Numbers

Counting is arguably one of humankind’s greatest achievements. It’s full of surprises. You probably know the classic tale of the invention of chess. It comes in a variety of guises but it always boils down to the point where the grateful ruler who commissioned the task is so thrilled with the game that he lets the inventor name his price. Well, just give me a grain of rice on the first square, a couple on the second, two more on the third, then just double that on the fourth and oh, why don’t we settle for just doubling each time till we’ve got to the 64th square. So said the inventor, I’ll be happy with that. OK, said the king, or whoever he was, that sounds pretty reasonable to me - are you sure it’s enough, just a bit of rice?

Cue a brief hiatus while it slowly dawns on the king’s treasurer just what is being asked for. Without sweating out all the arithmetic the number of grains is one short of 2 multiplied by itself 64 times and it’s a fair estimate that the required pile of rice would be bigger than Mount Everest and amount to about 1000 times last year’s total world production. It’s a lot. You sense that the rest of the story could go either way.

But I’ll leave that to your imagination. My point here though is that once we can count, there seems to be no stopping us - it’s easy to write down a number which is big enough for any purpose - number of atoms in the observable universe? No problem - 10^80 should cover it comfortably.

And yet, and yet, of course nobody has any concept of numbers that big. In fact, arguably and somewhat surprisingly, most of us can’t really visualise numbers beyond five. What I mean by that is that if I show you these ... you don’t need to count them. There are three, we know what three looks like. But if I ask how many free-standing pillars there are in the nave here you won’t be able to stop yourself from counting. Somewhere between three and eight we go from knowing to counting and I’d suggest that for most people that point is around four or five.

So the numbers in our gospel reading are well chosen in contrasting the knowable, five loaves, two fishes with the unimaginable - we perhaps get blasé hearing about millions and billions these days but 5000 people is still way beyond what any of us can properly grasp in our minds. The numbers and the story speak cleverly of working with what we can grasp and letting go and trusting God in the matters which are simply way too big for us.

Now please bear with me if I take this number thing a bit further, because we live in a digital age and clever people have made an amazing job of getting a handle on the world with devices and techniques, which handle massive numbers of numbers in an extraordinarily powerful way. I dare say many of us watched all those athletes filing into the Olympic stadium on Friday night - what was it, 204 countries? And if you haven’t heard of Kiribati all you have to do is turn to Google maps and there it is in the middle of the Pacific and it tells you that you can stay at the Captain Cook hotel when you get there.

The satnavs, the map apps, they always know where you are - the world reduced to numbers. It’s just one example of the way in which huge databases are recording all aspects of our world. Massive numbers of numbers, way beyond us - did you get some faint recognition when you heard the epistle reading where Paul spoke of a God who can encompass and understand the lives of all the billions of people in the world throughout time?

Remember what Paul wrote: I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit.  And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.  May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.

Here is Paul saying don’t think God is limited by what you can understand. Don’t think God is too busy to care for you, unlimited means unlimited; he is the ultimate multi-tasker. You don’t have to know how he works to know that he works.

But what stands out for me most from that passage is that the action is all from God - it’s not our striving that counts but our opening ourselves to him and his love. It’s something of a counterpoint to the astonishing achievements of humanity in getting a handle on the world we live in - it’s an article of our faith that we need God, we need his spiritual food for true fullness of life and that is available to an unimaginable degree if only we are open to receive it.

I suspect I speak for most of us when I say we can’t grasp a fraction of what’s going on in our digital age but we live in it quite happily. In a similar way we can’t grasp how wide, how long, how high, and how deep God’s love is but he still invites us to live in it.