A Sermon from Sherborne
Believe the impossible
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Trinity Sunday, 27 May 2018, by The Reverend Robert Green on the Golden Jubilee of his priesting
Lewis Carroll was, as we all know, the author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and his real name was Charles Dodgson, a brilliant mathematician, logician and photographer, and an Anglican Deacon as well as the well- known author of these much- loved books. It is from his second book that I want to quote from this morning, where he discusses the tension between faith and reason through the following conversation between Alice and the White Queen.:
“I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”
“I can’t believe that” said Alice.
“Can’t you? The Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” So can we believe the impossible?
In our Gospel reading we hear that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, and he was a man of reason. The way to understand something was to be able to evaluate it with the mind. He begins his conversation with Jesus with what he already knows.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no-one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him” To this Jesus replies, taking him right out of his comfort zone, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” To Nicodemus in his logical thinking this is nonsense: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”
Jesus then chides him “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
Nicodemus is trying to encompass faith with reason, but he needs to turn this around, and allow reason to be held by faith.
The knowledge of heavenly things requires us to reach through the limits of human intellect, and to exercise faith. Reason extends up from below, faith comes when we’re born of the Spirit from above. Faith and reason are not incompatible, but understanding alone is never enough.
It is as we encounter God in our lives through Jesus that our perception begins to change. If I may be biographical on this occasion, my own experience has over the years widened my spiritual horizon.
Back in the 1980’s both our children were of school age, and our son had some learning difficulties. We were living in Kent at the time, and the county did not recognise Dyslexia in any of its forms, so there was going to be no help from the local authority. After praying about this my wife was given the text Proverbs 3 vv. 5 and 6; “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not to your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your path”. After much searching we eventually found a Christian school who accepted him following an examination. While he was there the school celebrated the centenary of its foundation, and the Old Boys of the school marked the occasion by giving a stained- glass window for the west end of the chapel. There was already one which had a text on it, and this was a companion to it. You can imagine our surprise when we went to see it, to discover that the text was Proverbs 3 vv. 5 and 6. For us this was a real confirmation that we had chosen the right school for him. Incidentally the school fees were entirely covered by a bursary from the school Trust and a very generous grant from a former parishioner.
When I was asked in 1979 by the Diocese to consider a move which meant following my predecessor twice, I felt I needed real confirmation that this was right. I was at that time part of an ecumenical prayer group in Maidstone, and, knowing that I was contemplating a move one of the group, a Pentecostal lady, prayed that the Cross should be lifted high above the village where I was going to. Little did she know that I already had chosen the hymn, “Lift high the Cross” as the Processional at the Induction Service; yet another confirmation that I was doing God’s will.
It was at this same church, that we had a real problem with the back block of the pews. The floor was giving away, so that they were not safe. The reason for the problem was that the Victorians in their wisdom had built the floor and pews on bare earth, and they had been rotting quietly ever since! The PCC passed a motion to replace the pews with chairs, but because of objections from the parish an Ecclesiastical Court was held, and the Judge ruled that the pews should be replaced with chairs, and the bare earth to be covered with York stone. That very evening a member of the congregation who was at the court overheard her husband on the phone, talking about some York stone. She then pointed out that we need some York stone. His reply was, if you supply the transport then the stone is yours. Once again confirmation that this was right. We were able to use lads doing Community Service to remove the rotten pews, and prepare the area for the laying of the stone.
On a very personal note, when my dear wife, Diana died very nearly 22 years ago, we asked for only family flowers, and there were 5 arrangements of flowers. The benefice of the Winterbornes where I was incumbent had 5 churches, so I was able to place an arrangement of flowers in each church. We may say what a coincidence, but for me it was a ‘God-incidence’.
Today is Trinity Sunday, and its formulation is frankly baffling, One God, who is three Persons all equal to each other, that is, until we see this with the eyes of faith. The Trinity is the truth about God revealed through Jesus Christ. It was only by exercising faith in Jesus did the first Christians understand God in this way. Later in this Gospel of John, Greek grammar has to be forced when writing about the Holy Spirit. The Greek word, pneuma, meaning “breath” or “wind” from which we get words like pneumatic and pneumonia is neuter. The Christian experience is that the Holy Spirit is a Person, and has to be given a gender, and the grammar has to be changed to reflect that. Through the Holy Spirit Jesus has given Himself to every believer.
Whilst we all need a spiritual birth, this is not a one-off event, and as we make our spiritual journey, coming back to Him continually to have our spirits renewed and re-nourished, so we are given greater insight into His purposes for our lives. Our faith can always be extended. Nicodemus had to be challenged about extending his faith, and we too may need to be challenged. God has given us the power of reasoning and intellect, and all these gifts can have a spiritual purpose.
God gave His Son Jesus Christ to this world at a particular time and at a particular place, but the significance of that event, His death and Resurrection, has had a huge impact all down the centuries. Historically it was of little importance, spiritually it has been life-changing.
In our daily lives we need both faith and reason to intermingle. In our family, our work, our church, and wider afield. It may be that we need God’s Holy Spirit to extend our faith in a particular situation. What may seem impossible is after all discovered to be achievable.
My brothers and sisters whatever our age, God has so much more to reveal of Himself. Amen.