Pentecost and Trinity 2016

14 May 2016

This is the time of year when Christians celebrate Christ's Ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Ascension is an odd thing, really isn't it? In Art we are usually presented with the image of Jesus floating off into the clouds. It certainly is the image we are given as Children. And it seems, well, unbelievable, right?

Perhaps I can let you in on a little secret...? Human beings have – and have always had – difficulty in believing anything. Anything. So we shouldn't be surprised if we, as human beings – at least most of us, I assume – find this Ascension event difficult to get our heads around.

My son told me the other day that someone said to him recently: "I don't believe in religion. I believe in science..." What does that even mean?

Good academic rigour, proper scholarship, relies on, among other things, defining terms. What does 'believing' mean in this context. Is science the new deity for this person? No. And what did that person mean by 'science'? Possibly: practical, evidential processes.

The trouble is that the average man or woman in the street is suffering from the same thing that they accuse religious people of: living in the past. Relying on the old ways, old ways of thinking.

These people do not understand that, perhaps, when they speak of 'science' they are talking about an out-dated outmoded set of practices that were developed some 4-500 years ago. A science that served its practical purpose, certainly – it gave us modern medicine, modern engineering, and put a man on the moon. But, for the past 50/60/70 years certainly, even science has moved on from that antiquated position.

In short – and vastly over simplifying the case – Newtonian science (which is what people tend to think about and refer to) means I can take an event, repeat it and measure its cause and effect to quantify and affirm it's reality. The facts of the matter. If it is not repeatable, I cannot establish the truth of the matter and therefore I cannot admit it as fact.

That's the science that most people still think about and 'believe' in today. Especially – and this is what's quite absurd, for some reason so called - intelligent, well-educated, 'sophisticated' stand up comedians offer as an alternative to religion. Though there is something disingenuous about how they misrepresent religion. They deliberately present its ideas in an absurd, naïve, ultra-literal way in order then to make their out-dated theological point.

Science, however, has long moved past this way of thinking.

Newtonian physics still has its uses. Of course it does. However, nowadays, simply put, and due in large part to developments in such lines of enquiry as quantum physics (don't ask) science says – and admits – the possibility of the existence of unique, non-measurable, non-repeatable, events. This 'science' says that a phenomenon, an extraordinary circumstance or set of circumstances, can happen once – and once only – and still be admitted as fact. Even if it would be hard or even impossible to prove. And, by extension, impossible, even, perhaps, to believe. And contemporary science is saying this.

So we come to belief. And humankind's innate inability to believe.

Maggie & I, the other day were hurtled in a tin can at 600 miles an hour, three and a half thousand miles across the Atlantic ocean. Yes we were.

I know that even here among us this morning, quite a few people have been hurtled in a tin can 12,000 miles or so across from the other side of the world. The whole other side of the world. Up nearly into space, over mountains and rivers and oceans, across landmasses and political boundaries, over terrorists and victims, over drought and flood, over feast and famine, over the heads of many different cultures and languages and circumstances...

Yet, somehow, our tiny minds cannot quite grasp that whole concept. The whole thing... Oh yes, we can get our heads around the fact that they were in Australia. We can get our heads around the fact that they are here, right here, sitting right next to us. We can even grasp the concept – even if not the actual science – of aeroplanes. But we can't quite squeeze into our heads absolutely the whole picture at one and the same time. We're simply not built that way.

And this is what we really mean when we say we find something hard to believe. Not that it didn't happen. Just that we might find it hard to get our heads around what actually happened, how it happened. The whole story.

And, if we can't quite understand it – so we human beings have a tendency to dismiss it and start thinking about something else altogether, something easier to grasp – like how nice the flowers are looking at this time of year.

Whatever happened at Jesus' Ascension – did he float up into the clouds, did he just kind of just fizzle out like Captain Kirk, did he walk off into the sunset, did he go and catch a bus...? We may never know.

The Reverend Peter Flynn at our Ascension-day service helpfully pointed out that the disciples couldn't put into words what actually happened either – so they did the best they could and used a biblical metaphor they'd learned from their own upbringing – the story of Elijah ascending into heave in a chariot – of Swing Low Sweet Chariot fame.

Just like the disciples, it is entirely understandable if, in our finite, limited, fallible humanity, we can't quite take everything in. How many things do we recall, that we know to have happened, and yet cannot now quite believe that they actually did.

Things we've actually experienced ourselves. We know we were there... we know they happened... but we can't take it in. Isn't that what Leicester City players and supporters saying right now? Oscar winners? Recoverers from seemingly terminal illnesses? Lovers? The bereaved?

Our minds aren't built for some things... I mean – even if we look at photos of the event. Did I really look like that? Did I really say that...? Was I really at that place – I don't remember – but the photo says I was there, wearing those clothes, standing next to that person...

But that 'doubting', uncertainty, questioning, doesn't mean we should only, therefore, lean on the fragile willow-wand of what is, we know learn, an ever-emerging constantly developing scientific context.

Once in a while, we are asked to lift our eyes from the things we can touch and taste and see and measure and, even if we find it remarkable, unique, unimaginable – look up to the skies in wonder... Which is what the miracles of the Ascension asks us to do...

With every blessing for this Pentecost and Trinity season, wherever you are, whatever it is you choose to believe. Amen