Sermon preached on 4th Sunday of Easter (17 April 2016) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached on 4th Sunday of Easter (17 April 2016) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

Facts, faith and trust - the Dean considers how we make decisions

‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.’

We want to know, don’t we? I mean, what do the facts say? Should the British vote to stay in the European Community, or to leave it? 

Because the referendum campaign has begun I’m not allowed to suggest which way you should vote, and I’m not going to anyway. It seems to me that most people want to know what the case is on each side, so that we can make our minds up on the facts. The problem is that the facts are not the thing.

‘I am definitely among those who need evidence’ said my son when I showed him my Easter Day sermon about the resurrection of Jesus. Which is the default position of most people when asked about the resurrection – as it was for the disciples of Jesus too, who didn’t expect a resurrection either.

What’s the evidence? asked the disciples, and when their women colleagues told them, they didn’t believe them – it took a meeting with the risen Jesus to change their minds. And our gospel reading from John’s gospel shows a similar attitude among the people who challenged Jesus in the Jerusalem temple.

‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are God’s Chosen One, tell us plainly.’ We want the facts, Jesus, we want proof, we want to know it’s true, or not. We don’t want faith, we want facts. And Jesus infuriates them because he knows that the facts are not the thing.

‘I’ve told you, and you don’t believe’, he says. ‘I’ve done miracle and signs, but you don’t believe.’ The standard of proof demanded by the people of Jerusalem is impossibly high, because they really don’t want to believe at all. The facts are there, but the facts are not the thing.

The resurrection is built on facts, if you want to see them. There’s the historical witness of the gospel writers, the startling change in the disciples after the resurrection, and the witness of the Church over two millennia. Books have been written by people to disprove the resurrection who have ended up believing in it – and vice-versa. The evidence is the same, but the conclusions are different. It’s not about facts, but about belief: who do you trust, and on what do you pin your faith for the future?

People will say that they don’t do faith and they’re not religious. But actually, we all do faith every day – we just prefer not to notice. Investors have faith that what they invest in will provide a good return, whatever the warnings that past performance is no guarantee of future prospects. Anyone who installs a combination boiler has faith that the water company will always be able to provide a water supply and so no water storage is needed.

Getting married or moving in or staying with someone is an act of faith, a decision made in hope, sometimes despite what the facts may tell you. It’s almost impossible to live by facts alone, because we have to step out in faith that things will work out. Having a child, moving to a new job, joining a gym, making a promise, voting in a referendum – we cannot live by facts alone. Any decision made about the future, or about our personal future, is an act of faith.

The Brexit referendum question, to remain in or to leave the European Union, can’t be answered by facts. We’re now getting bombarded with facts, which may be contradictory or selective or misleading. And as with any election, we’re taking a step of faith when we vote, whether we vote for what we hope for, or against what we fear. 

We don’t know what the future holds: we can only guess from the facts we have and act on that guess, and we may never know whether or not it was the best thing to do. 

What we tend to do is to take our decisions based, not on facts, but on trust. Which investment manager or politician or commentator do you trust most? Do you believe this newspaper or that TV programme, or the views of the person you just heard? Most of the time we ask what the people we trust are going to do, and then follow in the same direction, because we’re unsure of what the facts may mean.

And since we all live our lives and do our politics through faith, why are people dismissive of religious faith?

Why not engage properly with the question of the resurrection, which is the heart of Christian faith, acknowledging that the facts are not the thing – but it’s about where we put our trust. Christian faith and belief isn’t primarily in ideas or doctrines, but in a person.

The Gospel of John which we had read this morning isn’t a political manifesto or a presentation of facts. The first words of Jesus in the first chapter are a question: ‘What are you looking for?’ followed by the invitation ‘Come and see.’ The invitation of the Gospel is to take a look at Jesus as the object of faith, as the trustworthy guide through life and beyond, against whom all the issues of life need to be tested. 

The first time Jesus speaks after the resurrection near the end of John’s Gospel, he asks Mary: ‘Who are you looking for?’ ‘What’ has become ‘who’. 

It’s the resurrected Jesus who is the focus of faith, the relationship with this person who Christians invite to live in us and lead us and guide us home to God. The resurrection transforms our desire for facts and certainties into a journey in the company of the one who we can trust, whose death and resurrection put all our other steps of faith in our future into perspective.

The facts are there, but the facts are not the thing. The BBC website summary of the EU Referendum tells you some of the facts, but it also tells you what each side believes – because it’s a matter of faith. If you have a vote about Brexit on 23rd June, you can research as much as you like, but you’ll be voting, not on the facts, but on what you believe about the future: voting, not in certainty, but in faith. 

Jesus says, ‘What are you looking for? Who are you looking for?’

It’s where we put our trust, our faith, that changes our hearts and minds and lives. And the Gospel invites us to put our faith in the resurrected Jesus Christ: to vote with our lives, not for what, but for who.