Thursday, November 25, 2010

Walking on Water

The story of Jesus walking on water is told in Matthew, Mark, and John. However, only Matthew records Peter's attempt as well. This is very interesting to me, because many scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was largely based on the teachings of Peter himself, recorded and consolidated by his friend and assistant, John Mark (mentioned in Acts 12:12). If this is true, it means that either Peter did talk about himself walking on water, and Mark didn't record it--which seems unlikely.  Another explanation is that Peter didn't talk about it at all. Either way, it's an interesting thing to think about.

We're going to be focusing on Mat. 22-33 today. This takes place immediately after the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus has the disciples get in the boat and take off without him while he stays behind to dismiss the crowds. After they're gone, Jesus goes up to pray alone on the mountain, and he's there until evening. When he's done praying, the boat and the disciples are, obviously, "a long way from the land," and they're in pretty choppy waters because the wind is picking up. And in the "fourth watch of the night," sometime between 3 and 6 am, Jesus comes walking across the water. So: it's dark- it's stormy- the disciples are very tired- and they see someone walking across the water towards them. Somewhat understandably, they freak out. They think he's a ghost, and Jesus calls out, saying "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." I love that. Be encouraged. Be brave. Do not be afraid. You're with me now.

And Peter takes that to heart. Immediately he replies with "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." Now, he doesn't doubt that it's Jesus. He's already called him "Lord." He knows who it is. He's not testing him or anything. I think it's another way of saying, "Since it is you, then command me to come to you." I think that this demonstrates the reason he wants to go. He doesn't say, "Command me to walk on water." He says, "Command me to come to you on the water." He wants to walk on water because at the end of the walk he will find Jesus. This is important. It isn't pride that causes him to say that. If it was pride, he would have sunk as soon as he stepped out of the boat. It's love, a yearning to be with Jesus, a refusal to stay in the boat and wait for Jesus to come to him.

So he gets out of the boat. And remember, this isn't a nice day on the lake. It's very early morning, probably extremely cold, and very windy with very rough waves. He gets out and "walk[s] on the water and came to Jesus." He's doing it. Peter is walking on water, and I can only imagine the other disciples looking on in astonishment. But then comes the fatal flaw. He takes his eyes off Jesus. This is an often-used phrase in the church, and sometimes we may get tired of hearing it, but it's so important. He literally stops looking at Jesus and "saw the wind [and] he was afraid." Here's the kicker--he doesn't even notice the waves before this point. He's been concerned with one thing and one thing only--getting to Jesus. The fact that this requires him to walk on water is a mere incidental detail. But halfway through he allows himself to be distracted and focuses on the adversities before him. And he immediately begins to sink.

However, in the very midst of his failure, Peter once again brings it back. He's in the middle of the lake. Waves are crashing around him and he's sinking into the cold water. His response is incredibly important. He doesn't turn back and try to get back to the boat. He doesn't rely on himself, on his own swimming abilities, to get him out of this. It's a stormy sea. He doesn't stand a chance. All of this flashes through his mind--what should I do? And he does the only thing he can do-- he cries out "Lord, save me." All of this--his utter helplessness, his failure, his terror, but also his faith in Christ--is summed up in this one cry.

And "immediately," Jesus reaches out his hand and grabs him. He doesn't do it right when Peter starts to sink. But he does it as soon as Peter cries for help. And I love what he says to him. "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?" This is a rhetorical question. It's not as if he doesn't know why Peter doubted. He knows that Peter "saw the wind [and] was afraid." He's saying "Peter, you were so close!" There is exasperation there, because Jesus has already given them ample reasons to put their faith in him, but there is also affection and love and an approval of the attempt. And Jesus helps Peter back into the boat, and literally as soon as they get in, the wind stops. The sea grows calm. And "those in the boat worshiped him, saying 'Truly you are the Son of God." Peter's attempt is... not forgotten, but passed over in favor of what is truly important.

The parallels to our own lives should be obvious. I'm not going to belabor the point. This is just more of the theme of our daily struggles being embodied perfectly in Peter. Let me know what you guys think (even if you think this is dumb).

This post was written in 2010. And in 2014, I published my very own book, Simon, Who Is Called Peter. It's a First-Person narration, meaning it gets you inside the head of Jesus' most notorious disciple. However, it's also extensively footnoted, referencing dozens of commentaries and scholarly works on the life of Peter. CLint Arnold, Dean of Talbot School of Theology, calls it "an account that is both faithful to the biblical text and engagingly expressed," and Darian Lockett, Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, describes it as "a comprehensive portrait of Peter that is delightfully and skillfully woven together with the fabric of the New Testament." If that sounds like something you'd like to read, check it out!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Intro to Peter

Ah, Peter. The comedic relief of the Gospel, master of both the sword and the non-sequitor (see my previous note on Peter). First, a quick recap. Peter was one of the first two disciples called (the other was his brother Andrew). He, along with Peter, James, and John, formed an inner group among the 12 disciples (see the transfiguration and the garden of Gethsemane, Matt. 17:1, 26:37). He was married (something I had missed, see Matt. 8:14, "mother-in-law," and 1 Cor. 9:5). He held a position of some importance in the church after Pentecost (possibly the de-facto head of the earthly church, but that's not important right now). The Bible doesn't tell us how he died, but according to tradition he was crucified upside down under Nero, around the same time as Paul's death.

Now let's get into specifics. Peter is without a doubt the disciple most often singled out as doing or saying something important in the Gospels, and often these events demonstrate a particular closeness or intimacy with Christ. For instance, when the disciples see Christ walking on water, it is Peter who says, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water."(Matt. 14:28). And then, in the middle of a stormy sea, he leaves the boat and starts walking towards Jesus (we'll address his failure a little later). He wants to get to Jesus, even if he has to walk on water. A little later, when Christ asks his disciples "Who do you say that I am," it is Peter who responds, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." (Matt. 16:16, and Jesus' response is important enough for its own post, which will hopefully be soon) Later, as mentioned before, he is one of the three apostles to witness the transfiguration (Matt.17:4) and becomes so excited/terrified that he says something completely nonsensical (again, see my previous note). Again, he, James and John are the ones who accompany him into the garden of Gethsemane to pray, and he is the one who tries to defend Jesus by cutting off the ear of a servant (easily the most ill-advised and poorly-executed feat of swordsmanship recorded in the Bible). Then there's all the stuff that he does after the Resurrection and Pentecost (we might get to those in later notes). He may not have been "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (John has that honor) but he was without a doubt the disciple that loved Jesus.

Now let's remember his failures--and trust me, they are almost as numerous as his successes. He tries to walk on water--and sinks, because he had little faith and doubted (Matt. 14:31). He rebukes Christ for saying that he will be killed, and is in turn completely and utterly smacked down by Jesus (Matt.16:22-23). He, along with James and John, are hand-picked by Jesus to watch and pray with him in Gethsemane--and they fall asleep (the fact that Jesus particularly calls out Peter is interesting, to say the least). Then, of course, there is Peter's triple-denial of Christ after everyone else had already abandoned him. And there are even more failures after Christ's ascension: Paul is forced to call him out on his favoritism and hypocrisy in his interactions with the Gentile Christians in Galatians 2:11-14.

Paul says in Galatians 5:24 that "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." However, he says in Romans 7:14, "I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." Nowhere is the struggle between these two verses better demonstrated than in the life of Peter. In no one else do we see these moments of great faith followed so soon by great faithlessness. He steps out into the water--and sinks. He acknowledged Jesus as the Christ--and rebuked him for speaking what he (Peter) thought was nonsense. He fought for Christ, however briefly, in the face of armed and armored Roman soldiers--and denied three times so much as knowing him, mere hours before his crucifixion. Peter is not the "perfect" Christian, despite his intimacy with Christ--in that he is a perfect example of what we all are. But he truly loved Christ, and he always tried to do better (see this note). In that, I think he is a different kind of example--one we should all strive for.

This post was written in 2010. And in 2014, my book Simon, Who Is Called Peter was published by Wipf & Stock Publishers. Check it out!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Story and History

Every Bible translation I have ever read and enjoyed (NOT the Message) has read in a slightly different way than newspapers or novels read. The wording and sentence structure is ever-so-slightly archaic and formalistic, which is, of course, deliberate on the part of the translators. I wholeheartedly approve of this, because it gives the Word of God a majesty and solemnity (not the bad kind of solemnity--in fact, I may write a note on this later) even in its literary structure.

Unfortunately, this method does have some drawbacks. For instance, because it doesn't read like any story we have ever read, we tend to forget (especially if we are already familiar with it) that it is, in fact, a story. When we read in The Hobbit how the respectable Bilbo Baggins, with neither warning nor explanation, is suddenly forced to have no fewer than thirteen dwarves over to tea, we recognize that this is an absurd situation. We realize this and feel Bilbo's surprise alongside him because we read it as a story, an account of things that have happened. (The fact that such an event did not, technically, occur does not impact our ability to act and feel as though the story is real) Even without Bilbo's subsequent nervous breakdown, we realize that this is something quite out of the ordinary. However, when we open the Bible to the calling of the first disciples, we aren't surprised at all when Peter and Andrew "Immediately... left the boat and their father and followed him." We pass over this with barely a second thought, although we would have not only a second thought but a third and fourth as well should the same thing have happened with Bilbo and Gandalf.

My point: that elusive, slippery thing that so often evades my grasp. We don't read the Bible as a story. I was originally going to say that we don't really read it as a record of things that have happened, but that's not true. We do read it like that. But we don't read it as a record of actions, actions committed by real people, real individuals with real personalities. If we did, we would wonder about the inner motives, emotions, thoughts, that would cause two people to leave their livelihood, the only thing they had ever known, and follow a relatively unknown rabbi.

As my friend Kyle just said, the Bible doesn't take place in its own little world. It's not separated from the "real" world. The people in the Bible are real people. They aren't acting a play or reading from a script. When they do something, that action, just like everything we do, is accompanied by a host of inner thoughts, motives, emotions, that usually aren't explicitly expressed in the text. But just because it's not expressed in the text doesn't mean it's not there.

This is important. By reading the people in the Bible as real people, we can make the things we read more practical, more applicable to everyday life. If we recognize that Andrew and Peter leaving their father was a risky gambit, that they had no guarantee of even making a living, much less making a difference, then we can apply that the next time God calls us to take a risk.

So, this is a rough introduction-type-thing to a bigger project I'm beginning to work on, focusing on Peter. I hope to post another note on Peter soon.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Fallacy of Relativism OR A Chestertonian Experiment

So, as the finale of my studies here in Oxford, I have to write what is called in Britain a "long essay." In America, this would be called a "very long essay" or possibly a "monstrous abomination." It's 4-5 thousand words with at least 20 sources. Fun stuff. Anyway, I'm writing on Chesterton--it's going to be a kind of extension and elaboration of my essay that I've posted here. So I'm re-reading Orthodoxy. And a thought struck me--and now that I've somewhat unnecessarily given you a behind-the-scenes look at what's going on over here, I'm going to tell you that thought.

Chesterton says that society suffers from "humility in the wrong place." He says "At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemouse statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view." Chesterton admired people who stuck to their beliefs, even if he believed them wrong--he was horrified by people who were unwilling to state their beliefs to be right. Unfortunately, society has progressed even beyond this point of misplaced humility.

Chesterton lived in a world where people said that they're view may not be the right one. As a result of this, he predicted (and his prediction has now come to pass) a world where the very existence of a "right view" is doubted. The time has now come where people no longer say "My view may not be correct." They now say, "Every view is correct," and by doing so they take away all meaning from the word. The world in which all views are equally "true" is a world in which truth does not exist.

Now, we Christians are often accused (if we are, indeed, living like Christ) of being "narrow-minded" by the relativists. There is the statement that our beliefs are restricted while relativism is limitless. This is patently absurd. The Christian is much more free in his belief than the relativist. The Christian can believe in Christianity, and in believing in Christianity can believe in Love and Joy and Happiness and Courage and Honour and Beauty. The relativist is not allowed to believe in anything. The relativist believes that truth does not exist and so has lost the privilege of believing in anything else. The Christian may look on a sunrise and proclaim it beautiful--the relativist is not allowed to even admit it is a sunrise, nor can he admit the existence of Beauty.

The relativist will say that there is no Truth. He is forced to say this--admitting the existence of truth would be admitting the existence of error, because you cannot have one without the other. If one belief is true, than another belief is false. The relativist has attempted to rid the world of Error by declaring it free from Truth. There is no thing called Love, to the relativist. There is no Happiness, no Courage or Honour. There is no Beauty, because to call something truly beautiful would be to say that anyone who did not call it beautiful was wrong. The relativist cannot believe in anything because, to him, there is nothing to believe in.

The Christian, on the other hand, is gloriously and marvelously free in his belief. He may believe all sorts of things--he may believe that there is something truly wonderful about watching the sun rise over the mountains. He may believe that the Grand Canyon is actually grand, and that the night sky is really beautiful. He may believe in the thing called Courage that courageous people are exhibiting. He may believe in Love, and that there was a time when Love became flesh and dwelt among us. The Christian is the one who is free, because he admits the existence of Right. The relativist is bound in chains of his own design, because he denies the existence of Wrong.