Epiphany Sunday

Epiphany Sunday - A sermon by Fr James

There’s a lovely phrase I read from that great towering Anglican theologian Ian Hislop: it was in a book called, Why I Am Still an Anglican: ‘I've tried atheism and I can't stick at it: I keep having doubts.’

I regularly chat to people about religious faith and then very often tend to expect me as a priest to have rock solid belief, that I have no unanswered questions, that I’m totally signed up to, and in agreement with, everything in the Bible. They then are rather surprised when I express my comfortableness with doubt, and with living with multiple unanswered questions which I regularly grabble with. All of which raises questions about the nature of belief. Many people have expressed their frustration and impatience with Richard Dawkins, for instance, for his inattentiveness to how people actually experience faith. Belief for Dawkins is, on the whole, considered as a series of propositions which are to be demolished one by one. But Christians don’t usually wake up on a Sunday morning and think – goodness, isn’t the ontological argument rubbish – I think I’ll stay in bed.

Theologians are just as prone to such forms of argument when reading the Bible; the American scholar William Lane Craig (his area is Reformed Epistemology) have spent a good deal of energy establishing the evidence to prove that the resurrection was an indisputable historical event.
Both the Dawkins and Craig approaches to faith seem to me rather odd, although they are very entertaining when they’re brought together to beat each other up in debate. Both seem to see faith as primarily a series of propositions, historical or philosophical, that need to be defended or demolished. But faith in doesn’t work like that.

For many, or even most, Christians God isn’t a set of arguments or propositions; he may be experienced, perhaps in a piece of music, a work of art, a walk in the country, an expression of compassion, through loving relationships, perhaps through the meditative experience of regularly attending church. I wonder what were the thoughts of the Magi as they embarked upon a costly, time-consuming journey to visit the Christ-child. Certainly not a rational argument; perhaps something far more mysterious.

This understanding of revelation, of God’s self-communication, this epiphany to use the word from today’s celebration, can be read in Francis Spufford’s excellent book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.

Spufford recounts at the beginning of the book how, having spent a night rowing with his wife following his adulterous exploits, he found himself sat in a café, when someone put on a cassette of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. At that moment Spufford describes having had an overwhelming feeling of mercy. He encountered something totally beyond himself that was, for him, a revelation that led to his re-acquaintance with Christianity.

This faith is what Cambridge theologian Sarah Coakley, echoing Pascal, has described as the ‘evidences of the heart’? But isn’t this all a bit subjective? Look back to the New Testament, however, and you will see that even objective evidence doesn’t necessarily provoke belief. Think back to the New Testament stories of the resurrection. Matthew tell us that even in the presence of the risen Christ, some doubted (Mt 28.17). And in the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel, a purely intellectual investigation only takes the mourning disciples so far, for them to recognize the man they walk with as Jesus. Internal change is required; a change of heart.

All of which points to the point that God has not primarily given us a body of factual knowledge about himself, but he has radically transformed our relationships; he has, through his own life given in Jesus, united us to himself and his burning love for all. As we say at the beginning of wedding services… ‘God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (1 John 4.17). When choosing a life partner, rational discourse isn’t usually a dominant factor. Perhaps the word choosing isn’t correct. One ‘falls in love’ – its an emotion that is utter intoxicating, whilst equally disgusting to everyone else.

All this relates to work across many disciplines at the moment, both in the humanities and the sciences, on human emotion.

The Reading philosopher, John Cottingham, puts it like this: this sort of response to the world is increasingly seen, “not merely [as an] extraneous affective addition to the factual or propositional content of a belief, but [also] involve[s] transformative ways of perceive[ing] reality – ways of uncovering patterns of salience that were previously hidden.” (Why Believe?, 107) This is faith as an expansion of human vision, of deep inner personal transformation, of the opening of our hearts to our Creator as much as to each other; it’s akin to a deepening appreciation of classical music, a life-long learning to hear the resonances of God within our lives and within creation.

This is not to say, of course, that rational discussion doesn’t come in it when thinking about and analysing faith. But perhaps they are secondary. It’s a mistake to suppose that it is assent to, for example, the Creed, that makes one a believer. ‘I have the feelings. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas’ (Spufford, 19).

A question for many us face today as we go through periods of transition – a change of school, job or career, or coming to terms with getting older and frailer, of coping with the pain of loss – is what will sustain us? And it’s not going to be a set of propositions or statements about faith. But rather our lived experience of God, our experience of prayer, and it is in large part our fellowship in the community of faith. It involves become aware of, and tuning into, our lived emotional experience of life – we dream, hope, wonder, sorrow, rage, grieve, delight, surmise, joke.

Ignore for a moment the ranting of the atheists or the proud posturing of some theologians. Instead ask yourself, to what is God leading you in your life now? What will lead us to know something of the presence of God, a presence to sustain, nourish and inspire us on our pilgrimage of faith – to know more of God and more of ourselves? What will really lead us to know more clearly that ‘Word of life’ deep in your heart?

Reference: Mike Lloyd, 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, Queen’s (Hilary 2014)

Holland Park Benefice