Sunday, 7 August 2011

Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary time

The good people of Our Lady and St George, Totnes, have had to put up with me these last two Sundays while their parish priest, Fr Paver, has been on holiday.. They have been very welcoming to me and it has been lovely for me to celebrate mass with them. Here is the sermon they bore patiently this morning:

How on earth can we say with any credibility that Jesus walked on water?

This could be a thought we entertain as we consider the gospel narrative tonight/today. How can we really believe that Jesus could disobey the laws of nature. Surely if God created the laws of nature He isn't going to disobey them?

Of course this is the train of thought that many follow in today's technological age. How can I, with training in science and engineering, possibly support this?

Well let us take a moment to think what this train of thought is actually saying: What it is saying is that the “laws of nature” have a higher power or authority than God Himself! There are in reality no laws of nature, they are simply convenient ways for scientists to understand and predict how things work etc. And any good scientist will tell you that all scientific laws are provisional – that is, they are temporary until better ones are formed to explain all the different things that happen to materials on earth.

All laws of nature are, if they are true, simply manifestations of the will of God. Everything happens in Creation because God wills it. Gravity happens because God wills it. There are negatively charged electrons that travel down metal and are what we call electricity because God wills it. And there is a lot more that scientists don't know about that nevertheless still happens in the world, because God wills it. And Jesus walked on water because God willed it. And Peter walked on water by faith because God willed it. We cannot explain how the cohesion of the water molecules could have supported the solid mass of our Lord, or Peter, but that does not mean it didn't happen! It was only recently that aeronautical engineers could explain how a bumblebee can fly, but it has flown for a long time without their understanding!

Walking on the sea, Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”

The words “It is I” are full of meaning if we can hear them aright. In them Jesus is communicating His divinity. God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” In the midst of the chaos of the storm and the considerable fear of the disciples Jesus says “It is I”. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us; and if God is with us, of what should we fear? In their moment of terror, after having been dismissed by Jesus and bidden to travel in the boat without Him they are now beset with terrifying weather at sea, and Christ speaks in that moment to calm them with the reality of His being: it is I – I am.

The perilous position of the disciples was very great, yet we can all find ourselves in a position where everything seems to be going disastrously wrong and we can then fall into fear, even terror. We might not literally be in a small boat on a stormy sea, but we can be metaphorically speaking. And so St Matthew brings us these words of our Lord for those moments – “It is I”, “Take heart”, “Have no fear”.

Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus, but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord save me.”

Even those who at times have great faith, can, in an instant, falter. Peter looked at the wind, and he allowed fear to grip him. How powerful faith is, yet how weak we are without it. Yet Peter said the right thing, “Lord save me”. Sometimes we feel we are drowning, then St Peter's words must be ours – for in the end that is what we depend upon ; we can be saved only by our Lord.

Faith it might seem is the antithesis of what science is all about. Science is about demonstrable and repeatable cause and effect. Yet there is in medicine an area where it seems to me that a person's faith comes into play. It is the phenomenon known as the placebo effect – that is, if a person believes they are getting something to cure them, then even if the person takes a dummy pill, or placebo, they experience an improvement or even a cure. It all depends on how much they believe in the remedy. The placebo effect seems to me to demonstrate the power of faith. And so if we can be healed because we believe in the power of a pill, how much more dramatic belief in God can be upon us! Yet we are, as our Lord put it, “O you of little faith.” This serves to remind us of how much further in the journey of faith we all have to go, yet it also reminds us of how much more we have to gain in that journey.

Let us make our own the words of the father of the epileptic boy, “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.”

DAY NINE (Eve of Pentecost)