St Saviour’s Raynes Park
Trinity Sunday, 9th June 2001-06-09
I WAS once told the story of a young priest who had many of the gifts that go to the making of a preacher. He was eloquent and earnest, and took great trouble over the preparation of his sermons, but he was miserably conscious that his preaching had no effect on the lives of those who listened to him, and that he was failing to win souls for Christ. One day, feeling quite desperate, he went to another priest who was himself an effective preacher, and said to him: "What is wrong with my preaching? For all my efforts I don’t seem able to influence people at all." "Your trouble, my dear fellow," said the other, "is that you have mistaken your audience. You are preaching not to the man in the pew but to the man in the moon." "Whatever do you mean?" said the young priest. "I mean," said the older man, "that the questions you discuss are not human questions; the problems with which you deal are not human problems; the language you speak is not human language. Give up preparing your sermons on the assumption that the man in the moon will be the only person present, and talk to the man in the pew in his own language about his difficulties, and his temptations and his shortcomings and his opportunities, and you will soon find a response to your message"
This morning I am going to follow that older priest’s advice. I shall talk to you about three subjects about which, in my experience, the Man in the Pew today is interested in hearing. If I’ve guessed wrong, and you’re not interested in these matters then it would be a great help if you would say so afterwards and, next time I come to you, assuming that is that you ever ask me back, I will try and do better.
These three subjects are best put in the form of three questions which people worry a lot about in today’s world – at least the people of Lewisham worry about them and I daresay they’re not that different from the people of Raynes Park in this respect. These questions are as follows:
Let’s look at these questions in turn.
First: Does it matter what I believe?
Let me begin with the case of Arthur Blenkinsop – a real person, but not his real name:
One Monday, last month, Arthur Blenkinsop was going to a job-interview for a job in Sussex which he’d seen advertised. If he got the job, as he thought he well might, it would change the whole course of his career for the better. So he made an appointment and took the trouble to look up the timetable at home and decided that he would catch the 10:30am train at London Bridge which would get him to his destination with one change at East Croydon in good time for the interview.
Unfortunately that Monday turned out to be the very day the Summer timetables came into force. The 10:30 train was retimed to leave London Bridge at 10:15, he missed his connection and by the time he got to his destination the job had gone to someone else.
So, in Arthur’s case what he believed, really did matter. Because he believed the wrong thing – that the train was due to leave at 10:30 rather than 10:15 – he lost his chance of that job. It was a very natural mistake to make. Hundreds of other people must get caught out every year by the changeover to the Summer schedule, but that doesn’t mean their mistaken belief has no consequences, more or less serious, for each one of them. The fact that a whole lot of other people hold mistaken beliefs is neither here nor there. The important thing is that our beliefs, yours and mine, should be true
If you come to think of it, in the long run it matters a great deal more than we realise whether our beliefs are true. If you believe a bottle to contain lemonade because that’s what the label says, when it actually contains weedkiller it matters. Whatever the label says, it’s the real contents which are important. Notice, too, that this mistaken belief only matters when someone acts upon it. You may have believed for a long time that the label on the bottle meant what it said and come to no harm until now simply because that belief has never been put to the test.
So beliefs matter, none more so than our belief about God. It matters not only that we should believe that He exists which corresponds to Arthur Blenkinsop’s belief that trains exist which make it possible to travel from London Bridge to his desired destination by train, but it matters that his beliefs about a particular train should be the truth.
Second: Does it matter how I behave?
As recently as fifty years ago very few grown-up people would have found it necessary to ask this question. We all knew, or thought we knew the answer which was a resounding "Yes, it does matter". Schools and universities existed, amongst other things, to help people distinguish between right and wrong. Teachers and parents saw it as their duty to instil into children the moral principles which they themselves had learnt at home or at school. It just seemed so obvious that few people stopped to ask the question Why? – or if they did, they got no better reply than "Because I say so!"
However, in recent times, attitudes have changed. Instead of asking "Is this right or wrong?" people have been encouraged to substitute questions such as "will this be harmful?" or "does it feel right at this precise moment?"; and if the answers to these questions are No and Yes respectively, No, it won't do any harm and Yes, it feels right, they've been encouraged to go ahead and do it.
But there are two drawbacks to this way of making decisions. One is obvious: how we feel about anything at one moment may change quite dramatically the next. Going back to our lemonade/weedkiller example feeling thirsty prompts us to drink from that bottle labelled "lemonade" – with disastrous results: in other words, we need something more reliable than our feelings if we are to make the right decisions.
The second drawback is a little more subtle, but even more important. When people make "doing no harm" the only guiding principle of their behaviour they should go on to ask the question "do harm to whom?" To ourselves? To our family? To our friends? To Society as a whole? This they seldom do, but even if they did, the answer would invariably be "we simply cannot tell". So as a test of whether a particular action is right or wrong, the question as to whether it does harm or not is all but useless. How much simpler to be able to say of a particular action "well, I don't know what harm it will do, either in the short or long run, I just know that it's wrong (or right)."
Third: How can we know what God is like anyway?
It's at this point that contemporary man, and that includes many people who belong to the Church, has got his thinking most muddled up. The right answer, of course, is "We know what God is like because he has revealed himself to us". He has revealed himself in dozens of different ways, through nature, through our reasoning, through the Law and the Prophets, but only finally and perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us "[Jesus Christ is] the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person who upholds all things by the word of his power". More than that, as the writer says a few chapters later, he is unchangeable, which means that the truth about him remains the same from generation to generation.
Now this is in complete contrast to the idea that somehow God changes or becomes different from one generation to another. That's the popular misconception which is doing the rounds of the Church at the present time. Why this has come about is easier to understand if we think about how our understanding of the nature of material things has developed over time.
Think of the bench, or the chair you're sitting on. If you asked someone 300 years ago what it was made of he would say, quite correctly "wood" or "metal" as the case might be. But then if you'd gone on to ask "but what is wood made of?" a chap called John Dalton would have said "atoms", meaning by this tiny indestructible bits of matter grouped together in a particular way. A hundred years later, people went on to ask themselves "but what are atoms made of" and the scientists, like Clark-Maxwell discovered that there were much smaller particles, protons, neutrons, electrons, positrons and the rest; finally along came young Albert Einstein who told us that matter really isn't the solid hard thing that everyone supposed, but was more like energy than anything else.
In other words, today's answers to the question of what your seat is made of are, in one respect, much simpler: than they used to be: "it's not made of anything it just exists"; but in another sense the answers are much more complicated resembling a mathematical equation more than anything else. However we can still say that, for practical purposes the answer "Wood" or "Steel" is just as useful are they was five hundred or five thousand years ago.
Now precisely the same thing is true today of our understanding about God. In one way we have discovered that God's nature is much more difficult to describe and understand than people once supposed; yet at the same time the pictures he has given of us of himself by revelation remain as wonderfully useful and practical as ever. He has revealed himself as Father, Creator, Judge, Sustainer, Son, Redeemer, Shepherd, Servant, Spirit, Wind, Fire and Wisdom to name but a few of the images of himself which he has provided. He has also revealed to us some of the truths about the structure of his being – that he is a Trinity, which nevertheless must be viewed and worshipped as a Unity: Three in One and One in Three. Asking a theologian how God can be both one and three is akin to asking a nuclear physicist how your chair can be both matter and energy at the same time. Both scientist and theologian will do their best to answer your question, but don't be surprised if their respective answers doesn't make much sense to begin with.
And there we shall end for this morning. There's plenty more to say about all three questions, but let's hope that's given you enough to be thinking about for the time being!
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