A Sermon from Sherborne

They rejoiced when they saw the Lord

A sermon for Holy Communion at Castleton Church, preached on Sunday 8 April 2018 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. Think of his resurrection walk with two of his followers – not members of the Twelve, but part of the wider following who have known him well – from Jerusalem to their home in the village of Emmaus. 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].

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, the disciples had no difficulty in recognising him, as we learned in this morning’s Gospel reading [John 20.19-23]. And “they rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’

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.

I often reflect on 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. His Foundation declares itself there to be a ‘clear-thinking oasis’, 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 – even summer camps for children.

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 some 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, the Astronomer Royal, holder of the Order of Merit and at the time 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!

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. In fact, true scientists are not interested in “proving things”. Their quest is for hypotheses which work. And, once found, a working hypothesis can then become the basis for another, then another, and so on.

Above all, said Lord Rees, 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.’

Problems only begin when both religious people and atheists start getting fundamentalist about their beliefs, and close their minds to the search for truth. That’s what the so-called ‘New Atheists’ have done, as fervent in their dogmas as any religious extremist. As one of my colleagues put it in a sermon a while back, ‘The opposite of faith is not doubt. It is certainty.’ We all need to be a little more humble before the wonders both of the Cosmos and of God. And then we will begin to discover the links between the two, and our hearts, like the hearts of those disciples on the road to Emmaus, will start to ‘burn within us’. Jesus will be able to breathe on us the gift of the Holy Spirit, and send us out to do his work with excitement and with joy. And for that, and for the sheer greatness and wonder and glory of it all, thanks be to God.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 08/04/2018
The Church of St Mary Magdalene, Castleton