The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, August 23, 2008

John 6: The Walk on Water and the Arrogance in Prayer

As the Daily Office for this week takes us through part of the 6th chapter of the Fourth Gospel, the passage that leaped out at me was John's depiction of the walk on water:
When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone.

And when even was now come, his disciples went down unto the sea,
And entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them.
And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew.
So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship: and they were afraid.
But he saith unto them, It is I; be not afraid.
Then they willingly received him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.
Jn. 6: 16-21.

William Temple, in his Readings, has a great comment on this account:
St. John tells the familiar story in such a way as to minimise, if not eliminate, the miraculous element in the sign, and to let the significance stand out. For his version does not necessarily imply a miracle at all; the phrase for "on the sea" is also used for "on the sea shore (xx, 1). So his narrative can be read as meaning that the Lord was on shore to welcome the disciples as, after much toil, they approached it. . . .But for St. John the meaning is to be found in the peace of attainment which immediately supervenes when, tossed with trouble, we willingly receive Jesus to be our companion. Christ is the Guide of Life, whom we may follow in the strength that he supplies into the way of peace.
Readings at 77.

Just prior, and after the feeding of the multitude, the crowd is bestirring itself to make Jesus king, leading him to depart. Temple's insight on this impulse is also worth quoting:
Here we see natural religion--the religion to which we are impelled by our natural impulses, and which tries to make use of God for our own purposes. That popular sin ultimately found its focus and final expression in Judas who will very soon now stand as a "cell" of disloyalty within the Twelve. (70, 71). But the same sin was in Simon Peter, who could not endure that the Lord should suffer (St. Mark, vii, 32, 33). How close together in common sinfulness are the disciple whose faith is the foundation of the Church and the disciple whose treachery has made his name the worst insult that one man can fling at another!...Of course, the selfishness of this arrogance masks itself as a generous desire to give honour to our leader. But we make ourselves the judges of what is to His honour. If we are not careful, much of our prayer is like that. We batter at the doors of heaven, demanding audience for our proposals, whereby God may save His world, or promote His purpose. But faith consists in leaving Him to take His own way.
Readings at 76.

Temple has a lesson for us all, not just in daily life, but in the current Anglican flap: to what extent are we, on either side of the divide, seeking to sway God to our own beliefs, or worse, assuming in our righteousness that what we believe is right must reflect God's will? Discernment requires humility, which heaven knows I find hard, and I think many on both sides of the "presenting issues" also find hard. But we need to be humble, to hear the small, still voice of God, and not merely listen to the devices and desires of our own hearts.

Update: I'm not the only one appreciating Temple's work this week, I'm glad to see; Archdeacon Peter Townley in yesterday's Times (London) has a nice profile on my old friend. He concludes it: "Although a much different world than that of 60 years ago, the weight of Temple’s greatness is still felt. Once described as 'a man so broad, to some he seem’d to be Not one, but all Mankind in Effigy', his wide informed vision checks our growing narrowness and self-obsession, his realism our Utopian perfectionism, his generosity of heart a worthy riposte to the mood of cynicism and anger epitomising the age and his statesmanship a powerful reminder of what it is to serve as the national church." It's a fitting tribute (although the last phrase raises interesting questions about the appropriateness of a national church in an era of pluralism).

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