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

Month: March 2016

Noli Me Tangere: Easter Sermon

Jesus said to Mary, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”
You cannot know someone in their entirety. Indeed, I wonder whether I can honestly say that I know even myself entirely. Certainly each of Jesus’ disciples must have known Him each in their own particular way, only in part, only as each one’s individual sum of memories of Him. So, Mary knew Jesus differently from Peter, say, and Peter from John, or Judas, or Andrew.
When somebody dies, especially if they die too young and they ended their lives blighted by illness or violence, people often say, “I don’t want to remember him like that. I want to remember him how he used to be.” A natural response, but such selective memory comes with a danger: the danger of remembering the person how we wanted them to be, and confusing what we remember with the person they really were. A danger, then, of delimiting, defining, even controlling that person’s memory to fit our own needs, desires and projections.
So to the empty tomb. When Mary Magdalene met the supposed gardener there, she did not recognise him as Jesus:- as though His resurrected self did not match her cherished preconceptions. This, I think, is why He warns her: noli me tangere.
Do not hold on to me. Do not cling to me.” It is as though He were saying, “You cannot grasp me, cannot keep me here: my journey is not yet done. I am more than the sum of your memories of me.”
So far, I have been talking only of the danger of grasping too firmly in our memories a fellow human being. With Jesus, the danger is by far amplified if He indeed is, as Christians believe, God Incarnate among us, and His warning far more urgent: because, in the the words of the great African bishop St Augustine, si comprehendis, non est Deus: “If you think you have grasped it, it is not God.” Try to impose your ideal onto God, try to grasp Him and contain Him and mould Him in your image, and you are guilty of the grave sin of idolatry.
Idolatry” is a loaded word and often misused, even by many of our Christian brethren. There are many who suppose that idolatry quite simply means worshipping statues, and walking into this church would accuse us of just that. But they miss the point. I have a photograph of my late and beloved grandfather on which I look with great emotion and yes, at times, sometimes, when I look at it I talk; but I do not for a moment suppose that the bit of paper actually is my grandfather, nor am I talking to the image of him. So with our images of the saints: they prompt us to devotion and love, but we do not worship them. This is not idolatry.
Real idolatry is setting up something, anything, in place of the true and living God whom we know in the life, the death and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. “There is nothing unChristlike,” said Archbishop Michael Ramsay, “in God.” So whenever we are confronted with images of a god who seeks the death of the infidel, the persecution of the sinful, the satisfaction of the chosen faithful few, a god bound up in a book of human words and laws, we need to ask: does this conform to Christ? Or is it not rather an idol made up of all-too-human fears and fantasies, far more dangerous than any graven image; a life-raft god clung to desperately by those who fear to sink.
One might of course raise the objection that Jesus Christ is not God, that He was just an exceptional prophet or rabbi, and that when He died, He stayed dead. If so, then granted, God could match any idol you care to choose in the great supermarket of religions. If Jesus were just a prophet, then on Easter Day, all we have is a dead prophet; if Jesus were just a rabbi, then all we have left on Easter Day is a dead rabbi: and neither of these scenarios tell us much about God. But if Jesus was as we claim God Himself in human form, He tells a different story indeed, the story of a God who refuses to captured, categorised, tamed, contained; a God who empties Himself of everything we might attach or attribute to Him so that we might attain that divinity which we cannot even imagine.
God in Christ empties Himself so utterly that He gives us nothing to cling to. In the beginning of time, from utter inconceivable emptiness, He poured out His Spirit to bring the fulness of Creation; He descended into the emptiness of a Virgin’s womb, emptying out the fulness of His Divinity here into the mess of a stinking stable cave of a world to be born one of us; on the Cross, He emptied Himself even of His humanity, immortal God becoming man so that He could die, and as though that were not enough, further still He descends, right into Hell on Holy Saturday, into the sheer absence of God, utter nothingness, as it were cancelling Himself out, the God who knows God-lessness: “O why hast Thou forsaken me?”
I have not yet told you the first words someone said to me when I arrived for the first time in clericals in Camden Town. An old man, it was, and it took me a moment after he passed me to work out what he had just said: “There is no God.” Well, perhaps he was half right. The first Christians, after all, were accused of atheism for refusing to bow to the idols of the Roman gods. The God we know in Jesus Christ is God because He is not a God, not one in the pantheon somewhere among Mithras the bull-god and Cloacina, goddess of sewers. He resists such classification. But more fundamentally, the God we know in Jesus Christ is God only because He completely empties Himself of His divinity for our sakes. There is no Resurrection without Crucifixion, no Easter without Good Friday. Again, to paraphrase Augustine, the immortal God became mortal so that he could die: because it is by dying that He could give us mortals His eternal life. God became human so that humans could become divine. Such beautiful symmetry: such incomprehensible paradox.

Many like Mary seek to grasp hold of God; but if God is as Jesus reveals, then there is no purchase, nothing to get hold of. As much as we might wrestle with Him, He slips from our grasp, utterly free, from all our striving and projections. And yet it is precisely that freedom which He offers us on this Day of Resurrection. It is the invitation to be as free as He is, free from the bonds of false projections that others place on us and we on ourselves, free from the attachments to this world, the layers of false self and ego by which we are so easily dragged down and held back, the freedom to shed all that dead weight and realise the true self that lies deeper within our hearts than we can imagine, and is the very image of God in which every one of us is made. It is the freedom to be Crucified; and once Crucified, even as we joyfully accept that we cannot grasp God and drag ourselves up to a salvation of our own making, that is the very moment when just as surely, Jesus finally grasps us and lifts us to Perfection in the Father’s Kingdom as He at last Ascends. 
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Chinese Whispers: Maundy Thursday 2016

Even with the advent of Playstations and XBoxes, I believe that primary school children still from time to time enjoy the lo-tech pastime of “Chinese whispers.” Outside this island nation, it may have other names (if indeed it is played at all), so I had better explain: sitting in a circle, one child whispers a message to the next, and that child whispers what he think has heard to the next, and so on, until the message comes full circle, generally bearing only a fleeting resemblance to the original.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Christians have been playing a two-thousand year game of Chinese whispers with the original message Jesus gave. After all, you only need two or three Christians gathered together to start telling everybody else that they have heard that message wrong. Take the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have recently been mounting an intensive campaign, pushing leaflets through our doors to tell us just how wrong the Church is to place our “tradition” above the pure doctrine of the Bible, as they read it. They’re very pleasant people, I’m sure, but it does bother me that they go to the homes of orthodox Christians and try to pull the wool over their eyes with a little gloss of learning. It leaves people wondering, and some have come to me to ask, who has really got Jesus’ original message: whom, among so many conflicting voices, they can trust.

I could answer that question by a simple appeal to authority, pointing out that you would be hard-pressed to find a single Jehovah’s Witness academic in the theological department of any university in this country, and that would not be the worst answer: you might trust the judgment of someone like Rowan Williams, say, more than the polite and well-meaning couple who come knocking on your door. But it seems to me we have a duty as Christians to defend our faith not just by appeals to authority, but should treat criticism with a respectful and reasoned response; and if we do want to talk reasonably about Jesus’ original message, and to whom He chose to entrust it, tonight, it seems to me, is exactly the right opportunity.

Maundy: from Latin, “mandatum,” a mandate, a command. Maundy Thursday is so called, because on this night, the last before He died, Jesus gave two commandments: one, love one another as I have loved you; and two, do this in memory of me. This was His last message before He went to the Cross, and He did not whisper it to an individual or stick it in a bottle, but entrusted it to His twelve closest friends.

On the subject of “tradition versus Scripture,” it is instructive to note what Jesus did not say. He did not say, “go and read your Bibles” – Jesus and the first 300 years’ worth of Christians did not have a “Bible.” And on the subject of worship, He did not say, “have prayer meetings and sing lots of songs” – the only kind of collective worship He enjoined was to “do this,” to take bread and wine together in a ritual meal: and this is the “tradition” His Apostles continued and handed on, only later committing His words and teachings to writing as a means of supplementing that tradition of worship.

In the Chinese whispers of many modern Christians, the importance of this meal, the Last Supper which we celebrate tonight, has been garbled away into insignificance. There are those who hardly see the point in it at all, who see it at best as a “reminder” of what Jesus did for them, but a bare memorial is not what Jesus, or any Jew, would think He was doing as He started the celebration of Passover that night. It was, importantly, a ritual meal and Jesus was connecting the Jewish ritual of the Old Covenant with the New Covenant which He would complete the next day on the Cross, as the Passover Lamb of God and as the Bread of Life.

The Passover, back in Exodus, was the sacrifice of a lamb, its blood daubed on the doorposts of the Jewish people to make the Angel of Death “pass over” their homes and so free them from slavery in Egypt. In the New Covenant, Jesus becomes the Lamb of God whose Precious Blood frees all peoples from the death that sin brings, and so offers everyone eternal life. At the Last Supper, He begins the ritual of the Passover, but does not complete it, refusing to drink the wine: the ritual will be complete only when He is hanging on the Cross. Without the ritual of the Last Supper, in Jewish eyes, His death would not have been a sacrifice at all. Maundy Thursday is the Liturgy which makes Good Friday.

It is not by chance that Jesus chose bread to celebrate that liturgy, nor just because that was His generation’s staple food. He had talked about Himself already as greater than the angelic manna-bread, which led the Jewish people to safety under Moses in the Promised Land of Canaan: the new Bread of His Flesh would last forever and lead to an eternal Kingdom. More than that, though, the offering of bread was an essential part of Jewish worship in the Temple. In Leviticus, God instructed Moses to make twelve stands in the Tabernacle for twelve loaves of bread, one for each of the tribes of Israel. It was called the “Bread of the Presence,” supposed to reflect here on earth the eternal bread of God’s own presence which Moses saw in the Temple of Heaven. Right up to Jesus’ day, every Sabbath, the Jewish priests would bring the sacred bread out before the people and show it to them, this sign of God’s presence, and if you do not already know the words they proclaimed when they elevated this bread, you may be surprised, this night of all nights, because they said: “Behold, the love of God for you!” Twelve loaves for twelve tribes, and now Jesus gives bread to twelve disciples, entrusts the ritual to them as priests of the New Covenant, saying that this bread will be the sign of God’s love for them: through the sacrifice He is beginning tonight at this meal, He offers the bread of God’s loving presence forever, and that bread is none other than Himself. And so it is very much in the sacrificial offering of the bread that these two commandments are linked: “Love one another as I have loved you,” and “do this in memory of me.”

Jesus’ original message, then, was for His Twelve Apostles to make those two commandments the centre of their lives. He entrusted the ritual meal of the Mass especially to those twelve, and before the Bible was even written, they entrusted it to their successors, laying hands on them to start the line of bishops and priests as stewards of that Tradition right up to the present day. So if anyone asks you how to get back beyond the Chinese whispers, back to Jesus’ original message, you might tell them to look to the bishops of the Church Jesus founded, who gave us our Bible and more importantly, continue to offer the Sacrifice Christ entrusted to them of His own body and blood given once upon the Cross and for all in the Divine Liturgy of the Eucharist.

As a reminder, especially to us priests, of Jesus’ commandment to love and to serve our brothers and sisters, the clergy are now going to wash the feet of certain members of the congregation.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Lent 3. God, Repentance and Reconciliation: Common Errors

On this Third Sunday of Lent, I want to confront some false but popular beliefs. First, false belief in God as doling out in, this life, rewards for good behaviour and punishments for bad; then stemming from this false belief in God, false belief in repentance as an outward show of grovelling for His good favour; and last, false belief in Confession as a mechanical means of settling your account with Him.

Some years back, I remember, Hull was flooded – awful floods – and some barmy bishop, embarrassingly and frankly somewhat bizarrely, got into the media by blaming the floods not on inadequate flood barriers or freak weather conditions, but on gay people. It was God’s punishment, he said.

Even supposing that Christian teaching is quite so clear cut on matters of human sexuality (which it is not!), Hull – as far as I’m aware – is not the gay Mecca of the North. So if God actually did wreak vengeance like that, you would have to suppose he’s about as accurate as an American bomber pilot, or that He goes in for collective punishment. Then, you might start thinking of other natural disasters – Asian tsunami, earthquakes in Nepal and so on – and you’d have to ask, are these sorts of punishments really compatible with the Christian idea of just and loving God? Or then, what about the more obviously appalling people who get away scot-free?

Today’s Gospel gives no support for the belief in God as this arbitrary punisher. Pilate was apparently prone to outbursts of bloodshed, and some Galileans were his latest victims. We heard too about the people in a construction accident at Siloam; and the general tenor of the people’s gossip to Jesus is basically – “Just deserts. You know what they’re like. They had it coming.” And if you’ve never thought like that, you’re a better person than I. But Jesus gives them short shrift, and us too, whenever we are tempted to speculate about God’s judgment on other people. Jesus’ response, in short, is that you’re no better than they are. Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. You are all subject to God’s judgment – so look to the log in your own eye, not the splinter in your neighbour’s. Your job is not to make assumptions about God’s judgment on other people’s sins : it is to repent of your own.

There’s a danger here. There’s a danger when we hear Jesus’ call to repent, especially in Lent, of drawing the conclusion that God wants us to grovel; that God somehow gets a kick out of our breast-beating. There’s a danger of thinking that repentance means showing God just how sorry you are in the hope that He will reward you, or at least not punish you. But then we’re back to that rather childish view of God as a celestial headmaster who rewards us for our behaviour, and punishes us if we don’t say we’re sorry. The same sort of God, in fact, as the one that the northern Bishop seemed to believe in when he proclaimed the Condemnation of Hull.

This sort of God creeps in in more subtle ways, too: such as when things go wrong, and we plead, “why me?” – as though we believe we deserve better treatment than anyone else. I hear people say “why me” far more often than “why them.” For a Christian, though, who truly believes in the sinless God who was nailed to a cross, the real question must be, “why not me?” We have to realise that the biblical God sends rain on the just and the unjust alike, and bad things happen to good people. But we also need to realise that even when He finds no fruit at all on the fig tree, He continues to fertilise and nurture it, giving it yet another year to bear fruit. God is patient with us even in our sins; and if with us, still more so with others.

If God is the patient and loving forgiver that Jesus says He is, and what happens to us in this life is not to do with how much we have tried to suck up to the headmaster in the sky, then where does repentance fit in? Well, the Greek word Jesus uses in the Gospel is “metanoia,” which means a change or turning of mind or heart. When He says “repentance,” Jesus is calling for a change of heart, a turning from sin. Our spiritual disciplines, including the Veneration of the Cross in the Good Friday Liturgy, the Way of the Cross, fasting, and so on, are all given to us to this end: to give us the grace we need to change our hearts, or more accurately, to open our hearts to God and let Him change us.

And this brings us to Confession. I’ve taken the chance this Lent to talk about prayer: the need for inner silence, and the Anglican discipline of Mass, Office and private Prayer. So to finish off, let’s add this one last core spiritual practice.

If you were brought up a Roman Catholic, you may be used to the Confessional; if an Anglican, maybe less so; but either way, it often conjures negative memories and associations. Let’s try to clear some of those up. Confession done properly is about repentance in its proper sense: not a hollow routine to show willing to God or, worse still, your priest, but an aid to changing your heart and turning from sin. It’s not about desperately finding something to put on your list, it doesn’t have to be in a dark box, it doesn’t even have to be in church; it can be done in the priest’s study, sitting next to each other. You ask the priest for a blessing; unburden yourself in complete honesty of those sins which are holding you back from God; ask for pardon and, if you want, advice and penance; and lastly, by the power entrusted to the Church by Jesus Himself, the priest gives you God’s absolute, unconditional forgiveness. If you have requested penance, that might be praying through a certain appropriate passage of the Bible: it won’t be a nominal routine like the “ten Hail Marys” of popular myth. It is, of course, all in complete confidence, and it is often emotionally draining, but it doesn’t have to be terrifying, and it almost always inspires great, cathartic spiritual relief.

In the Anglican liturgy, we make a Confession at the beginning of every Mass, so nobody absolutely has to go for private Confession. Personally, I find it essential to my spiritual life, and the most effective means of opening myself to God’s love, changing my heart, turning from sin: truly repenting. If want to try it, there will be set periods in Passiontide and Holy Week, but you can arrange another convenient time with me or any of the clergy as suits.

We are all sinners, under God’s judgment. The way to salvation is not to look to the sins of others (real or supposed), but to our own, and open our hearts to God’s transforming grace. He has given us the fig tree’s second chance. It is up to us to take it and to repent; and repenting, to receive from Him the nourishment that liberates us to eternal life.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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