Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Killiney, Co Dublin on Sunday, 20th November, 2005.
âI pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightenedâ?
We were booking a ski holiday last week. Having survived a week in Austria last January, I conceded that we might go again. So we’re taking our Christmas break in March, flying to Gerona in northern Spain, and travelling up into the Pyrenees to spend a week in Andorra.
I remember being told at ski school last January that learning to ski was about the willing suspension of disbelief. In order to remain in control, there is a constant need to lean forward and to put one’s weight on the lower foot.
âLean forward, Ianâ?, Erich the instructor would shout, âDo you think you are water ski-ing?â?
âYour lower footâ?, he would shout, âput your weight on your lower footâ?.
I would respond under my breath to Erich’s constant hectoring. Leaning forward doesn’t come easily when you are frightened, the natural reaction is to lean backwards. Putting weight on your lower foot is all right; if you can remember which foot is which.
I came to dread the instruction each morning, âput on your skisâ?, and for days would count down the minutes to lunch time and then count down the minutes until three o’clock, when ski school ended. My goal each day was to get to four o’clock when I could sit down in the bar and use four of the ten German words I knew, âein grosses Bier, bitteâ?.
The willing suspension of disbelief doesn’t just apply to ski-ing. Every time I get in an aeroplane I look out the window and ponder whether the thing will get off the ground.
Suspending disbelief is not something that comes easily, but a willing suspension of disbelief is at the heart of being Christian.
In centuries past belief in God came automatically to people. There was so much that was inexplicable, so much that was a mystery to people, that there was a sense that God must be there at every moment. God was responsible for all the processes of nature, even the rising and the setting of the sun were seen as the working of God’s hand. To disbelieve seemed nonsensical to most people, what explanation was there if God was ruled out of the picture?
People believed in God because they saw him as an everyday reality; faith was part of their way of looking at the world.
As the centuries have passed, more and more has been explained. The things of daily life that were once thought to be the hand of God are now explained in simple terms. Yet the Church has carried on speaking as though nothing had changed. We teach the Christian faith as though all the advances in human knowledge and the sciences had never taken place.
We have been able to get to the beginning of the 21st Century as though we were still in medieval times, and suddenly we have been knocked sideways. Many people have just stopped believing in what the Church says; we can all see this happening. Perhaps the scandals have caused people to question all church authorities; perhaps the massive growth in wealth has created a sense of independence; perhaps the effects of a way of looking at the world that is called post-modern are reaching Ireland in one big wave; whatever the reasons, people are giving up on church.
Most of the twenty-somethings in our city, the generation of the Celtic Tiger, do not see any connection between the reality of their daily lives and the things talked about in churches. The idea that people would do something because the Church said so, or because the Bible said so just sounds strange to their ears. This is a problem for us. If what we say and do on Sunday mornings does not connect with the world of those who go clubbing on Saturday nights, then we are in terminal decline.
Saint Paul would have understood our situation. It’s fascinating to see how he approaches his world. In the Acts of the Apostles, the book that follows the Gospels, there are two sermons of Paul reported. One is at Antioch, to people who believed in God, to people who understood what he was talking about; and one is at Athens, to people who did not believe in God and who would not have understood the words used by the church.
The Church behaves as though the world is full of people like those who listened to Paul in Antioch; it’s not. Our world is like Athens was in the days of Saint Paul; it’s full of differing opinions and differing views of life and the world. We cannot talk to our world as though we have every answer and that people should listen to us. They know we don’t have all the answers; they know all the faults and failings of the church; and they are not going to be told what to do.
If we are going to try to connect with a lost generation (if we’re going to try to stem the downward slide of the church), then we need to listen to our world and approach it with humility.
People disbelieve the Church, but survey after survey shows that they are still comfortable with the idea of there being a God, and they are still comfortable with the idea of Jesus.
Paul goes to Athens and he finds an altar to an unknown God and says he has come to tell people about the God he knows. We need that same approach, to say to people that most of us believe in something out there and we want to tell them about the God we know.
Words from the letter to the Ephesians show the sort of language Paul uses. He says to his readers that he prays, âthe eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called youâ?. It is not us who offer understanding, it is not us who offer hope, it is not us who call people; it is God.
Paul speaks of God’s âincomparably great power for us who believeâ?. Paul doesn’t talk about people coming to Church; he doesn’t talk about what the Church means; he speaks simply about the power of God in people’s lives, âThat power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the deadâ?. The Jesus, with whom most people have no problem, is said by Paul to be now and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, â?far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.â? Jesus comes first in Paul’s preaching, then we get to the church, âGod placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his bodyâ?.
We need to have the humility to ask people to willingly suspend their disbelief; suspend their disbelief not so that they can listen to more of what the Church might have to say, but so that they may receive the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that they may know him better, for he is the one âwho fills everything in every wayâ?.