as a ransom for many, which opened the haven of salvation—heaven itself—to all people who seek God’s friendship.
It was at sea that I first learnt about responding to the mayday signal ‘SOS’. Indeed it was at sea that I first successfully helped to save souls. It was also at sea that I first asked questions about our unsuccessful missions, pondered the reality of pain and loss, brokenness and death. Those questions for me might have remained perpetual questions, had I not been invited by a group of Christians at this university to reflect with them on the central question that Jesus’ disciples asked themselves in today’s second lesson: ‘who then is this Man?’ (Mark 4.41). It was some five years after my service in the Royal National Life-Boat Institution that I was confirmed in my Oxford College Chapel, and confessed my adult faith in Jesus Christ: that I acknowledged that Christ was the One who, ultimately, has saved all souls—even those we did not manage to bring back to shore alive.
As we give thanks for the seafarers who daily face the risks of the great oceans that surround our Island nation, I invite you to ponder the mystery at the heart of this morning’s readings: the mystery that God saves souls; that God calls each one of us by name, and redeems his own; that God has prepared for all who seek him a haven that is forever—the place where ‘all storms will cease, all waves will be still; all will be at rest’ (Psalm 107.29-30). And as we give thanks for the gift of God’s peace, let us also acknowledge the cost of that peace: wrought at the cost of the One who gave his life as a ransom for many; wrought at the cost of the many lives who, following in his service, have given their own lives so that we might enjoy the freedom and peace we know; wrought in countless conflicts through the centuries, just as it has been, and is being wrought in countless acts of selfless giving, kindness and sacrifice each day.
And now ‘may God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ grant us all peace, love and faith. May his grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus, in life imperishable. Amen’. (Ephesians 6.25).
Photography: Royal National Life Boat Institution UK. All rights reserved. Used by permission.