Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Trinity: Faith – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 7 August 2022 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes.  (Hebrews Ch 11: v 1 – 3, 8 – 16; Luke Ch 12: v 32 – 40)

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

So speaks the author of today’s Epistle, to the Hebrews. He makes a distinction, you will note, between faith and hope. If hope has no particular basis we might call it worldly optimism. Only if it has “assurance” and “conviction” can it become faith.

It has long been a charge of those critical of religion against Christian believers that the latter are apt to believe all sorts of unlikely or impossible things – several before breakfast. Mercifully, we seem to have heard much less recently from Richard Dawkins, scourge of religion and all its practices and practitioners; what he and his followers often failed to realise was this distinction between blind optimism (which they accuse Christians of displaying) and the genuine Christian hope. As St Paul wrote to the Romans, “hope that is seen is not hope”. Rather, it would be certainty, and it is not given to us to have absolute knowledge of God in this life. It is significant that, in 1 Corinthians 13, he classes faith, hope and love as the primary Christian characteristics. But they are not random beliefs or baseless optimism. We have the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life,” as the Prayer Book affirms. So what is our hope based on?

First, there are the documents of the Christian faith contained in the New Testament – notably the gospels and epistles. These came out of the early Church, many of whose members were contemporary with Jesus, and some of whom, particularly the Apostles, knew him. Paul was writing some 25 years after Jesus’ death; the Gospel of Mark was put together just ten years after that. These are primary documents.

Second, and related to those documents, is the evidence for the resurrection. It is this single event that gives us our “sure and certain hope” above any other. Now we have resurrection narratives in all four gospels, so we know what those first disciples said happened. But did they really believe it? The answer lies in the following book, the Acts of the Apostles, where the emphasis is on ‘acts’. Many of those first apostles, as we hear, spent the rest of their lives going out into the world preaching the gospel of Christ crucified and risen again. Not a few, like St Peter, died for proclaiming what they called ‘the good news’. Can we seriously believe that they would have done all that if they knew this news to be a fabrication? In Acts we see them empowered by the Holy Spirit, fired up in the knowledge of the resurrection to preach and make disciples. Ironically one of the earliest, and most unlikely, converts was Paul himself, terror of the Christian community.

Third, perhaps even more significant, is our own awareness of the spiritual. However much aggressive atheists would try to deny it, I reckon that each of us is well aware that there is more to life than the nuts and bolts of living, than our simple chemical makeup. We reach out to a dimension beyond ourselves, maybe glimpsed in love and beauty; things which straight materialism cannot explain. Above all, to make sense of this life, and our own understanding of its significance, we reach out towards the eternal, to God Himself, made known in the love of Jesus Christ.

Our God, we affirm, is the Creator of the universe and of ourselves in it. As the psalmist expresses it, in his poetry, “Thou hast fashioned me behind and before: and laid thine hand upon me …. I will give thanks unto thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Ps 139: 4, 13)  And again, on a cosmic scale, “He telleth the number of the stars: and calleth them all by their names.” (Ps 147: 4) Our Hebrews Epistle puts it like this: “By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made of things that were not visible.” In other words, God did not work with existing material, but created the universe from nothing. The new, high-definition, images coming from the James Webb space telescope, take us amazingly into the deepest space, and are likely to give us a view of the first galaxies that were formed in the early universe. Will this be a long sought-after conjunction of faith and science?

But let us go back to Christmas Day 1968, when humans first orbited the moon. Much could have gone wrong, and the venture called for huge technical skill and brilliance from all those who designed, launched and tracked the space craft; and it demanded great mental, physical and spiritual resilience from the 3-man crew. One small error or miscalculation could have been fatal. While the craft was on the moon’s dark side the crew were necessarily out of radio contact with earth; so there was anxiety at Cape Kennedy when they were four minutes late emerging from the far side of the moon. Everyone following the voyage on earth waited with bated breath: had something gone wrong? And then loud and clear came the voice of the navigator assuring them that all was well. He went on to say that the crew had a Christmas message for all; it was this: “In the beginning God created the heaven and earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, let there be light; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”

These were men of faith – not just in the workmanship of their fellow scientists and engineers, but above all faith in God. Their faith in both was securely grounded – not blind optimism; but the assured hope which is the root of faith; faith that, in life’s dark valleys and in its sunlit uplands, God is never far from us. Here, to close, is Gerard Manley Hopkins:

“And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

(God’s Grandeur)