Fr Thomas Plant, Tokyo-based Anglican priest and comparative theologian

Month: June 2013

4th Sunday after Trinity: who do you say that I am?

“Who do you say that I am, asks the Lord?”

Some wonder: could He be a prophet like John the Baptist? But if Jesus was a prophet, then we are just worshipping a dead prophet.

Could He be Elijah? Elijah supposedly ascended bodily into the heavens, so perhaps Jesus is Elijah, returning to the world. But if so, then all we have left is a dead Elijah.

Could He be the Christ, as Peter finally says? “Christ” is Greek for Messiah, meaning the “anointed one,” the person for whom the Jews had been waiting to liberate them from their oppressors. And of course, Jesus is the Christ. But He does not indicate in this passage of Luke that this is the right answer. He simply stops the questioning at that point, perhaps because Peter’s is the best answer so far, and it begins a dialogue which Jesus will complete next week on St Peter’s day.

But it is still not enough – because if Jesus were just a messiah, then all we would have left is a dead messiah.

That is why Jesus gives an answer which confounds all their expectations. He is destined not, like the awaited Messiah, to conquer, but to die and – most importantly – to be raised up on the third day. What’s more, He promises that those who follow Him in that Crucifixion by renouncing their lives, their selves, will join Him through the Resurrection in eternal life. Jesus is exercising the judgment of our souls which belongs to God alone.

So, as the Pharisees asked last Sunday – who is this, who even forgives sins?

The options, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, are either that Jesus was deluded – a madman – or, that He was God. And as we worship Him, either we are proclaiming Him as God, or we are idolaters. The stakes are high.

So, who do you say that He is?

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

3rd Sunday after Trinity: what is worth your tears?

Cave church, Göreme

Pharisees and prostitutes: perhaps the 1st century Palestinian equivalent of a vicars and tarts party? Or perhaps not. Nonetheless, that is how the anonymous woman in Luke 7 has traditionally been portrayed, despite the Greek of the Bible calling her no more than a “sinful woman.” Though, I suppose, the rather spiteful exaggeration does spice up the story: a woman who is a renowned sinner offers Jesus her kissing and weeping, in hotblooded contrast to the cold moral legalism of Simon and friends.

We English get a bit embarrassed by kissing, don’t we? It’s only recently that we’ve adopted the continental custom of pecking each other on the cheeks in greeting. And I wonder whether that is linked in some way to our unpleasant national tendency to anti-Catholicism, our distaste for its exuberant pomp, or its “detestable enormities,” as our Reformers unfortunately put it. Perhaps there are even one or two of us who find some of what we do in this church a bit over the top, even a bit, dare I say it – vulgar? Perhaps not quite English, not quite our sort of thing? And maybe one of the most suspiciously foreign-looking moments is when we clergy kiss the altar at the beginning and the end of the Mass. It’s all a bit effusive for our English taste. 

Well, speaking of foreignness, my wife, Nao, and I just spent a wonderful week on holiday in Turkey. We explored glorious cave churches dating from the 8th century, we had gorgeous weather and delicious food, but best of all, the family whose B&B we stayed in treated us as though we were their own. Wonderful people. And also devout, or the parents were, at least. Every time the muezzin called from the minaret, five times a day, the mother, Tulai, would stop in her tracks and raise her hands to her ears in prayer. The father, Omar, went to the small town’s main mosque every night. On Fridays, at their services throughout the day, they’d get 4000 worshippers, his son reckoned. And even if that’s an exaggeration, it still means a lot of people for a town smaller than Berkhamsted. 

Now this was all super. But what, from my point of view, was rather less super, was that while there were some 400 ancient churches within walking distance, not a single one of them had been in use since 1925. In fact, there wasn’t a single active Christian church within hundreds of miles. Under increasingly Islamic governments, churches have been transformed into mosques, museums, in one case even a library, or just left to rot. And there’s no likelihood of that changing under Prime Minister Erdoğan’s premiership. Anyway, the long and short of it was that, for the first time since I was baptised, I found myself unable to get to Mass on Sunday. And now we get back to the point: because when I got back to England and served at the little Tuesday Mass we have at All Saints, I tell you, I have never kissed the altar with more gratitude. And yes, there were tears in my eyes. 

Well, if you think I’m appealing to emotion, letting the stiff upper lip wobble a bit, so be it. Mea culpa. But it did set me thinking. 

We Christians risk getting a bit smug about us worshipping in the Spirit rather than according to the “letter that kills,” as St Paul puts it. We like to think of ourselves as more like the prostitute than the Pharisee, more like lovers than lawyers. And when we’re looking for a convenient scapegoat, a really Pharisaical religion obsessed with law and therefore so very different from ours, I wonder which religion comes to mind? 

And yet. 

Thousands of worshippers at Friday prayers in a small town in Turkey. 

The muezzin chanting out over the rooftops five times a day, when our compatriots complain about the noise of our church bells. The loving treatment Nao and I received, and the clear devotion to God, five times a day, that we saw in the people there. 

Surely they’ve got something right? For all we may write them off as Pharisees, actually they’re the ones prostrating themselves five times a day, they’re the ones grounding their heads at the feet of God. While the people of our nation are far too sophisticated for such devotion, above such distasteful displays. 

So, a question. 

What matters enough to us – that we would debase ourselves for it? Weep with our faces in the dirt, like the prostitute at Jesus’ feet? What matters enough? 

You know, it would be hard, very hard, to be a Christian in Turkey, out on your own with no church, no sacraments, unable to confess your faith for fear of discrimination and recrimination. I remember a conversation with a woman last year whose grandparents were Greek. She quietly carried on thinking of herself as Christian, but there was no way she could admit it publicly. She told me only because she knew I was a deacon of the Church. And believe me, I do not blame her for hiding. It must be hard to be a Christian in Turkey. 

And it’s getting hard here, I know: it’s hard for nurses to wear crosses, it’s hard for councils to give parking exemptions to Christians on Sundays. And it’s hard for young people, because they don’t want to be the odd ones out, they don’t want to have to justify their belief to condescending peers who once read something written by someone who had once read something by Richard Dawkins. On Twitter. I don’t blame them for conforming: it’s for self-preservation. But coming back to Turkey, in Taksim square right now, You can also see people, mostly young, who think that there is something worth rebelling for, worth sticking two fingers up for, even if it means getting tear-gassed or losing an eye. Something worth those tears.

[Well we’ve got a chance, right here, to help our young people find out Whether our Christian faith is worth something. We’ve got a team of three young people coming from Walsingham this Tuesday, 6.30-7.30 in the Courthouse, to run some activities and tell us a bit about this year’s national youth pilgrimage for young people aged 11+. Parents, you’re welcome to the meeting, too. It could be just the chance to give our children a glimpse of faith that they’ll never want to lose.]

But this isn’t just about the “kids.” We’re all guilty of Pharisaical Christianity from time to time, of lip service Christianity. But unless we dare to give the full kiss of the sinful woman our faith is just a house built on sand. It’s good to follow Jesus’ call to get busy and to work hard for the Kingdom, like we did yesterday at the Petertide fair. But we also need to hear His call to depend on Him, to fall to our knees and weep at His feet. Now the major feasts of the church year are over and we’re back into ordinary time, we can all afford to think a bit more about our patterns of prayer; about how we can submit to God daily with the devotion and discipline of the Muslim family I met; about how we can offer, with the sinner woman, the sacrifice of a contrite heart and a broken spirit. You don’t love with laws. You love with your heart, your lips, your tears. It is only once we have fallen at Our Lord’s feet that we can know with what great love He lifts us back up into His embrace. 
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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