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Faith and doubt

A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 27th April 2014 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor

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Faith and doubt

Posted By : Joanne Pike Thursday 1st May 2014

A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 27th April 2014 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor

(Acts 2.14a, 22-32; John 20.19-end)

This morning, in this vast building, the key player is probably the smallest person present, and the one with the least understanding of what is going on - Lottie. Which fact in itself is a very useful reminder that in God's dispensation power is rather differently distributed than comes normally in human society, which tends to prioritise size, social skill, and intellectual nimbleness. God does not see things as we do.


Actually it is one of the hallmarks of cathedral worship in England that people at the bottom of the age spectrum are centre stage. Almost all of our most distinctive services gather round a group aged between 7 and 13. We put them on the spot and require a level of skill and dedication of them which is truly remarkable. And as day by day they enable me to worship through their singing of the psalms and the biblical canticles and the anthems and the eucharistic music, I am profoundly grateful to those children for their ministry, which is the fruit of both talent and work.


I am also, if truth be told, a little envious. I had no significant musical education and first sang any choral music a couple of years ago. I've come to singing very late in life and wish I'd done so sooner. But I'm doing it in an environment which gives me remarkable opportunities. In any ordinary circumstances I would be chiefly singing in the bath; here I sometimes act as cantor at Evensong. And it always strikes me as wonderfully ridiculous that the person who starts and leads that singing, the person giving the pitch, is on those occasions the least experienced and least musically educated person.


Well, I've got away with it by and large so far. Though inevitably I've made some slips. I made one rather conspicuously at the end of the eucharist on Easter morning last year, when as deacon I sang the dismissal, which - as it will today - comes with a rather florid 'Alleluia'. Or rather 'Al-le-e-e-e-lu-i-i-a-a'. I missed out one of those syllables; or, as Canon Gwyneth Evans put it after the service, "You came off the 'lu' too soon".


From time to time, as we process into Evensong, and I am aware that the first thing anyone will hear is me singing the first line, I get a certain frisson of anxiety. What if I can't pitch the note? And anyway, how on earth does one go from an idea of a note to making it, and not just making it accurately, but doing so loudly and clearly?             I think this kind of feeling is unavoidable; and they occur in many other areas of life too. Occasionally when riding my bike I wonder at the mystery of all my weight so far above a hard surface, balanced on two little tyres, and think that going round a corner I might hit a patch of oil or grit or a pothole. These are doubts we simply have to live with; they aren't foolish or entirely without foundation. But they need to be kept in proper perspective, because if they predominate they are simply crippling. I would never sing, or cycle, again, if I didn't meanwhile remember that I am capable of these things, and that the possibility of failure does not mean its certainty. That is a fear that needs to be overcome.


Let me remind you of John's picture of the disciples on the evening of the resurrection: they had locked the doors because they were frightened. They feared what life might bring and they tried to keep it out. And then Jesus comes among them, and in his very short dialogue with them he gives them peace, twice; he sends them out; and he empowers them. In that short encounter they have gone from the closed box they have made around themselves to the outgoing dynamism of Christ-like life in the world, embodying the power that can transform death to life. 


One of them wasn't there, and it took another encounter for Thomas to share that peace and power. When Jesus told him not to doubt but to believe, I don't think he was implying there was something wrong or sinful about his scepticism. No: instead, he was showing him the extraordinary blessing that comes with belief - with trusting something enough to make the jump, to do, to live. The rich abundance of possibility which comes with putting one's trust in the one who was raised from dead needs to be kept in the proper perspective alongside the doubts that it might not be true.


One of the rare absolute certainties is death. Life itself is inherently uncertain; none of us can really know what is around the corner. The only way to live is to believe, and to live in fear is to deny the possibility of life. Which is why in this her baptism, Lottie is turned away from the negatives of sin and temptation, and brought into the company of those for whom death is already irrelevant, for whom life in Christ is unconquerable, and the realm not of gnawing doubt but of peace and abundant possibility.