One Little Word PDF Print E-mail

by Terry Schlossberg


December 13, 1992
Presbyterian Church of Old Greenwich, Connecticut

Text: Mark 4:35-41

    On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care if we perish?" And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?" And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?"

My father, now deceased, as far as I know, was an unbeliever. He rejected Protestantism outright, but he kept a soft--though usually distant--place in his heart for his Catholic background in spite of a rather tough skepticism. His aunt was a nun whom he invited to visit on several occasions in his later years. I think she might have been wooing him gently toward faith except that on one of her visits to see him, the plane ride was violently turbulent and she became paralyzed by fear. She was so frightened, in fact, that she wasn't sure she wanted to fly again. Her report of the experience had a devastating effect on my Dad. He realized that the little nun had been tested by impending calamity, and that her faith had failed her. His disappointment was unmistakable. If there really were a God, he said to me, and she really were a woman of faith, she would not have been overcome by fear.

John Calvin, in his commentary on our passage from Mark 4 this morning, spoke to this matter of faith in the face of calamity. It was not the disciples' pleas for help that produced the rebuke for their lack of faith, said Calvin. Their crying out to Jesus, in fact, was a sign of their faith. But the meaning of the Greek for fear here is that they were afraid beyond limit. They had gone beyond the sort of fear that stirs faith, to a fear that, in Calvin's words, knocked faith "clean out of their minds." They were desperate men who had lost hope. Jesus' rebuke reminds us that the Sovereignty of God and the surety of his promises are never in question; and that he takes the sin of unbelief among his disciples--then and now--very seriously.

In their moment of testing, Jesus' disciples became like the complaining Israelites for whom God had made a way for their escape by parting the Red Sea and provided manna and quail and sweet water when they were threatened with starvation; who preserved their lives by going ahead of them into the wilderness with the visible presence of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. But in spite of God's repeated display of faithfulness, the Israelites allowed each new set of difficult circumstances to overwhelm their faith; they feared they had been led out into the wilderness and abandoned there to its terrors.

This fear of impending doom takes us back to the creation account to discover Who's really in charge here. The Genesis story tells us that God is the author of all that exists and that he is the sovereign ruler over his creation. "The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it--you have founded them," says the Psalmist (Ps. 89:11) Furthermore, the Genesis account speaks of God creating a universe out of a chaotic void and declaring it to be "good." In doing that, it is drawing a contrast that separates Christian Faith from the pagan beliefs of other religions: it is making the distinction between chaos and its opposite: order and meaning.

The biblical history continually reassures us that God is in control of a universe which without him indeed would be chaos, without meaning or purpose. When the disciples cry out, "Master, we perish," it is because their experience has persuaded them that God is no longer in control, that chaos has taken over again, and they are lost. Hence, Jesus' rebuke, "Why are you so afraid? Have you yet no faith?" These men were firsthand witnesses of Jesus' sovereignty over circumstances in his many miracles. They had seen him cleanse a leper, heal a paralytic, and feed a multitude. But when their own lives appeared threatened their faith failed them. The extent of their fear means that they saw themselves as victims, alone and without help in an empty universe. And so do many of us fear, some with a terrified fear; and all of us at least find ourselves sometimes wondering whether the universe finally is an empty void, ruled by the chaos of circumstances.

This view of a universe without ultimate meaning or purpose has a name: it is called nihilism. And it is that great conflict between nihilism and Christian truth that lies at the heart of abortion. Abortion is a conflict between hope and hopelessness, between faith and faithlessness. And the choice of abortion is the clearest manifestation in our age of the belief that we are alone, after all, and on our own in a hostile and threatening universe. All the language of autonomy associated with abortion--the "my own body" language--is ample evidence of that.

The candid writings of feminist Germaine Greer offer a concise expression of the nihilism that has produced the unsettling acceptance of abortion in our society. "The world is far from just," says Greer. "Too many women are forced to abort by poverty, by their menfolk, by their parents." The problem is not women who do not want their babies, she says, but an "unjust world" that does not want them. And Lutheran theologian Paul Hinlicky adds that the injustice is compounded by a world that isolates women and lays on them both the responsibility and the blame for "sparing that unloved new life the terrors of [the world's] own lovelessness." That's nihilism in a nutshell.

At the Presbyterian Church's national dialogue on abortion perspectives a few years ago, one of the small group participants remarked that the reason she is pro-choice is because she does not want the responsibility of caring for someone else's child. That response joins the church to the unbelieving world in its declaration that the calamities of life sometimes result in the creation of human lives who are themselves without meaning or purpose, and that those sad, unwanted creatures are better off dead. Their deaths, in fact, become the means of salvation for the women who cannot bear the responsibility for their lives.

The new abortion position of the Presbyterian Church (USA), says this:

    Problem pregnancies are the result of, and influenced by, so many complicated and insolvable circumstances that we have neither the wisdom nor the authority to address or decide each situation. (p.10)

That statement shows the church to be completely earthbound, standing in awe of the wind and waves; a church that has lost its ability to see the unseen with the eyes of faith, and declare with the affirmation of both Old and New Testaments: "Greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world." (II Kgs 6:16; I Jn. 4:4) And so, absolving itself of responsibility by its own lack of wisdom and authority, the church leaves women alone in the universe. Each year for the past two decades there have been at least one and one half million of these "complicated and insolvable circumstances" that overwhelm women and press them to destroy their own tiny innocent children developing within them. Abortion is a phenomenon of modern American life, claiming the lives of one out of nearly every three children. It is surely the occasion of Jesus rebuke to us as his disciples, in the modern church: "Have we no faith?"

The Psalmist, hundreds of years before the event in Mark, expressed God's ability to control a threatening universe. He wrote,

    Some went down to the sea in ships,
    doing business on the mighty waters;
    they saw the deeds of the LORD,
    his wondrous works in the deep.
    For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
    which lifted up the waves of the sea[,]
    [which] mounted up to heaven,
    [and] went down to the depths;
    their courage melted away in their calamity;
    they reeled and staggered like drunkards,
    and were at their wits' end.
    Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
    and he brought them out from their distress;
    he made the storm be still,
    and the waves of the sea were hushed.
    Then they were glad because they had quiet,
    and he brought them to their desired haven.
    (Psalm 107:23-31)

And now, here in Mark, the Psalmist's words come to life, and the LORD displays his unfailing faithfulness. The God who neither slumbers nor sleeps (Ps. 121) is roused by the distress of those whom he loves. And with one little word he breaks into the circumstances and brings them under his control. He stills the storm and hushes the sea, and the ship proceeds to its desired haven. And the gladdened disciples, preserved in spite of their failure of faith, stand in awe to discover once again the Sovereignty of God, and his good purposes for them. The miracle itself, and the record of it passed down to us, is a mercy of God that gives us a glimpse of the nature and character of the ruler of this universe. In this account we are able to see what is ordinarily the unseen hand of God at work in his world.

This account in Mark of God's power over the terrifying situations of life flies in the face of our denomination's claim that complicated and insolvable circumstances make abortion a necessity of life, however unpleasant. Those who framed that statement, and those who approve it, have not understood the rebuke of Jesus in today's passage.

The overwhelming numbers of abortions in our society stand as a judgment on the church for its faithless imitation of the nihilistic culture; for its awe of the stormy circumstances of life rather than awe of the mightier God. The church's statement leads the people of God into unbelief and dims the light of the church's witness to the watching world. In this age of unbelief, one which many describe as Post-Christian, we in the church need to renew and proclaim our awe of the mighty and good God again. And we need to express that awe in practice as well as in proclamation; in the face of calamity as well as in the serenity of the sanctuary.

Instead of joining in the isolation and rejection of the unborn and their needy mothers, the church ought to proclaim again that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the sure signs of God's concern for every human life which, the Scripture says, is created in the very image of God. And the church ought to be the avenue by which each newly conceived human being is received, wanted, into the human community. We are the community that ought boldly to reject the view that the universe is haphazard and meaningless, and in faith become again what we as the church have been in the past, and what the Scripture admonishes us to be: a People that welcomes children.

A Presbyterian elder in a small community in Pennsylvania wrote me about his family's decision to welcome a stranger into their home. An unmarried teenager needed a place to live during her pregnancy. The elder discovered that the whole church community joined his family in welcoming the young woman and helped to care for her.

As the day of the girl's delivery approached the church women organized a baby shower, which many church couples attended. The men looked awkwardly around and caught each others gaze, said the Elder, and noted that to the best of their knowledge it was the first baby shower any of them had attended.

The elder's wife was with the young woman when she delivered a baby girl, and when she decided that adoption would be the best alternative for the baby's future. As it happened the pastor of this little church, and his wife, were unable to have children of their own, and were looking for a child to adopt. Before long, the new baby was delivered into their arms and the whole congregation stood together in commitment to her spiritual upbringing.

Then the elder wrote this:

    We all participated as Kristen was baptized right here. Together we stood up as another elder read from the sacrament of baptism:

    Our Lord Jesus Christ ordered us to teach those who are baptized. Do you, the people of the church, promise to tell Kristen the good news of the gospel, to help her know all that Christ commands and, by your fellowship, to strengthen her family ties with the household of God?

    And we said in unison, "We do." Later in the service the elder declared, "This child of God is now received into the holy catholic church. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and we are!"

The problem of abortion presents us as the church with the opportunity of fulfilling our baptismal vows to the most needy among us, and it extends the Lord's Table, along with its offer of the means of grace, to their mothers.

The sacraments of the church say to all that we are not alone and on our own, and that we are not our own; we are bought with a price, and we belong both to God and to the community of believers, the Church. The opening words of the Heidelberg Catechism are a powerful denial of an empty universe without meaning and purpose. They offer assurance that each of us is wanted and loved. In repeating its words we affirm that our "only comfort"...is...

    That I belong--body and soul, in life and in death--not to myself but to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ; ...that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation.

Christian Faith affirms that we belong.

Catholic priest Father George Clements adopted a black child in 1985 and started a One Child One Church movement in black churches to encourage at least one couple in a congregation to adopt a black child, thousands of whom are now in foster care. "The African says there is no child who does not belong to me," he said. And that ought to be our vision for the church: there is no child who does not belong to us.

Martin Luther wrote these familiar words in 1529:

    And though this world, with devils filled,
    Should threaten to undo us;
    We will not fear, for God hath willed
    His truth to triumph through us.
    The Prince of Darkness grim,
    We tremble not for him;
    His rage we can endure,
    For lo! his doom is sure,
    One little word shall fell him.

The world is not spinning out of control, and there is help available in time of trouble. Let us in the church be a demonstration to the skeptical world that we understand calamity as a test of what we believe about the nature and character of God. And let us show that because we ourselves are the recipients of God's great mercy and benefits, we gladly accept our duty of love to our brothers and sisters, which can turn calamity into blessing. Amen.
Mrs. Terry Schlossberg is executive director of Presbyterians Pro-Life, Research, Education, and Care, Inc., in Burke, Virginia.

 

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