The ship was an ancient symbol in Christianity found in all sorts of places…it was found on the tombstones of Christians, in books, on stained glass windows, on the walls of churches. It was an image representing the Church. The storm in this story likewise symbolized the troubles faced by the Church throughout human history: the challenge of disbelief by people in the world outside of the Church, the worldliness of society, the persecution of the Church (like w/ martyrdom), even the scandals that have hurt the Church from within.
And yet we find that Jesus is asleep & at first that may suggest that we feel that the Lord seems to be unaware of our situation, indifferent to our fear & to the threats facing the Church, asleep at the helm. But the early Church really understood the sleep of Jesus as symbolizing the fact that even during a terrible storm, Jesus is able to be peaceful & serene, even to the pointing of sleeping, because he trusts completely in God who protects us from the storms of history.
When I was growing up in the 1960’s, the Church seemed to be one of the strongest & influential institutions in the world. But over the years it seems to have weakened both in numbers & in influence, tossed about by conflicts within the Church & by the troublesome life of society outside the Church. In this kind of culture, it’s easy for us to be terrified by what we see & hear; it’s easy to wonder why God is asleep while the Church seems to be abandoned by people who are too easily guided by the demoralizing society around us. What faith it takes to believe that Christ is still at the helm of the ship.