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Pi and the Tiger
May 18, 2003
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to The book of Acts, chapter 4, and follow along as I read verses 5-12. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem,
6 with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.
7 When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, "By what power or by what name did you do this?"
8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers of the people and elders,
9 if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed,
10 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.
11 This Jesus is 'the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.'
12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks Be to God.
I have a Story
Two strangers sit at a tiny table in a crammed and bustling coffee house, on Nehru Street, in southeastern India, on the Bay of Bengal, sipping coffee and conversing in the easy way that strangers can. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s crowded with humanity. The aromatic coffee is delicious. Their cups are sipped empty. At this table of two is an old man, a native of that region, and a young Canadian, a harried traveler and a writer, with nothing to write and a train to catch.
“I have a story that will make you believe in God,” the old man promises—a story, not an analysis, not a report, not a study, not an essay, but a story. We do not reach faith through reason or research. We reach faith through experience. A well-told tale of spiritual experience has the power to guide us to God, or into a deeper connection with God.
Peter, the apostle, who found himself in trouble in the text before us, told the gospel story that he hoped might help his listeners believe in Jesus Christ.
The incident of which today’s lesson is a part begins in chapter 3 of the book of Acts, which recounts the arrival of Peter and John at the temple in Jerusalem at the time of the afternoon prayer service and sacrifice (3:1). A man who had been lame from birth was regularly carried to one of the temple gates, where he would request alms from those coming to services (3:2). Requesting alms from Peter and John, the man is instead healed by Peter (3:6), which creates a stir of excitement among the people who witnessed the miraculous healing (3:9-11). The gathering allows Peter to address the crowd about Jesus (3:12-26), and Peter’s teaching comes to the attention of the temple authorities (4:1-2). Peter and John are taken into custody “because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead” (4:2).
Our lesson, verse 5, begins “The next day.” Notice that it says, “their rulers, elders, and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem.” This shows us the gulf that had developed between Christian and Jews by the time Luke wrote his gospel. They are “their rulers, elders, and scribes” not ours.
Of the four officials named in verse 6 — Annas, Caiaphas, John and Alexander — only the first two are known. Annas was appointed high priest in ca 6 or 7 by Quirinius, the governor of Syria under whom a census was ordered at the time of the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:2; cf Acts 5:37); Annas was deposed by Valerius Gratus in 15. Caiaphas, his son-in-law (according to John 18:13), served as high priest at the trial of Jesus (having been appointed in ca 18 ) and until his removal by the procurator Vitellius about 36 or 37. The chronology of the ruling high priest during the New Testament period is confused. Both Annas and Caiaphas may have served as high priest more than once. About John and Alexander, nothing more is known than that they were of the high-priestly family, as indicated here.
The question in v7 of the source of the power or name by which Peter performed the miracle is not casual. In the ancient world, names had profound significance. In particular, the name of God was held in awe.
The importance of the divine name is seen in our lesson today. In v11, Peter quotes Psalm 118:22 saying, “This Jesus is 'the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.'” He then continues in verse 12 to declare that salvation is in “no other name” than Jesus’. That is, salvation is limited to those who believe on Christ.
The Live of PI: A Novel
Let me return now to the two strangers sitting at a tiny table in a crammed and bustling coffee house, on Nehru Street. “I have a story that will make you believe in God,” the old man promises.
The Canadian is suspicious. He wonders to himself, am I about to be evangelized by a Christian, or by a Muslim? Either way he motions for his check, in order to make his escape.
While he awaits his waiter, he asks the old man: Does your story take place 2000 years ago in a remote corner of the Roman Empire?
No, replies the old man.
Does it take place in seventh-century Arabia?
No. No. It starts right here, and ends in your cold country.
The author is intrigued. He stays, orders two new coffees, listens to the tale of a lifeboat, a tiger, and a teenager named Pi.
Thus begins Yann Martel’s fantastic and metaphorical book about faith, Life of Pi: A Novel. It’s a story that explores faith by putting it to the test in the heart of catastrophe.
Martel began his project as an agnostic, but along the way he started to believe. He thought: What would it be like to have faith? What would it be like if a dreadful event happened, and to be able to say that Jesus loves me anyway? He decided he would approach religion not from a cynical, agnostic viewpoint, but from more of a neutral standpoint. He willingly suspended judgment, and began his four years of travel, research, reading, and writing.
Then bit by bit, he fell for his subject. Bit by bit, he fell for God. “I started going to church,” he says. “I was moved by what I read. The gospels and the New Testament are baffling, complex and rich. Going to church made me feel good.” He says he is a religious seeker who had a childhood defined by reason, but who grew at some point to question the dullness of reason and its order. “I think reason is a very powerful tool,” he says to The Washington Post (October 28, 2002). “But to me it’s like one of those red lights that keep french fries warm in restaurants. At one point it kills everything. It kills mystery.” Martel decided to deconstruct reason, because reason had stopped mystery, and reason has stopped the questions that should be asked even if there are no answers. Martel asks such questions in the Life of Pi.
Pi is the sole human survivor of a cargo ship that sinks in the Pacific Ocean while transporting his family and animals from his family’s zoo in India to Canada, where they hoped to start a new life
For 227 days, Pi drifts in a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger that Pi rescues as the ship sinks. This is not a cute and cuddly story about a boy and his kitten. This is a dangerous and fascinating story about faith and survival.
As Pi adjusts to his grief and his terrifying situation — terror outside the boat, terror inside the boat — he plots to rid himself of the tiger. But in time, Pi discovers that it’s the presence of the tiger that gives him the courage and determination he needs to survive his ordeal.
It is an interesting story and an interesting thought. The point is that we may need to live with what we fear, what we do not understand, what challenges us — in order to survive a greater trial. Faith and fear are partners in the boat together.
No one knew this better than Peter. He is a man who — in a former life — would not let faith and fear co-exist. He had faith — “This shall never happen to you!” he says to Jesus who had said he was about to die (Matthew 16:22 NIV). He had fear — “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said in his denial of Christ (Luke 22:57 NIV).
Yet the two — faith and fear — could not hang together. He stood strong in faith in the absence of fear; he collapsed in fear in the absence of faith.
Now there is a lesson here. Faith does not do away with fear. Pi knew he was lunch for the tiger. He should have been afraid. And faith and fear together enabled him to survive. Faith does not, and should not, take away fear; instead faith offers proof positive that God is the Unseen Third Presence in the boat — however small your boat may be, however great your ocean may be.
It’s not uncommon to find ourselves asking God questions about the terrifying and imprisoning experiences in our lives from which we cannot escape. We face oceans of cancer, storms of grief, starvations of long unemployment. We thirst for love. We suffer loneliness. Do we, can we, will we, still love God in the midst of dreadful calamity? Is there hope?
Peter after the Resurrection, after the Ascension, after Pentecost was a different Peter from the one who cowered before the accusing finger of a maid near the cross. He had learned to let faith keep fear at bay.
In our scripture passage today, Peter begins by reviewing the facts of the case. He had been hauled before the judge because he was involved in the healing of a lame man. In paraphrase, he says, “What have I done? A man who could not walk now walks. No harm, no foul.” Sometimes, it is helpful for us to go over what exactly is going on in our lives. What precisely do we fear? Should we fear? Are we in the wrong? Have we caused our own problem? Are we our own worst enemy? If so, then it is clear we need to re-evaluate our behavior and the choices we make. But if not, then the matter is beyond our control and in the hands of God.
In our text, the apostle Peter locates himself as someone whose faith is in Jesus Christ. He says in v10, “It is by the name of Jesus Christ ... that this man stands before you” (4:10 NIV). That is Peter’s location. That should be our location. Peter was in a good place spiritually. This held his fear in check. He knew that his ultimate destiny was decided — whatever happened. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (4:12 NIV).
With such confidence, Peter could not help but have hope. And hope is the story of our faith journey.
Two aspects of Faith
Faith is a word that always seems to have two meanings. For example, take a sentence like, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” That sentence speaks about faith in two ways. It refers to my attitude, to my inner thoughts, “I believe.” But the sentence also says something else; It says what I believe—namely Jesus Christ. It says that like Peter, I locate myself as a person whose faith is in Jesus.
But then you might ask: What does that mean? What does it mean to believe in Christ? The chapter from the Westminster Confession Of Faith that we read together today, chapter 14, is an attempt to answer that question. Perhaps the first thing this chapter says to us is that we cannot separate the two aspects or meanings of faith. Faith is always in relation to something. If we want to speak grammatically, faith must have an object. We do not just believe. We believe in something. Now I know as Christians we always say, you have to have faith, you have to believe. We assume that everyone knows that when we say that we mean faith in Christ, belief in Christ.
Moreover, the confession would emphasize that belief is not a quality we generate spontaneously of ourselves. Faith takes root in our hearts. It is wrought in our inmost being by the Spirit of Christ. Faith is our personal conviction. Faith is our response to Christ. But this response, this conviction derives not from my strength of character, but from Christ himself. Return again to the sentence I mentioned earlier. “I believe in Jesus Christ.” The subject of that sentence is “I.” Usually when we are describing sentences, we describe the subject as the doer or the motivating power of the sentence, but not in this case. In this case, the object is the doer. Christ moves upon our hearts to move us to accept him as lord and savior.
The Confession goes on to tell us what it means to have faith in Christ. A Christian believes “whatever is revealed in the word,” that is in the Bible. And a Christian responds to each biblical passage appropriately. If it is a command we obey. “Love the lord thy God with all thy heart, mind, and soul.” That is not a suggestion. It is a command. As God’s people, we obey. On the other hand, if the Bible has a promise for us, we accept it. God’s promise to us is that in Christ we have eternal life. Believe it and rejoice in it.
But the last paragraph in the confession notes that faith, even though it is produced in us, it is still of us. Faith is a human quality and thus it varies in strength and degree. Like Pi, we are always involved in an ongoing struggle with faith and fear. We are often “assailed and weakened.” We struggle with doubt and distrust. But a faith derived from Christ, based on Christ, never quits the struggle. Because our faith is not in our faith but in Christ, and from Christ our faith draws the strength to overcome doubt and temptation and to gain victory in this life and the next.
What is Our Tiger?
What’s intriguing about Yann Martel’s story is that Pi — the kid, the main character— moved from plotting to rid himself of the tiger, to understanding that the tiger was the key to his survival.
We may feel sometimes like a kid in a lifeboat with a tiger in the prow, hungry and thinking about his last meal. But the adversities that come into our lives may in fact be critical to our survival as Christians. Learning to weather adversity makes us strong. Peter understood this. Later, after the authorities had released him, he met with others to pray about what to do next. Notice what he prays: “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness” (4:29 NIV).
He did not pray for God to somehow cause the tiger to fall overboard. He understood that the tiger of fear and adversity would always be in the boat with him. He prayed instead to have boldness in his confrontation with the tiger.
The question for us today is: What tiger is in your lifeboat? What is the source of your anxiety or dread or worry? Do not ask Jesus to shoot it, or tranquilize it. Do not ask Jesus to train it to do tricks and jump through hoops. Do not pray that Jesus will strike the tiger dead with a bolt of lightning. Rather pray that Christ will increase and strengthen your faith in the presence of the tiger.
When you do that, when you pray that way, you realize that Christ is in the boat with you. In your fear, you realize that the only answer to fear is Jesus Christ. Thus, the conclusion of chapter 14 of the WCOF is found not at the end of the chapter but at the end of paragraph 2 where it says, “But the principle acts of saving faith are, accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of Grace.” Whatever your fear, whatever your dread, whatever your worry. Rest on Christ alone and he will bring you through it. To which we say Amen. Praise Jesus. Amen.
Brown, DeNeen L. “Easy as ‘Pi’: Booker winner meets with sudden fame.” The Washington Post, October 28, 2002, C1.
Martel, Yann. Life of Pi: A Novel. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2001.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 7/23/03