Ephesians 3:20 – as close as the mind of finity may come to defining the God of infinity.

Preacher: Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, Assistant Priest

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

The idea of Infinity has always intrigued me. Let me share a riddle about infinity: a traveller visits the Infinite Hotel, that has an infinite number of rooms. He asks at Reception if they have a room for him to stay in for the night. Having been certain that such a mega-hotel as the Infinite Hotel would be bound to have a room, he was disconcerted to be told by the clerk that all rooms were full for that night and perhaps he could return tomorrow. Disconsolately, he heads to the front door but as he reaches it an idea occurs to him. He returns to the desk and says to the desk clerk: “I can solve the problem so that there will be a room for me tonight – don’t worry no-one will have to share.” What is the solution that he gives to the desk clerk? Well before you may be tempted to spend the rest of my sermon waiting for me to give the answer at the end, I’ll tell you now that I won’t be doing that. I will, however, attach the answer to the copy of my sermon that will be uploaded on the St Peter’s website tomorrow.

But coming back to the idea of Infinity; the idea that something could be beyond any bounds is intriguing, I have found myself wanting to comprehend such boundlessness; and in doing so ask such questions as: Is an infinite number of even numbers, or an infinite number of odd numbers smaller than an infinite number of all numbers? The answer, by the way, is ‘no’ – they are all the same size. Which made sense until I discovered that there are indeed such things as larger infinities. The nineteenth century mathematician, Georg Cantor, proved that some infinite sets are bigger than others (as an example, the infinite set of natural numbers is not as big as the infinite set of real numbers). I’m still mulling over that.

But it wasn’t only questions I found myself asking but I also have enjoyed toying with conundrums of infinity – such as the number 1, such a single entity seems the essence of finite-ness, doesn’t it? And yet this finite number also has an infinite nature. How so? you may be asking, if you are not still busy trying to solve the riddle. Well ‘1’  can be broken up into two halves, three thirds, four quarters … all of which are pretty finite, that is to say bounded and comprehensible entities. But, if you keep that progression going, 1 is made up 100 units that we might label 1/100. Carry that on, and we find that this finite number 1 is actually made up of an infinite number of units that we might label 1/ ∞.

I mentioned this to a friend once who responded: “That’s just irritating!”. He was, I think, frustrated that there could be such uncertainty about something so fundamentally certain as the number one. Yet to me, this conundrum meant something entirely different. I actually felt a joyous sense of being on the edge of a moment of vast comprehension, even if it would ever remain tantalisingly out of reach. My sense of elation came down to encountering something that I knew could never be comprehended through the lens of finity – and I can live with that. Infinity will either mess with your mind, or it can leave you with a sense of awesomeness.

And so we come to the reading from Ephesians tonight – in particular, just one verse (20):

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

In particular, the phrase:

Able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

These words nourish me when I read the assertions of many atheists. Richard Dawkins, for example, has written:

We must favor verifiable evidence over private feeling.

In other words, everything in our finite world is capable of being verified. Dawkins acknowledges that we don’t yet know everything, a state upon which he makes two comments. The comments are by way of an each way bet on that which we do not yet know, firstly:

The scientist’s way is to see it as a challenge, something they’ve got to work on, we’re really going to try to crack it.

In his second comment, hedging his bets, and concerned that there may yet prove something intractably beyond the capacity of human enquiry to crack, Dawkins seeks to provide a bulwark against the possibility that some may over-read the significance of any ultimate limit to the investigative powers of science:

Now, suppose science does have limits. What is the value in giving the label “religion” to those limits? If you simply want to define religion as the bits outside of what science can explain, then we’re not really arguing. We’re simply using a word, “God,” for that which science can’t explain. I don’t have a problem with that. I do have a problem with saying God is a supernatural, creative, intelligent being. It’s simple confusion to say science can’t explain certain things; therefore, we have to be religious. To equate that kind of religiousness with belief in a personal, intelligent being, that’s confusion. And it’s pernicious confusion.

This is the antithesis of our reading from Ephesians tonight. I could rephrase how Dawkins might say it this way:

Now to it that has no power to work within us and is not capable of accomplishing anything in a world where there is more than we scientifically may be able to ask or imagine …

And so, patronisingly, Dawkins would permit us to use the word ‘god’ and ‘religion’ to label this seeming nothingness beyond our own certainties of human discovery; but this is not our experience of things. On this day that we mark as Trinity Sunday, it would be useful to look at an earlier verse from tonight’s reading from Ephesians:

I pray that God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith …

These encouraging words, that speak of the Triune God who reaches out to us, strengthens us, dwells within us is not evidenced simply by the fact that Paul said these words. Two millennia of Christians, living in all manner of contexts and having gone through experiences of every sort and yet who have maintained their faith to the end is the evidence speaks of the power behind these words of Paul.

So our reading from Ephesians tonight, for me, in a few words provides my spiritual defence against the naysayers. But that is not the only point I want to make this evening. I don’t just want to speak to the atheists about the power of the phrase – “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” – I also want to speak about the significance of that phrase to each and every one of us; speak to the faith we each have.

Earlier this evening, on Trinity Sunday, together we said:

I believe in God the Father Almighty … And in Jesus Christ, his only Son … (and) I believe in the Holy Ghost.

In what God, in what Jesus and in what Holy Spirit do we believe? Do we take the infinite power implicit in Paul’s phrase that this triune God is:

Able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

Or do we create a circumscribed God, a finite God that fits well with all that we, as beings trapped in the finite, are capable of asking or imagining?

We certainly wouldn’t be the first to do so, if that is what we have done. Once God of the Israelites enabled Moses to lead His people out of enslavement in Egypt, doing so by unimaginable means that could never have been asked for simply because they were so unimaginable, what did His people do? Having just been witnesses to miraculous events, they went into mental shutdown, effectively saying: “This cannot have been possible”. To fill the void of the absence left by turning their back on the real God, they created a god they could imagine and hence one of which they could ask things – a golden calf to which they said:

These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt. [Exodus 32:4]

You will recall that the book of Exodus reveals how Moses, with God’s support, dealt with the golden calf using the tablets of the Ten Commandments. You’ve doubtless also seen the cinematic wrath of Charlton Heston re-enacting the incident with the gravitas of Hollywood.

Then, many centuries later, a byzantine web of commandments would be woven out of those original ten, supposedly on God’s instructions, leading by the third century BC to 613 such laws. So by the time of Jesus, God’s people had become ensnared by hundreds of commands; the combined weight of which meant that the people were too burdened down to look up and see the living God. So God, in the form of His Son, came to them, reached his hand out and lifted up their downcast faces and said that there were only two commandments that mattered – not 613, nor even ten, but two:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. [Matthew: 22:37-40]

Very simply said, but the problem, for every Christian since Jesus spoke those words, has been how to approach these two simple commandments, let alone follow them.

Unfortunately, in a way that almost parallels Dawkins, we have often opted to find ourselves at the limits of asking and imagining and concluding that there is nothing else there. We define for ourselves a God who is, to our finite minds, comprehensible; and to that God we pray. But the moment that God of our finite definition seems not to answer our questions in the ways that make finite sense, we either change the questions or we change the answers – in other words, we replace God’s answers with our own.

The God to whom Jesus said we should love with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind, we find awkward in those times of our life when we seem to be managing quite well without Him. So we might find that we have changed him to a Helpline God, whom we love with all our hearts, all our souls and all our minds, not 24/7, but just in times when crisis strikes us.

And the neighbour, whom Jesus defined as pretty much everyone else apart from ourselves, becomes way too much for us to get our heads around. So we very quickly set up finite limits to the limitless idea of neighbour. As human beings, we are expert at categorising and thus limiting, defining between those within and those without. That much we are capable of asking and imagining about. So we redefine the neighbour to suit and, by implication, have changed both the words of the Son of God and indeed the very Son of God himself, making him a ventriliquist’s doll who feeds back the words we put in his mouth.

If and when this is what we do, we turn our back on the God of infinity. Yet God has never turned His back on us.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, writing of Mary as a meeting point between our finity and God’s infinity wrote:

This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy

So it may be beyond us to ask or imagine the limits of God’s very being, and of His power and of His love, yet that does not matter if we but let Him through His Holy Spirit “accomplish abundantly” within us.


Answer to the riddle:

The traveller says to the desk clerk: “Please ask the guest in Room 1 to move to Room 2, the Guest in Room 2 to move to Room 3, and so on, asking each guest to move to the room one number higher than the one they are currently in. That will then leave Room 1 free for me.”