When you think of heaven, what kind of images usually come to mind? I think the general impression most people have when they think of heaven is of a place of happiness, a place of eternal rest and peace; at the very least the absence of pain.
The Christian faith, however, is much more specific than that when it comes to heaven and eternal life. Certainly we believe in a place of eternal happiness, a place where there will be no more pain, where “every tear will be wiped away” (see Revelation 21:4).
But more than that, heaven for the Christian is above all a relationship. St. Thomas Aquinas defines that relationship as one of friendship: He says heaven is amicitia Dei, friendship with God.
If we think about that for just a minute, it really is quite remarkable. The living God, the God of the Universe, wants to live in friendship with us: in a relationship of love, trust, faithfulness, intimacy. That relationship is one that begins here in this life and continues into eternal life. Friendship with God. That is the call of every baptized Christian.
Our Gospel this weekend gives us the opportunity to reflect on that relationship and to see more clearly Jesus Christ, the one who establishes that friendship with us. It begins, in this morning’s Gospel, with an invitation. St. Mark describes it this way:
On that day, as evening drew on, Jesus said to his disciples:
“Let us cross to the other side.”
Leaving the crowd, they took Jesus with them in the boat just as he was.
From the earliest days of Christianity, the Church has often been described as a ship or a boat that carries the souls of the faithful to salvation. The main part of any church building is called the nave; it is the place where the congregation sits. We get that name from the Latin word for boat: navis.
The disciples in the Gospel are invited by Christ to leave the crowd behind and to get into the navis, into the boat with Him.
It is Christ who takes the initiative; He is the one who invites them to accompany Him on that journey “to the other side.” But they are the ones who must make a choice. They can remain on the shore with the crowd or they can get into the boat with Christ. But they cannot do both.
Friendship with God, that relationship we share with Christ, is also God’s initiative. He is the one who calls us into that friendship. But we, too, must make a choice. Like those first disciples, we must choose to remain with the crowd or to get into the boat with Christ.
We can have friendship with God or we can have friendship with this world. But we cannot have both. The New Testament Letter of James speaks of this in the strongest of terms. St. James says:
Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
The way God calls us to live is very different from—and often completely opposed to—the crowd mentality we find in the world around us. The teachings of our faith on morality, marriage and the family, the sanctity of every human life, born and unborn, and so many other aspects of life, is radically different from the way the world sees these things. We cannot live in friendship with both worlds at the same time. It is impossible.
God has established the Church as the place where He teaches us “how to live in this passing world with our heart set on the world that will never end” (Preface II of Lent).
The Church is the navis, the ship that God has built to bring us home to heaven. And so, True friendship with God is first and foremost a friendship rooted and grounded in the Church.
But more than that, it is also a friendship that is nurtured in conversation with God, a friendship nurtured in prayer. We see the great need for this ongoing conversation with God in the lives of the disciples this morning.
Their boat is being tossed around in the midst of a violent storm, and all the while Jesus is asleep on a cushion! Suddenly they wake Him and ask: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38).
It is a very good question. Who among us has not asked that same question, when Jesus seems to be asleep in our lives? Haven’t we all experienced times when God seems to be “asleep at the wheel” and we feel very much alone.
But the question isn’t whether or not Jesus cares. Of course He cares for the disciples in that boat. He cares for them infinitely so. The question we need to ask is: What took them so long to finally wake Him up in the first place?!
Jesus is not asleep because He doesn’t want to be bothered by their trials and difficulties. He is asleep because they have not woken Him up and made Him more completely a part of their lives.
The disciples could have woken Him up while the sun was still setting, and He would have gladly shared that moment with them. They could have expressed their concern about the storm clouds way off in the distance; they could have spoken with Him about the winds that seemed to be picking up. But they didn’t do that. This morning we need to ask: Why not?
Jesus wants to be bothered. He wants us to grow in that conversation with Him. Yes, we should go to Him when the major storms come into our lives. By all means we should go to Him then. But we should also seek to grow in friendship and intimacy with Him all throughout our day, and all throughout our lives. Friendship with God is a friendship that is nurtured in prayer.
This morning, as we reflect on this Gospel passage, we can ask ourselves: how is our friendship with God at this time? Is it a friendship rooted and grounded in the Church? Are we in the boat with Christ or do we have one foot in the boat and one foot on the shore? We cannot live in friendship with God and in friendship with the world. Ultimately we must make a choice.
And finally, is our friendship with God being nurtured in that daily conversation with Him? Do we find ourselves conversing with God throughout the day or is Jesus asleep in our lives, asleep in our boat, as we attempt to battle the storms of life alone?
Christ comes to us this morning in word and sacrament, to strengthen our faith and deepen our friendship with Him. Might we find that friendship growing and blossoming into something truly beautiful and life giving in the days ahead, as Christ continues to prepare us—even now—for that eternal life of friendship with God in heaven.