Thursday, August 23, 2018

What the mountain isn't

In my previous post, I reflected on what it means to throw a mountain into the sea. I have been thinking about that ever since, and want to continue that exploration, and in particular to question and revise something I wrote then, the idea that the mountain creates firm ground on which to stand.

In the Bible, mountains stand for encounters with God. But the encounters themselves are anything but solid. Moses meets with God in cloud and thick darkness, from which lightning flashes. Elijah finds himself on a mountain shaken by rock-splitting wind, earthquake, and fire, before encountering God in the sound of sheer silence. Jesus’ disciples find themselves caught up in a cloud so filled with light as to be blinding. The point is not the solidity of the mountain, but the mystery of God’s presence, at once revealed and hidden, utterly disorienting and life-reorienting. We walk by faith, not by sight. True, ‘the Lord is my rock’ becomes perhaps the foremost insight of David; but even this is shaped in the context of his being on the run for his life, reduced to hiding in caves.

Human beings have an overwhelming urge for solidity. We need to know where we stand. We need to construct a world that is predictable. The thing is, the world is not predictable, in that sense. The control we crave is an illusion. Our lives are complex and fragile, within a greater mystery that extends far beyond the grasp of our imagination.

Solidity has its place, of course; but it also has its limits. Without solidity, your home would not stand; but in an earthquake, solidity is your enemy: it will kill you; if you can’t get out, your best bet for survival is to stand in the doorframe, the aperture. Or, to consider things from another perspective, solidity gives us ice; but ice is not better than water, or steam; it has its place, within something bigger.

The faith that throws the mountain of our encounter with God into the sea of chaos does not (necessarily) establish a firm place to stand but aligns us again with a covenant-partner in whom we may discover that mystery is greater than chaos (which may, indeed, be counterfeit mystery).

Matthew 14:22-33 records Jesus walking on the sea. Mark and John also record this (Luke does not) but Matthew alone records Peter walking on the sea. This is regularly held up as the benchmark of faith. In fact, it is the opposite.

Jesus, we are told, made his disciples get in to the boat and go ahead of him to the other side of the sea. This carries some force. It is both an instruction and a command. And it will turn out to be demanding, due to a strong wind being against them. During the night, Jesus, who had gone up the mountain to pray, came to them walking on the water. The disciples were terrified, believing it to be a phantom. Jesus speaks to reassure them: ‘take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Peter does not take this to heart. Instead, he questions Jesus: ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ Jesus said, ‘Come.’ But this is not an instruction; it is a concession, a concession made to Peter’s doubt and lack of faith, as Jesus makes clear when they are back in the boat.

Peter, the everyman, finds himself in the boat, pitched from side-to-side by the rolling waves, desperate for solid ground. From his perspective — however counter-intuitive it might be — if this really is Jesus and not a phantom then the sea is, in this moment, more solid than the boat. Peter puts more faith in the apparent solidity of the water than in Jesus’ instruction to those in the boat to not be afraid, and his earlier, unrevoked, ongoing instruction to them to get into the boat and go on to the other side.

We desperately want to be in control, and when the familiar is buffeted enough — when the fisherman has had enough of the boat — we call out for God to intervene on our terms. And sometimes God is gracious enough to do just that, and to catch us when we fall. But it is not the firmness of the mountain that holds us, it is the hand of God.

Not for the last time, Peter is a deserter. And yet he will learn to live as the rock (Petros), the one who is present to God even when being present to God means to be in the dark, even when it means to be bound and taken places against his will, even unto death.

Long before Peter, Noah discovered that the mountain does not provide solid ground until (long) after the flood has subsided. Further back still, the Spirit of God brooded over the waters, as a dove awaiting a place to land. But the boat will reach the shore, the ark come to rest on the mountain, the world will unfold in all its complexity. The mountain is our touchstone, but God alone is our hope.

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