Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Sixth Sunday of Easter 2016
Start Date 1st May 2016 10:00am
Description

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

'Your life is hidden with Christ in God'. A haunting phrase from our second reading. A phrase which has power to float free from its particular context there and speak to us more generally; reminding us how so much of our life is 'hidden'. The ultimate origins, purpose, destiny, of our life, are all in some measure a mystery: hidden from us. The sense and purpose of life is hidden especially when we encounter pain; at those times when life throws misfortune and pain at us, regardless of whether we deserve it, with no obvious reason why. For tough-minded atheists this isn't really a perplexity, because for them there's no reason to think life in a godless universe should be any different. 'Why me?' is a non-question and a tired question, said Christopher Hitchins when diagnosed with terminal illness, 'because the universe simply shrugs its shoulders and says, Why not?' But for those who do believe in God, it is a question. Why would a good God create a world which, for all its wonders, also inflicts such multiple injustices and sufferings, indiscriminately? The sense of life is, sometimes, very hidden indeed.

And so it is that 'hiddenness' inevitably forms part of faith. Faith—the subject of these first sermons in May—is an acceptance, a disposition of trust, in a God we do not fully see; it is a way of living purposefully in a world we do not fully understand; it is 'a conviction of things not seen', as the letter to Hebrews puts it.

This meaning of faith, its acceptance of the hidden, is easily criticised. It suggests to many that faith is just fantasy. Yet in fact isn't it really the opposite? Only if it's about the unseen is it really credible and not fantasy. For if everything about life and the world we see was all there is, with nothing hidden, that is what would make the idea of God incredible. What an inadequate and unbelievable creator God would be if what we see is all there is! It is because some things are hidden that God is credible. So, yes: faith must be unapologetically about accepting some hiddenness in things. And that's the first thing I want to say this morning about the meaning of faith.

The second is this. This doesn't mean faith has to be passive about this acceptance. Faith can and must also try to understand. Actively to ask questions is part of what makes the acceptance of faith real. Particularly questions about pain. Our forbears in faith certainly did: 'Why do the wicked flourish and the righteous perish?' the psalmists kept asking. 'My God why have you forsaken me?' Jesus himself asked. Faith is still being authentic when it asks, it's not being faithless, because the very act of seeking understanding is itself an act of faith that there is ultimate good meaning in this universe to be found, even though unseen. That's why the great Medieval teacher of faith St. Anselm believed that faith must 'seek understanding'. As did St Paul. His letter to the Romans includes monumental intellectual and spiritual wrestling, wrestling like Jacob with the angel, when he tried to understand how even unbelieving people, and painful struggles in life, could all still somehow be part of God's of overall purposes. In the end he still had to accept a mystery:'how unsearchable God's judgements, how inscrutable ways', he concludes. But he only reaches that acceptance because his faith is drove him to try to understand it.

Another reason for faith asking questions is, of course, that sometimes it does actually yield some answers—even though not all it craves. Even about this biggest of all questions, the problem of pain. So for example, when faith seeks understanding, we can sometimes see how the freedom we have, which turns us from being merely scripted puppets into someone real and worthwhile, must also unleash the possibility of evil alongside the good it brings; we see how that flipside to freedom, called sin, written into the DNA of us all, and the pain it brings, is therefore an inevitable outcome of the miracle of being created at all with a measure of freedom. Just as the Genesis story of creation portrays.

We can also sometimes see, especially now with the benefit of science, how this is true of the natural world as well. How the matrix of fine-tuned and interrelated physical and biological processes which gives us life, also has to be free to be itself, not just a cipher to be manipulated, if it's going to do its job of generating and sustaining life. And so we see how it must then have its terrible flipside too—we see how the same biological processes necessary for maturity, child bearing, new life, also inevitably bring age, illness, death; we see how the tectonic plates necessary to support the very structure of the earth, must also move together to bring earthquakes.

These are all real understandings of how and why many of this world's evils are not just random but a necessary cost en route to there being any worthwhile creation at all; how they are necessary conditions for all the good things it also generates such as life and consciousness, all the aching beauties of this world, our own loves and dreams, all sacrifice, bravery, compassion. It seems these could not be without the underlying structures of reality which also bring pain. A seeking faith can and does help us see all this.

But do not forget what is hidden as well. Not least to be honest. Honest to what we feel when in extremis: in hammering pain, in raw grief, in moments of terror, moments when no reasoning will suffice. Then, if reason operates at all, it is likely only to echo the celebrated character of a Dostoevsky novel who hands his ticket back to God to say 'No. I'm sorry. No reasons justify what I've seen and experienced. If God couldn't make the world without this sort pain, however much good there is as well, God shouldn't have made the world at all!' And so honesty compels us - we must accept hiddenness as well. We must accept that mystery remains as part of faith, not something that faith or reason can ever fully dispel. In this life at least, we have to accept that faith is sometimes stripped to a very austere core of a trust in something unseen, unfelt.

Provided we remember this as well: provided we remember that haunting phrase in full. Provided we remember that our life is hidden 'with Christ, in God'—Christ whose life we can see to have had meaning; Christ who was and is most certainly real, not fantasy; Christ who is always a companion for us in this faith, even when it is at its most austere...

But more of that next week.

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