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

Month: June 2014

Peter: a model for leadership in the Church

Being on paternity leave gave me the perfect opportunity to put my feet up and read a good book (Nao’s going to love me for saying that). So, I scoured my shelves through all those novels that have been sitting there gathering dust for years, and finally settled on an absolute thriller: a biography of Rowan Williams. An absolute page-turner!
Whatever the Archbishop’s faults, he did ultimately manage to steer between the Scylla of foaming fundamentalists and the Charybdis of anarchistic liberals pretty deftly, in my view, and sailed the ship of the Church out into clear waters just about in one piece. He made unpopular decisions and didn’t stick to a party line, and so every party picked on him. I can’t agree with everything he did, but I do think his record, his lack of self-regard and his refusal to please the crowds are impressive.
Still, few would say that Dr Williams’ leadership was an unqualified success. Perhaps his attitude to leadership gives us a clue as to why. He’s basically suspicious of it. “Leadership,” he says, is not really a biblical concept.
With due respect, I’m not so sure; and I think today, the feast of St Peter, the first leader of the Church after Jesus Himself, might be a good time to think about that; especially since we at St Peter’s are thinking about what our new leader, our new rector, will be like. There are three things I want to look at. First, let’s look at the good reasons why Rowan Williams is suspicious of leadership as we think of it nowadays. Then, second, let’s see what kind of man and what kind of leader Peter was. And third, I’d like to think about what Jesus expected Peter to do, and what he expects the leaders of His Church to do still now.
So first of all, why the suspicion of leadership? Well, just look at Jesus. As we know, the Jews fully expected a strong leader, a military Messiah who would take back Jerusalem from the Roman occupiers by force. Even Jesus’ disciples expected this right to the last, despite Our Lord’s constant teaching that His Kingdom would not be of this world. This was why Judas betrayed Him, and this is why even Peter took up arms to defend Him when he was seized in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The idea that Jesus would conquer the power of this world through yielding to it, that He would overcome death by dying, that He would triumph not by worldly might but in weakness, suffering, and self-sacrifice, was a point that Jesus’ disciples just didn’t get until it happened, on the Cross, or even after — and perhaps the one who failed to get it most spectacularly, maybe even more than Judas, was Peter.
That’s because, to move onto my second point, of the sort of person Peter was. Maybe you’ll remember the many times he argued with Jesus, about who should wash whose feet, or whether Jesus should go to His death. One of their tiffs ended with Jesus calling Peter “Satan,” which is hardly a term of affection: and “get thee behind me!” is a probably a bit of a churchy euphemism for two rather more earthy Anglo-Saxon words. And of course, Peter most famously denied Christ at the crucial moment, denied having anything to with Him, disowned His Lord and friend. Peter the contrarian, Peter the sabre-rattler, Peter who denied Christ three times before the cock crowed: the contrast between him and Jesus could hardly be more clear. So surely we should be sceptical of Peter as a model of leadership for the Church?
Except — Jesus did choose Peter to be the leader of His Church. Jesus chose this headstrong man, for all his flaws and failures. And that is important. Jesus did not choose perfect specimens of humanity to be the leaders of His Church, and He doesn’t choose them now (believe it or not). That’s because they don’t exist. There’s no point in the make-believe that any of our past Rectors were perfect, and there’s no Christian charity in badmouthing any of them because they weren’t. We shouldn’t expect them to be. In fact, if anything, we should expect them to be like Jesus’ choice of leader: flawed, capable of gross error and failure. Not even always very nice. And we have to be ready to let this be true of our future Rector, too. After all, St Peter was good enough for Jesus.
So please, enough gossip about past Rectors, please, and no unrealistic expectations about the next one, either: because to move onto my third point, just as Peter was chosen by Jesus, they have been chosen for their task. And what a task! The commission that Jesus gave to Peter, and by extension to all bishops and priests of His Church, is pretty formidable. Even impossible, you might think. “Feed my sheep,” he said, three times: but only Jesus could feed the three thousand. “What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” — we are called to forgive sins, but only Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross can pay for the sins of the world. “Take the Keys of the Kingdom,” open the doors to the divine, show the world the face of God: but only Jesus is the gate of the sheepfold, only Jesus is the true shepherd, only Jesus the Son can seen the face of the Father and yet live. Jesus calls His priests to do the impossible, and all Christian believers too — just look at the Beatitudes. But we can; or rather, God can, through us. We have to trust that God will work through our new Rector despite any imperfections.
You remember the story about Peter walking on water? He could do it because he was supported by the Lord, and as soon as he tried to do it on his own, he started sinking. But Jesus lifted him up again. Rowan Williams did not steer the ship through choppy straits on his own behalf or with his own strength. To lead in Christ’s Church is to allow oneself to be led by Him, to serve Him in leading. We will all fail, and we must be gentle with one another when we do, please. Like Peter, we are all called to walk on water; but we can do so only by holding on firmly to the hand of the Lord, in the buoyancy of the Holy Spirit. That is how he lifts us up today.
So let’s celebrate that we don’t have to be perfect, let’s celebrate that we are weak and flawed and vulnerable, but that Jesus chooses us anyway. A year ago today, he chose me for this particular task, and I ask you to keep praying that I may be worthy of it; and that the Holy Spirit lift up, like St Peter, the new leader of this church.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Corpus Christi 2014: whose body is it anyway?

This is my body. 

This is my teddy bear – it belongs to me, and I’ll do what I want with it. If I want to tear off its head or shave it or dye it purple, that’s what I’ll do, and it’s none of your business. 

This is my body. 

This is my country – I belong to it, I am a part of it and it is a part of me. I’ll fight and die for it if I have to, I’ll give myself up to serve it.

This is my body.

This is my body, and I’ll do what I want with it, it’s none of your business? Or this is my body, I am a part of it, it is a part of me? This is my body, all for me, or this is my body, given for you?

When we call someone “God’s gift,” we don’t usually mean it as a compliment. But you are God’s gift: all of you. I mean, every part of you, soul and body. You are gift; in fact, you are *given* by God, body and soul. It doesn’t make any sense for us to separate them, to talk about “my body” or “my soul,” because there’s no such thing as you without your body, no such thing as you without your soul. They are a part of you and you are a part of them. They don’t belong to you, you belong to them, and they belong to God, a gift given for the world. 

There are religions which separate body and soul very firmly, but Christianity is not one of them. We worship, after all, God Incarnate, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ who is 100% God and 100% human. You can’t take the two apart. We teach, though it’s hard to understand what we mean by it, that there will be some sort of bodily resurrection, just as Jesus was resurrected not just as some sort of disembodied ghost, but as a man with a body, a man who ate and drank with His disciples, those times when He appeared to them around the table or the campfire by the sea. A resurrected man with a physical body who ate physical food, took in physical nourishment. 

But the Risen Lord did not just eat by Himself. He invited the world to join Him. If I asked you what some of His most moving words were, I’m sure you’d come up with all sorts of examples, but for me, those four words written in John 21:12 take some beating, which perhaps tells you something about me: Jesus says, “come and have breakfast.” And of course, it’s not the first invitation of this sort He’s made. “Take, eat. This is my body. This is my body, given for you.” 

And so that’s what we do, every Sunday or, better, more often still. Why? Well, partly, I think, just because Jesus tells us to. The beginning of the Christian life is a matter of humbly doing what God tells us. First submitting in faith, and then, gradually, over a lifetime learning the reasons why. You see, our true nourishment – beyond just the physical, our spiritual nourishment – is to do the will of God. “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven … give us this day our daily bread.” God’s will is our daily bread; and God’s will is to take and eat this bread, the bread of life, the very body of Christ born in a stable in Bethlehem – that is, Beth Lechem, “the House of Bread.” We take and eat because He tells us to. 

But why does He tell us to? I think it’s a fair and fruitful question to ask, but only once we’ve taken on the discipline of obeying, taking and eating. There are other questions which are perhaps less fruitful, questions like how, exactly, the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ, questions which risk presuming to solve something God gave us as a mystery, and so with their narrow answers stifle the Spirit. But to ask why He wants us to do this, on the other hand, can open up a lifelong gastronomic quest, like spending time learning how to appreciate fine wines, but better still, because we are refining our taste for the nourishment of the spirit. So let’s ask that question: Why does God want us to take and eat His body? 

There are so many answers, a lifetime’s worth and more. But if I were to pick just one, for now, I’d say it has something to do with that old wives’ maxim, “you are what you eat.” God’s will is meant to be our food and drink, and God’s will is love, the self-giving, self-sacrificial love that we know in the Cross and in Jesus’ invitation to eat His body, “given for you.” We are meant to feast on that love, to feast on God Himself; but I am not sure what a plateful of love would look like. You’d certainly get some odd looks if you tried to order it at a restaurant, even one of Heston Blumenthal’s. We can’t eat love. We’re physical beings. We need physical food. 

But remember – our bodies and our souls are not separate. They are part of one whole, they are together what makes you or me. And so God gives us spiritual food in physical food. God gives us His Spirit of love in digestible form in the Sacrament, so that we can eat His flesh and drink His blood, “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” You are what you eat, or to use more biblical words, from St Paul, we must decrease that He might increase, so that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us. My body must become His Body, given in love for the salvation of the world. 

At the altar today, let Christ give Himself through you. Take, eat, drink, and let His Holy Spirit nourish you to make you, to make us, what we already are: the Body of Christ, gathered together as the wheat from the fields and the grapes from the vine, one body, one blood, one Church, one Kingdom. We belong to it as much as it belongs to us. 

This is my body. 

This is our body. 
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Trinity 2014: does God exist?

“Do unicorns exist?” 
Presumably, your answer is “no.” But it is a question you can answer only because you know what a unicorn would be if it did exist. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to answer. But as it is, you do know that a unicorn is a magical horse with a single horn in its forehead, and knowing that no such horned horses exist, you can answer the question with a fair degree of certainty. 
But what if I were to ask you, “do squaggligogs exist?” You wouldn’t be able to answer, except with another question which would have to be answered first, namely: “what is a squaggligog?” Unless you know what a squaggligog is, you can’t say whether or not it exists. If I were then to tell you that a squaggligog is a rare marsupial found in the lower Andes, you might consider its existence a possibility. If, on the other hand, I were to tell you that a squaggligog is an intelligent, blue flying rodent from Pluto capable of space travel and telepathic mind control, you would conclude that it did not exist — I hope. But either way, the question “what is a squaggligog” must logically precede the question, “do squaggligogs exist.” 
So what about God? Some people are very exercised by the question, “does God exist?,” and plenty are happy to give a firm answer one way or the other. It’s a question that can raise hackles easily, for obvious reasons. But it seems to me that people are rather too ready to answer this question, whether it’s with a “yes” or a “no,” without thinking very much about the logically prior question of what God actually is – or, for that matter, is not. We can easily ask about unicorns’ existence because everyone agrees what a unicorn is. We can’t easily ask about squaggligogs’ existence, because I just made them up, and so there’s no consensus about what they are. 

The problem with asking whether God exists is that we tend to assume that we know and agree what God is. But I think, if you ask even a few Christians that question, let alone people from other religions and then atheists, you’ll get very different answers. Is God the stern judge? The loving Father? The ruthless, bearded dictator? The cruel comedian of a cosmic joke? The boyfriend substitute or emotional crutch? The cause of existence?The absent watchmaker? The motivating energy behind and in all things? You’ll find people of all sorts of beliefs believing in or rejecting lvariants of all of these “gods.”The God that the atheist rejects is probably not the same as the God I believe in. The God that I believe in is different in many ways from the God that Hindus or Muslims or Jews believe in,and different even from that of some of my fellow Christians, I suspect. No wonder it is so hard to agree on God’s “existence” or otherwise, when we don’t have a clear consensus on what God is.
Today’s feast of the most Holy Trinity is our chance to celebrate and meditate upon the albeit mystical and speculative answer of the Christian Church to that fundamental question of what God is. I do not pretend that it is an easy answer, but then, it is not likely to be. We should not be surprised to find thinking about God difficult. But frankly, things that are instantly accessible are seldom worth bothering with. God is worth the effort. And that effort, in a nutshell, is this: trying to say how Jesus, a human, can be God; how God can be both Father and Son, and how He lets us see and know Him as such.
The Trinity is not just a bolt-on addition to the Christian faith: it is absolutely essential to it. It is this teaching of the Church that makes sense of the events of the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus and the sending of His Spirit at Pentecost, which is why the feast falls where it does in the Christian kalendar. 
If God were just the Father, the sacrifice of His Son would be a monstrosity, as though Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac had finally come to fruition. But if God is also Jesus the Son, as His own words and actions led His followers to conclude, it becomes an act of self-sacrifice, an act of love consistent with the kind of God we know in Christ. 

But then again, if God were just Father and Son, we would have no access to the fruits of Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension. They would remain isolated events in the past, and God would remain a polarity, forever staring in love at His own image. It is because God came among us at Pentecost 
and, more importantly, stayed, right through to the present day, that we can see and know that love between the Father and the Son and be lifted up into their relationship. It is the Spirit that binds Jesus to the Father and takes us along with Him. 
So does God exist? As a general question, as I’ve said, I don’t think it’s worth even trying to answer. 
But does the Christian God, the Father revealed in Jesus by the Holy Spirit as three and one, diversity and unity, self-giving love beyond rational, mathematical comprehension, does this God exist? Well, now we’ve got something to talk about, something to disagree on. 

But the talking will have to wait: because we Christians should be busy enough living out the reality of that love, giving it as we gave it yesterday at the Petertide Fair, and receiving it, as we do today at this altar. That should speak more deeply of the reality of the loving Trinity than any number of sermons. So receive the Spirit today in the body and blood of the Son, and be united through them with the Father; then go, when the Mass is ended, and share out what you have received.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Two’s company?

It is quite timely to be called to meditate upon the Trinity as a third person enters my family. Perhaps this is what prompted a very kind couple from the congregation to bring us a beautiful icon of the Trinity from Greece as a birth gift.

Some may say that two is company, but so far it seems to me that the effects of a third person on the dynamic between an original two can be very positive. Indeed, it can bring out the best of that relationship and open its joy and love to a wider world. Yet other families will know all too well that bringing forth new life is not without its risks.

So it is, I think, with the Holy Spirit and its role in the relationship between the Father and the Son. It is therefore no coincidence that Trinity Sunday follows so closely after Pentecost. For while the Spirit gave inklings of itself long before – such as when it moved over the waters of creation, or overshadowed the Blessed Virgin, or descended like a dove at the Baptism of our Lord – it is only at Pentecost that it is fully and universally revealed. Universally, I say, because as Holy Spirit, God speaks at Pentecost in every tongue to everyone; and fully, because it is the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise to send a comforter and counsellor after Him into the world for all time.

St Paul, it is sometimes said, wrestled with the problem of a ‘binitarian’ God: how can God be both Father and, if Jesus is who He says He is, be Son at the same time? The coming of the Holy Spirit complicates this question further, and the doctrine of the Trinity answers it, albeit haltingly and paradoxically. But it is not just a game of theological mathematics. It is a matter of love, and that brings me back to where I started.

If God were just Father and Son, we would be left with an introspective and impenetrable deity, looking forever at itself as though in a mirror. To extend the simile, the Holy Spirit is the light that passes between the viewer and the reflection, and which also spills out to allow us to join in the vision. It is the overspilling of the love between the Father and Son which pours out into the world and by which the world can be drawn into their intimacy. Such intimacy entails risks, not least the risk of betrayal, but love makes the risk worthwhile. Love makes the Cross worthwhile.

Three is not a crowd. It is an invitation.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Pentecost and the Santa Barbara shooting

This week, as every week, people have died needlessly and violently. Some of their deaths reach our ears more readily than others, partly because of an understandable media bias towards people who are more like us rather than those who are less so. There is of course an added shock when not just the victims but the perpetrator also seem so familiar. Young Elliot Rodger, “British-born,” as the American papers are keen to point out, could be the boy next door; quite different from, say, an Arab terrorist, he appears very plausibly to be one of us. 

You have no doubt read the various analyses about why he did what he did and will have formed your own opinions. Various factors are speculated to have contributed to Rodger’s mindset and actions, such as lax gun control, poor psychiatric care, pornography-fuelled notions of masculinity and the chaos of modern young people’s sexual expectations, to name but a few. Each of us will place a different weight on certain of these factors and may add others to boot. Yet I suspect we will all conclude that Rodger’s actions were the fruits of a man-made problem; that they were at least influenced by the world that we humans not only inhabit, but collude with and contrive. 
Pentecost this Sunday marks the end of the fifty days of Easter. Although ten days longer than Lent, to me it has felt rather shorter, perhaps because of its more joyous character: time flies when you’re having fun. Yet, as we celebrate the sending of the Holy Spirit on the Church, we are called back to the terrible price of suffering which bought so rare a gift. The Cross is the price of the gift of absolutely self-giving love. 
Where was God in Santa Barbara last week? He was hanging on the cross with the victims. He was, and is, waiting at the door of the hearts of those who grieve. He was also in the heart of Elliot Rodger, trying to dissuade him from doing what, deep within, he must have known was utterly wrong. Alas, the Devil’s overtures were more seductive. 
What strikes me about Rodger, and about so many others like him, is his loneliness. There is no sense that he was part of any community of love. This kind of isolation is a modern malady that I fear is accelerated, not mollified, by the advent of social media. You can choose your “friends” and influences far more narrowly from an iPad in your bedroom than if you get outside and join the world. 
The Church is a community for all people, not just for people like us. It is so because it reflects the distinctively Christian nature of God, who is not just an isolated Father, staring down from His throne above, nor even just Father and Son, perpetually gazing at one another in adoration. God is also Holy Spirit, the love that binds the Father to the Son and which overflows into creation, offering itself freely to us. The Spirit which the Risen Christ breathed into His disciples and continues to breathe today is the vehicle by which we are drawn into His Resurrection and Ascension to the loving Father. Yet, in the world we have made, we can share in this glory only by sharing in Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross. 
We share the gift of the Spirit in baptism; we hear it speak in the Scriptures; we know it in the love we are called to have for each other, near and far, however similar or different we may be; and we receive it most acutely in the flesh and blood of Christ at the altar. We join in Christ’s sacrifice this and every Sunday for the whole world, in all its suffering but also in all its potential to be the kingdom of love for which He yearns. 
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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