Fr Thomas Plant, Anglican Priest and Comparative Theologian

Month: July 2018

How to walk on water

“Walk on water!” 
What would you think if I gave you that command? Perhaps you would think I was mad, asking the impossible. Yet this is what Jesus tells Peter to do,
at least in Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus walking on water. And so, by extension, it is what Jesus is telling us to do. So, that is what we are going to learn to do today: how to walk on water.
First, let’s think about the story. The disciples were in a boat on a real lake, rowing against an adverse wind. Jesus walked over the water, and when he entered their boat, the wind stopped, and calm was restored.
In Mark’s version of this story, the emphasis is on the miracle. Water in Genesis 1 is the basic stuff of creation, over which God’s breath or Spirit (in Hebrew, his ruach) blows. The ensuing calm recalls the sabbath rest of which Jesus also claims to be Lord, that peace which is the ultimate purpose of creation. So, when Jesus walks on water and calms the wind, he is showing his divinity: in his power both to tame even the elements of creation, and to bring them to their fulfilment.
The gospel writers differ on the result of this miracle. According to Mark, the disciples’ hearts are hardened. They are blind to Jesus’ true nature. Matthew gives the direct opposite result: the disciples prostrate themselves, a gesture of worship which in mainstream Judaism was fitting for God alone. Either way, the point is to demonstrate Jesus’ divinity.
Yet there is another meaning, perhaps of more direct relevance to those who still follow Jesus today. It comes out more in Matthew’s version, when not only does Jesus walk on the water, but calls his chief disciple Peter out to meet him. Only when Peter feels the winds does he begin to sink.
So, what water are we supposed to walk on? Not, I think, the water of a lake. Rather, water has many meanings in the Bible. There is the water which makes up the basic stuff of Creation in Genesis. There is the water which springs from the rock that Moses strikes, and from the side of Jesus on the Cross: the life-giving water of the Holy Spirit. And there is, of course, the water of baptism. Water such as this is a foundation as solid underfoot as a mountain. Walk on this water, and you will not fall.
But what of the winds which Peter notices, and so begins to drown? These surely are the winds of the letter to the Ephesians: the winds of false teaching which threaten to toss us about. Remain true to the faith handed down to the Apostles, and we can stay afloat.
So, finally, how in practice do we actually join Jesus and walk on this water? I think there is a clue easily missed in Mark just before this episode in Mark: before he walked on the water, Jesus “went up on the mountain to pray.” Mountains and water are dear to the Japanese imagination, and perhaps there is something of the Zen koan to Jesus’ command to walk on water – even a hint of Dogen’s Sansuikyo. With hearts are transformed through the discipline of prayer, we may come to see that the water and the mountain are one: if we make our entire life an act of prayerful recollection of Christ’s presence with us, every stormy sea will be as firm beneath our feet as Sion.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Divine forgiveness: always free, never cheap

Petertide greetings!
Last weekend, just after the feast of Ss Peter and Paul, hundreds throughout England were ordained deacons and priests, as is traditional this time of year. I marked my own fifth anniversary of ordination to the Priesthood by attending the ordination of my former pastoral assistant in St Albans. As I joined the Bishop and fellow priests in laying on hands, it was a delight to form a personal link in that great chain of continuity that stretches back all the way to the Apostles and S Peter himself. 
S Peter is renowned as the unlikely leader of the Early Church. He denied Jesus three times at the Crucifixion, abandoning his friend and master. Yet it was he whom the Risen Lord chose to lead his flock, again three times entrusting them to his care, and it was he to whom the Lord bequeathed the ‘keys to the Kingdom of heaven.’ 
Priests differ from deacons, ministers ordained primarily for the proclamation of the Gospel, principally in two respects: they are given a share in their Bishop’s apostolic authority first, to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, and second, to pronounce the absolution of sins. This latter power goes all the way back to Jesus’ gift to Peter of the ‘keys,’ such that whatever the Church ‘looses on earth’ shall be considered ‘loosed in heaven.’ This is why we begin every Eucharist with a general confession and absolution given by the priest: so that every time we come to receive, we can do so with a clean conscience and the guarantee of sins forgiven. It is also why individuals tormented by any particular burden of guilt may, at their discretion, speak to a priest in absolute confidentiality and receive absolution in the Sacrament of Confession (as preserved by the Church of England in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer). Many Christians find this ‘auricular confession’ a valuable part of their spiritual life and a great remedy for habitual sins. 
But, there is another side to the Church’s custody of the heavenly keys, the half of the formula often forgotten: Jesus also told Peter that what he ‘binds on earth’ shall also be ‘bound in heaven.’ The Church may, if necessary, withhold absolution until proper contrition is shown and penance performed. In practice, this is rare, but I have heard cases (for example) or murderers being refused absolution until they have handed themselves in! 
Peter forsook the Lord utterly and yet became the first Bishop of Rome, the senior bishop of the entire Christian Church, whose successors became known as Pope. His example shows that God’s love is boundless and unconditional for those who turn to Him. This does not however remove the necessity for true repentance and the willingness to make restitution. 
God’s forgiveness does not exempt Christians from facing the consequences of their actions, but it does mean that we can still move on unburdened and do great things to his glory. 
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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