Archives for posts with tag: deists

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, 27th April 2014
Acts 2:14a, 22-32, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away. [Hughes Mearns, 1899]

I hope that’s not too irreverent a way to introduce some reflections on the story of Doubting Thomas, which is one of my favourite stories in the Bible. I’ve always thought that, if I’d been around at the time, and had been fortunate enough to be one of Jesus’ circle of friends – if not one of the actual disciples – if I’d bumped into the disciples, and they had been saying, ‘We have seen the Lord’, I think my reaction would have been a bit like Thomas’: ‘Unless I can see him, touch him: I couldn’t believe it.’

But then Thomas is put out of his misery, because Jesus does come: Thomas does see, he does touch – and he does believe. But Jesus himself says that the really marvellous thing is if someone doesn’t have Thomas’ good fortune, wasn’t actually there, wasn’t able to see, feel, touch the risen Jesus – but nevertheless still believes – that is the real marvel.

St Peter wrote in his first Letter, Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice …

This is a very important message for all of us Christians. Starting from the disciples on the way to Emmaus, Christians have always had a tendency to be a bit despondent when they haven’t had Jesus right there in front of them. Now 2,000 years further on, there are an awful lot of people, like the Prime Minister, for whom their Christian faith ‘comes and goes’, but clearly doesn’t exactly get him by the throat.

Let’s go back a minute to the man who wasn’t there.

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.

The Jesus that Thomas encountered, the Jesus that all the disciples encountered, was there – and then he wasn’t. He was a man, but he was also God. So in a sense, he was a man who wasn’t there.

The bit that Thomas saw, and felt, and touched, was Jesus the man. But the fact that he saw, and felt, and touched Jesus, the risen Jesus, the man who wasn’t there: the man who had died, shows that this was a revelation, a revelation of God: God showing himself.

You can approach that in all sorts of different ways. If you believe in God as a sort of benevolent old chap with a beard above the clouds, who somehow created everything that there is, that may be fine – and it may indeed be perfectly OK to believe in someone like that, simply because you know that the question, what it is to be God, is actually beyond our comprehension, and therefore a picturesque metaphor, like an ancient Greek god on Mount Olympus or in the heavens – or indeed, all the imagery we have in the Bible, ‘sitting on the right hand of God’, and so on, may be perfectly OK as a way of talking about something which we really can’t comprehend – but which, nevertheless, we can believe in.

The point about the Resurrection is that it was God’s ultimate way of demonstrating, not only that He, God, is there, He exists, but that He is still interested in His creation, and in us in particular.

There have been signs of God’s involvement all down the ages. Moses and the burning bush: Daniel in the lions’ den; all the various miracles that Jesus did, are very difficult to explain, unless they are to some extent revelations, revelations of God at work in the world.

Many of us will be able to say that they have experienced the power of prayer; that prayers are answered. Again, very difficult to analyse this in any way. Why, for example, are some prayers answered, and others aren’t?

The philosophers of the Enlightenment – Spinoza, Locke, Hume – all had difficulty with the idea that God was something, God was a something, something made, when at the same time He was the ultimate cause of everything, the ‘unmoved mover’ as Aristotle called him, or the ‘first mover’, the first cause, in Thomas Aquinas.

The idea of the ultimate cause, the unmoved mover, ‘τι ό ού κινούμενον κινει’ [Aristotle, Metaphysics, Λ 7, 1072a25], could lead you to William Paley’s C18 idea of the ‘divine watchmaker’; that Nature was so marvellous in its construction and operation, that it must have been constructed by, and organised by, a divine craftsman. The most complex mechanism which Paley could think of was a watch – pretty rare in C18 – so God’s skill must be at least that of a watchmaker – he was the Divine Watchmaker.

Charles Darwin is said to have been inspired to start his own researches into evolutionary biology by reading about Paley’s idea of the Divine Watchmaker.

But the problem with those understandings of God – sometimes called ‘deist’ ideas – which were popular in the C18, is that they don’t make sense of Jesus. They imagined a divine watchmaker, a god who set up the world, programmed it, pressed the start button – and then had nothing more to do with it.

It would be fairly difficult to justify worshipping, or having any kind of interaction with, that sort of a god. There wouldn’t be a lot of point in praying to the divine watchmaker, because he wouldn’t be there. He would probably have moved on.

It would be difficult to understand any ideas about ethics, why we should choose to do one thing rather than another, on the basis that some things are good or bad – because the divine watchmaker, having made the mechanism to run at a certain speed, and perhaps in a certain direction, wound it up and set it going, has left it to get on by itself. The world has to evolve by itself. As Richard Dawkins put it, the watchmaker is blind.

There’s nothing that the clock itself can do to change its time or to run in a different direction. So if all there is, is God in the form of an unmoved mover, then we are ultimately pre-programmed, predetermined, and there’s no point in our trying to choose between the good and the bad.

If, on the other hand, we accept that the point about Jesus is that His life, death and resurrection is a revelation, is God showing His hand – then it is the revelation. The divine watchmaker is not blind. He is still there, caring for what He has made and sustaining it. The fact of Jesus, his life, death and above all, his resurrection, is the evidence. How should we respond to it?

Although I’m sure you’ll all realise that I’m mighty tempted to have another dig at our hapless Prime Minister and his lukewarm faith, I don’t think it would be very fair to do that. Let’s concentrate on what we should do. St Peter, in his first letter, suggests that when you have faith in Jesus, ‘you believe in Him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls’ (1 Peter 1:8-9).

You, you who have come to church, have faith that God cares for you, and that God will save your soul, will bring you home. I suppose the thing today is that, for many people, there is no sense of being lost in the wilderness and needing to be brought home. There is no sense of being cut off from God – which is what sin is – because people feel that they can get by perfectly adequately without addressing their minds at all to any questions about God. They just don’t engage.

If you’ve got a nice family, if you’re doing reasonably well: if you’ve got a decent job or a decent pension: if you live in a nice place, if you drive a nice car: if you have decent holidays: if you have all that, it’s very tempting to think that there’s nothing really missing in your life.

And yet, of course, very commonly, people experiencing that sort of earthly-paradise prescription, which might even be normal life in Cobham, say – are often the ones who confess to not being entirely fulfilled, to having a sense that there’s something missing in their lives. Perhaps they turn to some New Age philosophies or fads – Yoga or special diets – in the hope that it’ll fill the gap in their lives.

Yoga or special diets. I hope that doesn’t sound impossibly sniffy. What I’m leading up to, is that you don’t need pet rocks or fancy diets. You just have to get your head round what the encounter with Thomas, or the meeting on the road to Emmaus, or the empty tomb, all add up to.

Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe’ [John 20:29]. That’s the message. It changed people’s lives 2,000 years ago – and it can still do it. We need to think hard about what that revelation can do in our lives, and how we ought to respond to it.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday of Epiphany, 5th January 2014
John 2:1-11 The Wedding at Cana in Galilee – Christ Reveals his Glory

You might wonder why our lesson just now was about the wedding at Cana in Galilee rather than Jesus’ visit from the Wise Men, given that this Sunday is our celebration of Epiphany; Epiphany, which means showing off, revealing.

This morning indeed the Gospel was the story of the Wise Men: the last of the traditional Christmas stories. It’s the lesson for the twelfth day of Christmas. Our decorations are supposed to be taken down tonight, Twelfth Night. Christmas is over. The season of Epiphany begins.

In the Epiphany season, next week we mark the baptism of Christ, and three weeks after that, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Candlemas – when we are going to have a special Evensong here at St Mary’s. In between, in a fortnight, on 19th January, there will be our Christingle service in the morning before Mattins, and – as this is another traditional Epiphany theme – there will be the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service in the evening, at the Methodist chapel, instead of Evensong here.

The candles, the Christingles and at Candlemas, are symbolic of the Epiphany light, the enlightenment, that the coming of God’s kingdom brings. ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come,’ says Isaiah in our first lesson. It is all about showing, showing to the world that Jesus is here.

The wedding at Cana fits in with this. The evangelist says that Jesus turning the water into wine was his first miracle, ‘and he revealed his glory.’ Revealed, manifested. Epiphany.

That’s all very familiar. Emmanuel, God with us. ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’. But what does it really mean, mean to us today?

Time was, when the idea of light, the idea of enlightening people, was seen differently. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the time of the Enlightenment with a capital E, it was the time of Erasmus and the Humanists. They believed that the world could be completely understood through the use of reason, reasoning and logic. That went for knowledge of God as well: whatever we could know about God, we could know only by the use of our intellect – the same way in which we learned about animals and geology and so on.

It led some theologians and philosophers to look at the findings of scientific enquiry, like Darwin’s work on evolution, and to reach the conclusion that life on earth may have been started by God, but that we could not know much more about this God than that He is an ultimate first cause, a creator from nothing, an unmoved mover.

Reason could take you to a belief in that rather limited god, the divine creator – but not much further. You could not know much about what such a god was like. Most importantly, there seemed to be no evidence that God had done anything more than just starting the process off. No evidence that God had any interest in human life, or in particular, that He cares for us.

That’s quite a contradiction with the things that we say we believe in our worship. Look at the Magnificat:

‘He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

That’s not a description of a laissez-faire god, of an unmoved mover who has, frankly, just moved on: it’s a description of an interventionist God, a God who cares for social justice. God with us. God with us, who does not stand idly by in the face of injustice, in the face of poverty and exploitation.

Somebody like Richard Dawkins might say, the Magnificat is just pretty words. It doesn’t really mean anything. Science can’t lead you to believe in a God, or at least in a God who has any personal interest in us.

At the time of the Enlightenment, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the answer to the deists, as they were called – to the people who said that God was just the creator, a blind watchmaker, and nothing more – the answer was that our religion is revealed religion. There are things beyond what reason can tell us, things nevertheless revealed to us, revealed to us by God.

One sort of revelation is the sort of thing which we are celebrating today. Turning the water into wine was a demonstration, an epiphany. Did it really happen? It can’t be proved. But one thing you can say is that if it did happen, then it was a complete contradiction of the idea that God has moved on, that He doesn’t care.

If God has manifested Himself, has showed Himself to us, in the person of Jesus, then it can’t be true that He doesn’t care for us. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He in turn calls on his flock to be good sheep. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, in Jesus’ new commandment, that we love one another, He calls on us to live like people who recognise that they have God in their midst, God with us, Emmanuel.

‘Whoso have this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?’ (1 John 3:17). You’ll remember that from the Communion service. It goes on, ‘My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth.’

It was, and still is, a revolutionary message. By turning the water into wine, by manifesting himself in his divine nature, Jesus was challenging the powers that be, both spiritual – the Pharisees and the scribes – and temporal, the Romans. They both had a vested interest in the established order – ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’. To upset it was dangerous. In the story of the Wise Men, Herod ‘was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him,’ when the Wise Men told him of the new king’s birth.

Similarly today. Let’s not be too ‘political’, or upset the status quo, people say. Look at all those respectable people who say they are all right, they have no need to believe: there is nothing missing in their lives. They never say, like the bod in the Alpha Course poster, ‘Is that all there is?’ But they have no proper roots, no real understanding of what is good. Instead, they tend to cling to status and possessions. There is nothing else, for them, nothing else to cling on to.

But a Christian has faith, a Christian has faith that there is more, there is a reality beyond what we can reach simply by the exercise of reason, excellent though that is. Our prayers are answered; we know we are not alone. It is reasonable, it makes sense, after all, for us to read the miracle stories, to open our minds to analogy, to metaphor, and to see God, revealed.

‘He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.’

The Lord is here: His Spirit is with us – but we mustn’t ignore Him. It must make a difference – we must change. That’s what Epiphany calls us to do.

‘He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’ Now what are we going to do?