A Sermon from Sherborne

Their eyes were opened

A sermon preached at the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 30 April 2017 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods

“We do not know what happened when Jesus rose from the dead; that is God’s secret. We do not know, that is, what happened to him, what change he underwent, what it was like for him to rise.” [Austin Farrer]. What we do know is that his disciples, those who had followed him and knew him and loved him, found it hard at first to recognise him in his resurrection appearances. In today’s Gospel Jesus accompanies two of his followers – not members of the Twelve, but part of the wider following who have known him well – as they walk from Jerusalem to their home in the village of Emmaus, and when they reach their destination he accepts their invitation to come in for supper. They have been talking all the way, but the two disciples have still not recognised him, and do not do so until they invite him to offer the blessing over the bread, as was the custom when a guest was present at the meal. Then, says St. Luke, “their eyes were opened, and they recognised him.” [Luke 24.13-35].

It was the same at Lake Galilee, when the disciples, after a fruitless night’s fishing, saw a figure on the beach, but they “did not know that it was Jesus” [John 20.4]. When a little later they had caught an enormous catch and Jesus called out to them, “Come and have breakfast”, “none of the disciples dared to ask ‘who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord.” [John 20.12].

Why was this? Had Christ’s appearance changed at his resurrection? It is possible. St Paul tells us that, at our resurrection from the dead, God will clothe us all in the body of his choice [1 Corinthians 15.38]. Yet Mary of Magdala only mistook Jesus for the gardener when she had her back turned to him. When he called her by name and she turned to him, she knew he was her ‘Rabbuni’, her Master [John 20.16]. And in the Upper Room, Thomas had no difficulty in recognising the One whose resurrection he had previously doubted, and had no need to place his hands in Jesus’ wounded side or his fingers in the holes in his hands torn by the nails. His confession of belief is total: “My Lord and my God.” [John 20. 26-29].

Perhaps the real reason why recognition was so difficult is that the disciples simply could not believe what Jesus had foretold, that he would be raised from the dead. Theirs was a common, earthy scepticism which is still alive and well and belongs to most people to this day. They simply can’t ‘think outside the box’, as the modern phrase puts it. When someone is dead, he is dead. That’s it. End of story. Whatever he promised in his lifetime, it counts for nothing in the face of the simple biological fact. Death is death. QED.

Over the years I have frequently talked about the proper scientific attitude to things compared with the more dogmatic approach of scientists who have embraced what has been called the ‘New Atheism’. Some of today’s scientists have become the High Priests of a new religion which declares that nothing which they cannot understand can possibly be true. If you want evidence of that, take a look at the official website of Professor Richard Dawkins. Their his Foundation declares itself to be a ‘clear-thinking oasis’ (there’s humility for you), and to assist in helping others to think as Professor Dawkins thinks, it has details of recommended reading, study groups, social groups and other programmes. There are even summer camps for children and young people. Suddenly it hits you: this man has founded a church. It is a church dedicated to a deity called ‘No-God’. And as its High Priest, Dawkins is passionate about this negative deity. He evangelises with all the zeal of any religious fundamentalist. All opponents are excoriated in terms reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition. He has closed his mind to the quest for truth. All that matters is acceptance of his dogmas.

I cannot help comparing that to what I discovered a few years ago when I was invited back to my old Cambridge College – Trinity – to preach the Whit Sunday sermon. The Master of the College duly took his seat in his special stall in chapel. Nothing unusual about that, except that the Master of Trinity then was Martin Rees, Lord Rees of Ludlow, the Astronomer Royal, Professor of Astro-Physics, holder of the Order of Merit and a former President of the Royal Society. And here was I about to preach to one of the world’s most distinguished scientists about an event which took place 2,000 years ago, when Jesus’ disciples were given the gift of the Holy Spirit which they described as coming on them ‘like a mighty rushing wind and flames of fire’. So was I nervous? You bet was nervous!

I needn’t have worried. At dinner afterwards Lord Rees was adamant that the scientific mind must never be closed to such phenomena. The true scientist must always be prepared to think ‘outside the box’ – or else so many amazing discoveries in the past would never have been made, and many new ones will not be made in the future. Good scientists, he told me, never demand ‘proof’ of anything. They search for hypotheses which work. Upon a sound working hypothesis they can build another, then another – and so the work of scientific enquiry goes on. Above all, he said, no scientist worth his or her salt will ever lose a humbling sense of wonder and awe, whether searching the vastness of the skies or studying the tiniest particle of creation. And that is the true scientific spirit. It was exemplified for me years earlier when I was a student at Trinity, and got to know another Fellow, the Professor of Theoretical Physics – John Polkinghorne, who was subsequently ordained. John was utterly clear that, far from being incompatible with science, Christianity is its natural ally. As he puts it in one of his books, ‘In their search for truth, science and religion are intellectual cousins under the skin.’

Even doughty old atheists like the late Bertrand Russell come close to realising that, though without quite making the connections. A belted Earl, but like Martin Rees a Fellow of the Royal Society and holder of the Order of Merit, Russell was both a mathematician and a philosopher. And he once wrote:

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry.

Mathematics, science, poetry, painting, music: all can be elevated into a god-like status (and I say this quite deliberately on the Sunday of our annual Music Festival), and then they become idols, and their devotees idolaters. Or they can be seen as what they are, channels of grace, and vehicles to a greater understanding of the divine. All can open our eyes, enlarge our understanding and bring us nearer to God. I remember a sentence from a sermon preached here many years ago, though I am ashamed to say I have forgotten who said it: “The opposite of faith is not doubt. It is certainty.” [A quote frequently attributed to Paul Tillich, 1886 – 1965, but also to many others]. We all need to be a little more humble before the wonders of the Cosmos, or of mathematics, or of science, or of the arts – and then we will begin to discover the links between them, and our hearts, like the hearts of those disciples on the road to Emmaus, will start to “burn within us”. And for that, and for the sheer greatness and wonder and glory of it all, thanks be to God.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 30/04/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne