Sermon for Evensong at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon, on the Second Sunday of Lent, 1st March 2015

Genesis 12:1-9, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Yesterday morning, along with Beryl Jones and Godfrey from St Mary’s, Robert Jenkins and the other ministers from St Andrew’s, together with their churchwarden Dr Moni Babatunde – and about 991 others – it was our privilege and our joy to attend the Service of Inauguration of our new bishop, Bishop Andrew, at Guildford Cathedral.

The process is called ‘inauguration.’ Just as we are no longer supposed to think of bishops as ‘princes of the church’, so we don’t talk about them being enthroned any more, but just ‘inaugurated’.

Bishop Andrew had to declare his loyalty to the inheritance of faith professed by the Church of England, the ‘faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the Catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.’ That is in the preface to the Declaration of Assent, which is read by the Dean. She went on say, ‘Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.’

If you want to look at the ‘historic formularies’ which are referred to, then look at p.584 (and following) in your little blue Prayer Books, where the historic form of service is set out – although I’m disappointed to tell you that we didn’t follow that, but instead it was a more modern version. Do look at the wonderful lesson in the Prayer Book, from 1 Timothy, setting out all the qualities which a bishop needs – ‘.. not greedy of filthy lucre..’ and so on. The 39 Articles are there too.

Tonight, on the Second Sunday in Lent, we are reflecting on the nature of faith. The faith which inspired Abraham to leave his home and go off in search of the promised land, just relying on the Lord’s promise, in our first lesson from Genesis, and the great catalogue of instances of faith set out in the Letter to the Hebrews, the faith shown by a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that it refers to in Chapter 12.

Bishop Andrew chose as his lesson, which was beautifully read by his eldest daughter Hannah, a passage from chapter 47 of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, which certainly those of us in my car, coming away from the service, couldn’t remember before, as it wasn’t the ‘still, small voice’ of calm, and it wasn’t the dry bones: but it was Ezekiel being walked around where the temple would be, and being shown a spring of water, which variously was a trickle, came up to his knees, and then was deep enough to swim in, which flowed out into the Dead Sea, and made the water of the Dead Sea sweet enough for fish to thrive and be caught abundantly there.

Bishop Andrew drew on that image as he outlined the task ahead of him. He had some allusions to Classical mythology as well: the story of Odysseus and the Sirens in the Odyssey, and a version of the same story in Jason and the Argonauts. The Sirens’ song was intended to draw Odysseus and his companions to their deaths on the rocks, and they were saved by the beautiful song of the singer Orpheus, which drowned out the Sirens.

For Bishop Andrew, this illustrated the need for continual work, continual strife against all the challenges which he would have to face in his ministry. As he pointed out, rotting fruit will spread rapidly and ruin all the good fruit next to it: but it doesn’t work the other way. The good fruit doesn’t neutralise the rotting fruit by itself. Something positive has to be done to get rid of the bad stuff.

In the Letter to the Hebrews chapter 11, that first line, ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ has a rather different meaning from the ‘faith’ which the Bishop has to declare his assent to, as part of his inauguration.

We can say that Bishop Andrew shares our core Christian beliefs: he shares the specifics of belief which are set out in the creeds. But what we’re being asked to reflect on tonight is slightly different. This passage in Hebrews is a pretty philosophical passage, and it deals, not so much with the content of our faith, with what it is we believe and trust in, but instead it invites us to think about what it means to have faith. What are we doing when we have faith?

It’s drawing a contrast, which you’ll also find in Chapters 4 and 8 of St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, between what we can see with our eyes, what we can sense with our five senses, the truth of which we can witness – we were there, we saw it happen, so we can certainly say we believe in it – and the things that we can’t see, but nevertheless believe in: what it is that gives substance to our hopes and in some way provides a touch-stone, a reality check, for things which we cannot directly experience.

Some philosophers and writers have of course challenged this. H. L. Mencken, whom Alastair Cooke was so fond of quoting in his Letter from America, said, ‘Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.’ The Oxford philosopher Richard Robinson, in his book ‘An Atheist’s Values’ [Oxford, OUP, 1964] simply finds Christian explanations of faith to be ‘unintelligible’, believing something where there is no evidence for it.

The word which we translate as ‘evidence’ in this context, in ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ in Hebrews 11:1 (KJV), something which convinces us that something is true, is something objective, it’s something outside us. It’s not a question of our being disposed to believe something, credulous. It’s what it is that makes us disposed to believe it. In Greek, the word is ελεγχος: it’s a word which means a proof, a process of putting something to the test.

I have to say that I disagree with those philosophers who say that this kind of belief, faith, trust in the reality of something which you can’t actually prove, is simply unintelligible. We believe and trust in all sorts of things every day, which we can’t prove. For example, that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, or that we will – or most of us will – carry on with our lives, and that there will be another day.

I believe and trust that some of my friends are curling up in front of the TV, and getting ready to watch Top Gear. I can’t prove it – I can’t see them. But for practical purposes, I’m quite confident that that’s what they’re doing.

You can of course object that some things are more likely than others. Some things are more believable, if you like, than others, and therefore more deserving of our faith. Can faith, our faith, pass this test?

I would suggest that our faith in God is both intelligible and intellectually respectable, because of the testimony of the actual people who were the real witnesses, which we have in the Bible, and because the history of that faith, as it has been passed down by the generations here in Stoke for the last 1,500 years, is such that, frankly, if it wasn’t true, it would’ve died out.

The thing about our Christian faith is that, although the object of it is invisible, it is real. ‘Abraham put his faith in God, and that faith was counted to him as righteousness’, St Paul writes in Romans 4. ‘Righteousness’ in Paul’s letters is what draws us closer to God. If all there were is mankind and what man can see, can perceive with the senses, then indeed, faith makes no sense. But we believe that there is more, more than we can know or perceive. Just because we can’t perceive it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Hebrews gives a catalogue, as I said earlier, of all the various heroes and heroines of faith. Look what a tremendous tradition you will be following if you join in! Bishop Andrew is saying that, if you have the faith, if you get swept up in its stream, a stream like that stream rising in the middle of the temple, in Ezekiel’s vision, then even in the barren waters of the Dead Sea, you will make a good catch.

Let us give thanks for Bishop Andrew’s teaching, and for the example of his faith. He will be a good man to watch over us – which is what a bishop does.

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