A sermon preached at Sherborne Abbey at the Sherborne School Service
Second Sunday of Epiphany: John 1.43-51
When I was coming towards the end of my time at school, I was thinking what to study. The options were: medicine, theology or physics. So, as you do, I went to visit some open days. Medicine was quickly removed as an option, as it required a lot of group work: something I didn’t really see myself doing at the time. Theology sounded interesting, but visiting the university’s open day, the second youngest student was in her 40s, so it didn’t promise a vibrant student life.
So, physics it was. I have to say, I’ve never regretted it. I loved learning about quantum physics and general relativity, as well as understanding why the sky is blue and how you can make even faster computers. When it was time to decide what to do after graduating, it felt right to continue with a PhD. Quite a few people were urging me to do something more theoretical, but I was drawn towards the experimental side of physics, so decided to join the High Magnetic Field Laboratory, which does experiments, as the name suggests, in high magnetic fields.
The great thing about being an experimental physicist in a lab full of magnets and other equipment, is that you can do all sorts of things. We played around a lot with liquid nitrogen, to see how you can freeze beer quicker – actually, it turns out that ice water is far more efficient … We used our lasers to see how far they would reach, in the process burning holes more than one set of clothes.
But, of course, there was also time for some more serious research. One of my colleagues was involved in the discovery of graphene, and I myself was looking at other materials that may be used for solar-cells and a new generation of LED devices.
Because our magnets used a lot of energy, about the equivalent of 3000 households, a lot of our experiments happened at night. Because of health and safety, there always needed to be at least two people in the building: the person doing the experiment and a ‘baby-sitter’.
A lot of my nights were spent in a dark room, as I was trying to detect single photons, single light-particles, coming from a piece of material stuck in a magnet. I remember one particular night, after weeks of preparation, when I was sitting there, watching my computer screen if any of these particles would show themselves. It was pitch dark, and below me I heard the noise of the magnet and its water cooling system thundering.
Suddenly, there was a peak on my screen. And another one. And yes, indeed, a third one, as the theory had predicted, but no one had ever seen before. Instantly, I wanted to jump up, run to my ‘baby-sitter’ and tell him: Come and see! Come, and see what I am seeing: this is the first time someone has ever observed this before. It was an excitement that you only rarely experience, and you want to share.
Of course, if I would show any of you the graph I saw materialising before me on the screen, you would be completely bored. And if someone would show me something similar, I would be too. There are certain things you can only really value when you see them for yourselves.
Come and see. We are all curious by nature: I am sure I’m not telling you anything new when I say that. You also are people who explore: you learn new things, see where the boundaries are what you can and cannot do, and so you learn about yourselves, the people you live with and the place you find yourselves in.
The same is true for our journey of faith, and that is what we hear this evening in our reading. This reading is part of the first chapter of John’s Gospel, so very much at the beginning of the story of Jesus. We hear how he summons a few of his early followers.
Nathanael, one of the men whom Jesus is asking to follow him, is hesitant: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth’? Really? So, may we be. As much as it is natural to be curious, so do we have a natural sense of scepticism as well. We don’t just do as we’re told all the time, but we question and try to find the truth for ourselves.
Philip, one of the other disciples, doesn’t try to convince Nathanael by a long theoretical discourse about God and Jesus and whatever was written before that time. No, the only thing he says is ‘Come and see’.
Maybe that is something we can think about as well. Many of you will be very sceptical towards anything to do with faith. And I would almost say: ‘rightly so’. We need to be questioning and not just taking things to be true because others say so. Of course, you need to have a certain trust in your teachers and others who help you learn, but also, there is enough fake news around to be rightly questioning.
However, I would also like to encourage you to go and see for yourselves. Just as much as we shouldn’t take anything for granted, so also should we not discard anything before we have explored it ourselves.
As Christians, we believe that people are made in the image of God. So, a good starting point is to look at others if you’d like to learn something about God. And by looking, I mean, really looking. Understanding a bit more about the people around you will help you to understand more about yourselves too. And ultimately, that will, I believe, help you to become more open and more aware that also you yourself are made in the image of God. Each of us has something God-like in us.
So, whether it is studying physics, medicine, art or classics, making friends, or maybe even trying to pray or have a conversation about faith: go and see for yourselves.
Come and see, go and explore. Amen.