The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      13th August 2017
Walking on Water
Andrew Penny

A man walking along a cliff edge, goes too close and falls off. He breaks his fall on a bush and manages to cling on to a branch. He begins to pray asking, if there is a God, will he please help him? Rather to his surprise a voice comes out of a cloud and says "Yes, I can help. You must do exactly as I say. Just let go of the branch and I'll save you." After a long pause the man prays again, out loud, "Is there anyone else up there?"
Most of us find the miracles difficult, and it's clear to me that the Gospels are not books that can be read like, say 19th novels or middle brow biographies. Whether or not Jesus really walked on water and whether Peter jumped out of his boat to greet him, is not the point; Jesus was showing himself as the lord of creation, the God who led the Israelites through the Red Sea. To be saved like the Israelites and like Peter, we must trust him and that is what faith entails.
We understand much more than Peter could about how the world works, and most of us find it very difficult to believe that God will suspend natural law, as my cliff walker was hoping God might stop gravity for long enough for him to get to the bottom safely. The world is wonderful and full of surprises and mysteries, but not like that.
And yet faith is the centre of our religion; our faith is what we believe, as we say in the shorter creed "We believe and trust in God". If that belief and trust is no longer (if it ever was) a belief in magical miracles, what is it?
Faith has been there as the central, defining element in religion since well before the Council of Nicaea. Abraham trusted God – against all likelihood- and that trust was counted as righteousness. Elijah found it hard. Adam and Eve did not trust God, like human beings ever since, they took matters into their own hands and disaster ensued. Religions define themselves as "the faithful" and we say the Creed every week to reinforce the feeling of belonging and to reassert our identity.
This is useful, but it's also dangerous; it has tended to make religion-and Christianity in particular- a club, which you can only join if you are prepared to toe the dogmatic line. But the line is hazy and as often as not drawn in sand by men, not God. There is, and should be, room in any church for honest scepticism; we should not close the doors to enquirers. Too often "faith" has emphasised the mystical and mysterious; its tendency is to become the arcane knowledge available to the special few, the ones who belong. So I hope you will forgive my attempts to search for a meaning in Faith.
Faith need not be arcane, but necessarily, there is something mysterious about it. It is a belief that there is, a rationale or a motivation, that goes beyond or lies under what we can see and hear and work out with reason and mathematics. In this sense, we are in a spiritual world, but it need not, and should not, contradict the physical one. Indeed, I believe it should have a strong influence on how we behave as physical beings; to put spirituality into a special box is as bad as raising dogmatic fences.
It's not enough, to say our faith is a belief in something without trying to say what. It seems to me that it has three elements; first it's an optimism, a belief that the world and our life in it are meant to good; next that there is a plan, a purpose or a movement towards that good and third that we are part of the plan, and indeed to live life as we are meant to live it we must play our role in the plan.  All this is demonstrated, as Paul tells us, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
To be optimistic is certainly a challenge; we live in a world that is fraught with disasters, man-made and natural. To be sure, there is much beauty and much kindness but the task of restoring Eden or establishing the Kingdom Heaven looks to the rationalist, hopelessly remote. But the Christian is both optimistic, and realistic; the Christian trusts that this is not how God intends the world to be. And, crucially, the Christian is encouraged by the belief that God understands the pain of failure.
Indeed, we believe we can only really understand God through the life of a man who shared our mortality to the full. This is the realism; the faith that God understands because he shares in mankind’s suffering. Far from being swept under the carpet, the pain, and sympathy too, are right at heart of our faith. And yet it can still be optimistic because, mysteriously we also believe that the suffering and disaster of the crucifixion preceded, and indeed were necessary for the resurrection.
We have some examples, or models of this in the nature; Jesus talks about wheat grains being buried in order to germinate; we know that the pain of childbirth results –usually- in the joy of a new life. Nevertheless, it is very hard to have the faith and trust that are needed to understand God was suffering in Auschwitz, and is suffering now in countless other dark places in the world, but that his love is not extinguished by them. It's harder, perhaps, than believing in the suspension of gravity, or momentarily anomalous surface tension on the Sea of Galilee, but if we have them we can believe that love is stronger than death, and we can hope for a better world. And, which is the point of faith, we can live that understanding and hope, by doing what we can to bring it to fruition.
So Faith also entails a belief that despite all the setbacks and obstacles, there is a movement towards the restoration of a good world, a world which will be the Kingdom of heaven. That is God’s plan and that is essentially the story of the Old Testament and the Gospels. So, the third and practical aspect faith, is that we have a role in that plan and despite our failures and feebleness we are endowed with the means to bring it about, as we were created in God’s image and God was prepared to become one of us.
This must, I think, be the meaning of St Paul’s apparently rather bald insistence that if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Faith in Christ is all we need, but not as dogma; to be a living practical faith, it needs filling out by honest and open searching and debate, to which, if I have made some small contribution, I have succeeded. Amen.

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