Sermon for Mattins on Whit Sunday, 15th May 2016Isaiah 40:12-23, 1 Corinthians 2:6-16
A Mr Platt, from the Isle of Wight, has just won an appeal to the High Court against being fined for taking his daughter out of school during term time to take her on holiday. He argued, successfully, that he had not broken the law, as the Education Act requires only that parents must ensure that their children ‘attend regularly’, and that his daughter had attended for more than 90% of the time.
Predictably, many teachers have pointed out that if this results in parents taking it as being all right for their children not to go to school for three weeks a year – which is what 90% attendance would imply – then children would miss out on important parts of their education. One teacher said that they might ‘miss being taught an important concept’ and be handicapped for ever after.
I didn’t miss much school. I’m sure I had the odd sick note from time to time, of course. But I’ve often wondered whether, when I had that tummy upset before cross-country, I missed out on learning some key concept which would have helped me to understand maths. I’m still a complete dunce in that area. You know, I was quite encod the opening pages of Stephen Hawking’s book, ‘A Complete History of Time’: but alas, twenty pages in, I turned the page – and there was a page of equations. I joined the happy throng of those who have never finished Prof Hawking’s masterpiece of popular science.
This week I heard another mathematician, Marcus du Sautoy, being interviewed on a music programme. He is Professor of the Public Understanding of Science as well as a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, and he is a great populariser. He has written a book called ‘What We Cannot Know’. He has summed up what he has written about, like this.
 ‘Science is giving us unprecedented insight into the big questions that have challenged humanity. Where did we come from? What is the ultimate destiny of the universe? What are the building blocks of the physical world? What is consciousness?
 ‘What We Cannot Know’ asks us to rein in this unbridled enthusiasm for the power of science. Are there limits to what we can discover about our physical universe? Are some regions of the future beyond the predictive powers of science and mathematics? Are there ideas so complex that they are beyond the conception of our finite human brains? Can brains even investigate themselves or does the analysis enter an infinite loop from which it is impossible to rescue itself?’ 
Surely enough, towards the end of the radio interview, Prof. du Sautoy touched on the theological implications of his research. He said he was an atheist, but was beginning to realise that there are a number of things which – more or less as a result of the application of logic – we could never know. Some things such as various forms of infinity, were more or less theoretical, mathematical. But others he recognised as of highly practical importance, but nevertheless impossible to know.
Were those unknowables in fact in the realm of God? If he was alluding to the Unmoved Mover in Aristotle, the Creator ex nihilo, creator from nothing, then he was moving away from being an atheist. But he couldn’t say very much about this God of the Gaps. He didn’t know whether this God was at all interested in humanity, or took any kind of personal interest in individuals.
Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Secretary of Defense, famously talked about things that cannot be known – ‘known unknowns’ and so on. I think that Prof. du Sautoy is crossing into the territory of the Enlightenment, where, as our scientific knowledge increased, so our need for an idea of God, to explain things we didn’t understand, correspondingly shrank. 
Against that shrinking God concept is Isaiah’s vision in chapter 40: a vision, a prophecy, of the immense power of God: ‘It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the Earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers’ (Is. 40:22). And again, ‘Who hath directed the spirit of the Lord, or being his counsellor hath taught him? (v. 13)
St Paul refers to this in his first letter to the Corinthians. ‘For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him?’
As Christians, we can trace our understanding of God from beginnings in the Old Testament, in prophecies like Isaiah’s; and from there to the Incarnation of God in Jesus. Far from being the blind watchmaker, God has showed his love and concern for us by becoming a man, a man like us.
The disciples did recognise that Jesus was the promised Messiah – or at least Peter said he did. In Matthew 16 or Luke 9, Jesus asked the disciples, ‘Who do men say that I am?’, and they told him that some people thought he was Moses or Elijah or another of the old prophets. But Peter cut through this. Never mind what other people thought. He said, ‘You are the Messiah, the chosen one of God.’
And for those earliest Christians, the first Easter confirmed what Peter had said. To rise from the dead was the ultimate miracle. Jesus truly was Lord. The disciples had seen him resurrected. Even Marcus du Sautoy wouldn’t have doubted it, if he had been around at the time. Doubting Thomas is the patron saint of all of us who want to see proofs of miracles.  
But equally, Jesus wasn’t going to be there for more than a short while. He told the disciples that He would get the Father to send them the ‘Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, the Comforter’, to be God with them when He was gone (See John 14).
And then, after the Ascension, at the time of Pentecost, πεντεκοστη (ήμερα), Greek for the fiftieth day, fiftieth after the Jewish festival of the Passover, after Jesus was no longer physically present, the Holy Spirit came like a rushing wind and flames of fire, so that the disciples were able to speak in various languages, as the story is told in Acts 2. Peter preached to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the festival, and he referred to Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus.
“The Lord said to my lord, ‘sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.'” It meant that his Lord, Jesus, was Lord: his divinity was confirmed. 
Well that’s probably fine – unless you’re Marcus Du Sautoy. You see, if you’ve been brought up in a Christian home, and if you have a trusting faith, that ‘sure and certain hope’, you have a good chance of being caught up in the excitement of Pentecost. It becomes a joyful time: Whitsuntide, a summer holiday. Indeed, some, many Christians call themselves Pentecostals. Their style of worship involves being like those early Christians when the Holy Spirit came among them. They speak in tongues and let themselves go into a sort of ecstasy, when they meet in worship.
But not all of us are very comfortable waving our arms about and singing worship songs, let alone speaking in tongues. For many of us that kind of thing just doesn’t get through to us. 
That could be one reason why Marcus Du Sautoy seems to have dropped off the roundabout of faith. He doesn’t ‘get’ Christian worship, of any kind, apparently. He sees no necessary connection between his perception, that there are known unknowns, things unknowable, and anything he finds in a church. He still doesn’t see any evidence of a personal connection between this ‘God of impossibles’ and him, between this creator and the human race created.
And I suspect that some of us here now might sometimes feel the same difficulty, or something like it. All very well for the early disciples, who had been experiencing events which were – and remain – unique in history. They knew the stories of God and his chosen people, the Israelites. God had an intimate and personal relationship with them. He ‘spake through the prophets’, he appeared in a pillar of cloud, or called out from the burning bush. So when the disciples encountered Jesus, and the indescribable, inexplicable, Resurrection, they were astonished, but they accepted it as real. They believed.
But now how to mediate their experience, which we read about in the Bible, and our lives today? For many of us, our British reserve makes it somewhat unlikely that we will be open to a Pentecostal experience here and now.
But that’s where St Paul is so useful. In his first lesson to the Corinthians, in chapter 15, he explains how the resurrection to eternal life works: 
‘But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die: And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: 

But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body….. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. [1 Cor. 15:35-44]
For St Paul, that distinction between the ‘natural’, or the physical, unspiritual, and the spiritual, is the key. There is our mundane physical, unspiritual world, and the world of God, heaven, the spiritual world. And we can be trapped in our earthly nature: 
‘But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.’
It’s an idea which St Paul’s familiarity with Greek culture and philosophy might have suggested to him, his familiarity with what Plato called the ‘Forms’, τα είδη. The idea is that on one level there are things, things that we perceive in our everyday life, such as tables or pies or ribbons. Things: a black dress, a bottle of Evian water.
But also there is an understanding of what it is to be a black dress, or a bottle of mineral water: a sort of blueprint for the essence of ‘black-dressishness’, a form, a prototype of whatever it is. Now what it is that makes a table a table is perhaps more of a spiritual concept than my noticing that my dining table has a wonky leg. There is a universality, a transcendence, in the idea, the form. It is from the spiritual realm.
That is at the heart of the idea of a sacrament. How do we connect with the spiritual, the heavenly realm? In our (small-c) catholic worship, our worship for all, we are trying to come closer to God, in word and sacrament. You will remember that the Prayer Book says that a sacrament is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof’. You can find it at pages 294 to 295 of your Prayer Books. [Numbering in the Cambridge edition]. It’s in line with St Paul’s distinction between the bodily and the spiritual. A sacrament: an ‘outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’.
You don’t necessarily have to go to one of those ‘Pentecostal’ services in order to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit, (although plenty of people do). We can also enter into our Lord’s life and death symbolically, sacramentally, whenever we share the Lord’s Table and receive Holy Communion, or when we hear and learn from the Word, in services of the Word, like Mattins, now, or Evensong, tonight. 
However we worship, we try to bring the best of ourselves to God – 
Gracious God, to thee we raise

This our sacrifice of praise.
And in word and sacrament, even we, down to earth as we are – even we can surely feel the presence of His Holy Spirit, we can really have that sure and certain hope.
I do hope that Marcus du Sautoy ‘gets’ it too, soon.

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