Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 23rd November 2008
“I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” Ephesians 1:18
I did CSE mathematics when I was at school; that would have been the equivalent of ordinary level Junior Cert; or ordinary level Inter Cert, as it would have been in my day. It doesn’t mean anything other than I am not a mathematician, nor was I any good at sciences; I took CSE general science. I know nothing about biology or chemistry or physics, so I struggle when it comes to anything scientific. However, despite being a complete ignoramus, a few months ago in Eason’s in Dun Laoghaire, I bought a book that attempts to make sense of quantum physics. Marcus Chown’s Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You tries to explain things out on the edge of physics, including superposition, which is the ability of an atom to be in two places at one time. There is an experiment called the Double Slit Experiment where atoms of light are shone onto a screen, but between the screen and the light source there is another screen with two slits in it—the atoms seem able to go though both slits simultaneously; they seem to be able to be in two places at one time.
Coping with some of the ideas demands being prepared to suspend disbelief, how can such things be so? We have just to accept that this is the way of things.
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.
We all know that 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 sit lightly to the 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 not going to survive.
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 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, 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, which we read as our Epistle this morning, show the sort of language Paul uses. He says to his readers that he prays that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you”. We believe that it is not us who offer understanding, that it is not us who offer hope, that it is not us who call people, that it is God.
Paul speaks of God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe”. 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, “That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead”. The Jesus, with whom most people have no problem, is said by Paul to be now and seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms, ”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.” Jesus comes first in Paul’s preaching, then we get to the church, “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body”.
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 be open to the possibility of an encounter with this Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that they may know him better, for we believe he is the one “who fills everything in every way”.