The Best Pulpit On Offer

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year A.

The pulpit at St Philip Evans Church, bearing an open LectionaryOnce upon a time, there were three barber shops on a high street, competing for business. One day the first barber placed a large sign outside his premises, boldly declaring: “This is the best barber shop in the whole of Wales!” Not to be outdone, the second barber rushed to erect an even larger sign: “This is the best barber shop in Europe!”

The third barber thought long and hard about how to respond. He was a good man, an honest man, a modest man, not given to overblown claims; yet he knew that he would lose business unless he, too, put up a prominent sign outside his shop. After much prayer he commissioned a sign in bold, confident letters, not quite as large as his rivals, and hung it at his storefront, and indeed his business increased. What did it say?

“This is the best barber shop in this street!”

Today, I’d like to talk about trust. Each day of our lives, we make decisions about when and whether to trust other people. Trust is hard to gain and easy to lose – it’s been said that “trust arrives on foot, but leaves on horseback.” Our Catholic religion, too, is based on trust.

In part, our faith depends on our own inner experiences. There may have been times in our lives when we felt the presence of that Someone we call God. Or perhaps our faith in God is more intellectual, trusting God as the only One who can answer our deepest questions about why the world is the way it is. But our Catholic religion is not grounded in these inner experiences.

At the heart of our Catholic religion is a person whose death we will be celebrating on Good Friday, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Today’s Gospel tells us an amazing story, a unique moment in human history witnessed only by Jesus and his three most trusted apostles. A voice booms from heaven: “This is my Son – Listen to Him!” This confronts us with some very deep questions.

FIRST – Do you trust Jesus to explain God’s heart?

The Letter to Timothy tells us that Jesus destroyed death and brought us life and immortality. Peter, James and John were left in no doubt about who Jesus was after this amazing encounter on the mountaintop. St Paul also had a powerful experience which caused him to believe that Jesus was God’s true messenger – but only after his trust in his old Jewish beliefs departed on horseback!

Most of us don’t get that sort of experience of Jesus – not even nine of the twelve apostles were privileged to see the Lord clothed in light on the mountaintop. Yet we are challenged to put our faith in Jesus. We are not to rely on our own inner experience of God’s presence, so much as the teaching and example of God’s beloved son – “listen to HIS voice.

SECOND – Do you trust the Bible to tell you the honest truth about Jesus?

Our Lord lived a very long time ago, and most of what we know about his words and actions are found in the New Testament. Yes, there are four Gospels which give us four different perspectives on Jesus. Yes, when we compare ancient copies of the surviving texts we do find spelling mistakes and places where a sentence or phrase has been left out or added in. Yet, insofar as it is humanly possible to make accurate copies of long documents by hand, the scholars agree that the New Testament has been very well preserved from the long-decayed original manuscripts.

Fifty years ago, when our bishops gathered at the Second Vatican Council, they searched for the right words to state what we believe about the Gospels; they did not want to say something too restrictive, nor too loose. They chose the following words:

The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things… reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things… but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that … we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed.

THIRD – Do you trust the Catholic Church to develop the teaching which comes from Jesus?

At the end of St John’s Gospel, we are told that if an account of everything Jesus had said and done were written down, all the books in the world could not contain it. We are also told that Jesus promised not to leave us orphans, but to send the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth.

Today, we are faced with many complicated questions which Jesus never talked about – nuclear weapons, genetic technology, and the best way to use social media, to name but three.

As you ponder whether the Catholic Church can be trusted to give teaching about these matters, we need to make an important distinction. It is one thing for the leaders of our Church to give teaching in the name of Jesus. It is quite another for them to get it right when it comes to living it out.

Can we trust our church leaders to live out the teachings of Jesus faithfully 100% of the time? No. Our church has had its fair share of scandals, from the Borgia Popes to the priests in recent years convicted of child abuse. Pope Francis himself has acknowledged that he is imperfect; when a journalist asked him who the man behind the white cassock was, he replied: “I am a sinner.” Yet it’s because Pope Francis has lived out the message of Jesus with a stark simplicity not seen in other Popes that he has captured the attention of the world.

Just like ourselves, Popes and Bishops struggle to live out the teachings of Jesus. When they fail, the media show them no mercy. Right now, we have the positive example of Pope Francis doing things right. Sometimes the leaders of our church teach us by their excellent example; but we are asked to put more trust in the written word than in their lived example. One of the things which makes us Catholic is our belief that God guides the Pope, working with his advisers, when it is necessary to give a formal teaching about the things of God and matters of right and wrong – that this is the way Jesus meant to guide the church into all truth.

In my next Sunday sermon for Lent, I will be inviting us to examine our lives in the light of the teaching of Jesus and of the Catholic Church. But I cannot do this until trust is established. So I ask you, in the light of what you have heard today:

Do you trust Jesus to teach you God’s message?

Do you trust the Bible to tell you the honest truth about Jesus?

Do you trust the Catholic Church, with all its flaws, to teach the message of Jesus for today’s world?

If you wish to know the message which Jesus, through his apostles, has entrusted to the Catholic Church, then allow me to make a modest claim. This may not be the best pulpit in Europe, or even in Wales – but it is the best pulpit on Llanederyn Drive!