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

Month: June 2019

Rocky and the Million Dollar Question


“Who do you say that I am?”
That’s the million-pound question for Simon. He’s already got the ‘ask the audience’ answers up on the board, as it were: some say he’s John the Baptist (difficult, given that John was by this stage suffering from a slight case of death), some say he’s Elijah, others Jeremiah (both more decidedly dead, several hundred years before). Which means that everyone is saying that Jesus is a prophet, because Jeremiah, Elijah and John all prophesied the coming of the Messiah, the anointed one – in Greek, the Christ – who would come to judge and save the Jewish people. They thought that Jesus was yet another of these prophets, heralding the Christ’s coming.
But Simon doesn’t choose any of the answers on the board, because, to stretch the metaphor, he’s opted to ‘phone a friend. Or, properly speaking, he’s already been ‘phoned by a friend: God. Somehow, the right answer has been mystically revealed to him:
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
“That’s right,” says Jesus. “Correct! Spot on! Bingo! You, Simon, get to go home with this luxury three-piece suite.”
Jesus isn’t just another prophet, waiting for the Messiah: He is the Messiah and Son of God.
Just as Simon has correctly identified Jesus, so Jesus gives Simon a new identity: a nickname. “Peter,” Petros in Greek, wasn’t actually a proper name in Jesus’ day. It meant “stone” or “rock.” “Peter” basically means “Rocky” (cue The Eye of the Tiger for S. Peter’s fitness regime montage.) Jesus’ joke – if that’s what it is – makes more sense when you know this: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” would really have sounded more like, “You are Rocky, and on this rock I will build my Church.”
Comedy gold.
But with a serious meaning. Jesus is making Peter the leader, even the foundation, of what will become the entire Christian Church. He is giving him the virtual keys to the Kingdom – that’s why, if you see a statue in a church of bearded man holding a pair of keys, it’s St Peter – delegating the power to set people free from fear and sin and admit them to eternal life in divine love.
But what: Peter, leader of the Church? You mean the fisherman Peter, who maybe couldn’t even write, definitely didn’t get C or above in GCSE maths and English (OK, Greek or Aramaic); Peter, who got so little of Jesus’ teaching that he’d get a sword out to fight the guards who came to take Jesus away; Peter, who would betray Jesus three times before the cock crowed, deserting his Lord and friend, the commoner, the runaway, the failure?
That Peter?
Yes.
The same Peter who denied the crucified Lord three times would be told three times by the Resurrected Lord, “feed my sheep. Feed my sheep. Feed my sheep.”
All because he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
So, it’s over to Jeremy Clarkson for the answer…
If Peter was wrong, then all we’ve got left is a dead prophet.
If Peter was wrong, then his own death by crucifixion on an inverted cross on 29 June in AD 64 was meaningless.
If Peter was wrong, then all the others who have followed Christ for the last 2000 years have wasted their time. You can’t feed a Church of millions with a dead prophet.
But if he was right?
Then love invites us to an everlasting feast, free from evil, free from fear – and Peter is already there, waiting to open the door, in his hand, the key:
“Who do you say that I am?”

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Pentecost, not Esperanto

Salutojn!
Strange to think that a small Jewish sect could, within thirty years of the death of its founder in Jerusalem, spread at least as far as India to the East and Rome to the West. How could it happen?
There are sociological explanations: for instance, it was a religion which appealed particularly to the poor and to women, in a way that its contemporaries did not. There was the theological appeal, too, of monotheism, which resonated with the Platonic intellectual currents of the day better than the dominant polytheism of pagan folk religion, and pagans who admired the Jews now had the opportunity to join them.
At the same time, there was also bitter persecution, ridicule and humiliation, too. The well-off could have avoided all this by joining some other mystery cult, like that of Mithras or Osiris. Certainly, the fishermen, essentially small businessmen, who were leading the nascent Church could have afforded to avoid their martyrdoms by doing just this. Yet they did not.
So why?
The answer can be summed up in one word: Pentecost.
Ten days after the Ascension of the Lord, the Apostles were once again in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Then it was as though a wind was blowing, and they had a vision of tongues of flame lapping around their heads – the shape which would later define the bishops’ mitres, marking them as descendants of the Apostles. Inspired, in the literal sense of the word, these fishermen went out into the streets to preach the message of eternal life.
Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city. In those days, all the wealth was in the East. Europe was just a sideshow. Few Roman soldiers would want to go digging around the hovels of the savage Gauls and Britons when the riches of Judea, Persia and Babylon awaited. And so, in the streets, there were Jews and foreigners from all over the Middle East, meeting and greeting in a diverse babble. And as though reversing the story of Babel from which the word “babble” derives, the miracle of this story is that each of them heard and understood the message the Apostles were speaking as though it were in their own language.
This reveals a vital spiritual truth: God is not making the disciples speak Esperanto.
I don’t mean this literally, of course. The artificial language was not concocted by one Dr Zamenhof until the late 1800s. He was full of quite laudable Victorian optimism that all the world would one day communicate in a single tongue, and that this tongue could be “neutrally” contrived from a variety of other languages by a western European.
But no language is neutral. Language does not only express our thoughts, it guides and form them. A Chinese speaker thinks differently from a speaker of Farsi. Only one language means only one way of thought – which is why King Charlemagne said that to have another language is to have another soul.
To be sure, Esperanto is a simple and elegant language which can be learned quickly because it is all so neat and regular, constructed in one go by one person. In this respect, it is the linguistic equivalent of Paris, that city of Enlightenment precision, the winding alleys and juddering tenements of old swept away to make space for tidy, metric, Napoleonic blocks.
The languages which people actually speak, though, are more like London than Paris. The old irregularities, the funny little alleyways and dead ends, the buried rivers, all the quirks of the city’s layout are built around, but are all still there. Our languages are repositories of our peoples’ history, forming our thoughts in the pattern of our forebears. Shakespeare, Voltaire, Goethe, Cervantes, Homer, Rumi: none of these authors would be the same in Esperanto. The form of the language is inseparable from its content, and for this reason, there is no such thing as a “good translation.”
At Pentecost, God is not reversing Babel by forcing everybody into one language, one mindset, one way of seeing the world. Christianity should not be about making everybody exactly the same. At Pentecost, God speaks to every listener in the language that they understand.
So what is he saying?
In one sense, always the same thing, always the one word: but not a word which can be expressed in any human language. Rather, God’s Word is always the Word made flesh, written in DNA and bone and sinew, in the character of one man, Jesus Christ. The Word is always Christ, offering himself for the forgiveness of sin that we may share in his eternal, resurrected life.
And yet, this same Word is spoken differently to each of us, breathed in a myriad ways by the Holy Spirit which is God’s breath. Just look at the vast diversity of the saints: each of them reflects some different aspect of Christ, sings out his Word in a different tone. Their identity, and ours, is not erased by the Spirit, because his grace does not destroy our nature, but perfects it, in all its joyous multiplicity.
Only because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit could the little band of fishermen proclaim a message which would appeal to millions from every nation, right to the present day. And if we are willing to listen, who knows where the same Spirit might lead us?
Dio benu vin.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Why the Church needs to abandon Christian values

I’ve got a new article out on Living Church, here. Yes, the headline is a bit of an attention grabber. Mea culpa.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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