Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 4th Sunday of Lent, Year B.
“We can’t go on as we are!”
Pity the poor prophets of the Old Testament. Sometimes it seemed like the whole world was against them – the kings, the people – even the priests! Yet the prophets knew that God had given them a message, and so they spoke: “Don’t be like the world around you! Keep God’s Law!”
Every community of religious believers is pulled in two directions. One direction is outwards, to be like all the other people we know. The other direction is upwards, towards the higher values that God stands for.
Most religions on this planet agree about some basic values. Be good. Say sorry, please and thank you – a lot! Treat other people the way you would like to be treated. Be kind to people who can’t repay your good deeds. Be mindful of others.
If we only promote these things, we won’t have many arguments with Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims or atheists. We will continue to walk in the glow of being seen as nice, kind, caring people. Indeed, just doing that makes us so attractive that sometimes other people want to join our community just because we care.
I always say to people who want to become Catholic: “If you’re doing this because you’ve met some really nice Catholics and want to be part of us, go slowly. Sooner or later you will meet some horrible Catholics. What is it that will make you want to still be a Catholic then? Don’t join until you have a good answer!”
It would be so easy for me, as your parish priest, to set out some goals that we could get behind and lots of people would cheer for. Let’s do something about plastic waste. Let’s tidy up litter in our community. Let’s help the homeless.
Don’t get me wrong. All of these are good things. Maybe some of us here are called, personally, to get deeply involved in one of those causes. But we’re a small community, and if we gave centre stage to one of those projects, there wouldn’t be room for our core project: Discovering Christ.
You might have heard a story wrongly attributed to St Francis of Assisi, that he once told his followers to walk in silence through a village, doing good deeds. “Preach the Gospel at all times. If you have to, use words.” There are two problems with the story. First, St Francis never actually said it. Second, if you think about the message – it is utter rubbish!
How can anyone know about Jesus, if we never mention his name?
If my personal religion is about being a kind person who never mentions Jesus, I might inspire others to be kind people who never mention Jesus. In which case, if we are only following the “Gospel of nice”, there is no need to say prayers, go to Mass or even get baptised. But what does Jesus say about this?
“If you believe in me,” says Jesus, “you shall have eternal life.”
That word “believe” is misleading. It’s not just about holding an idea in your head. Better to translate it as: “If you put your trust in me, you will have eternal life.” You can believe that a rickety bridge will hold your weight without testing it out. But when you put your trust in that bridge, then your life is truly on the line!
Ominously, Jesus says “If you refuse to put your trust in me, you will be condemned.”
My dear brothers and sisters, we are surrounded by a lot of Catholics who have missed the point of their faith. They think that all that is required is to be a kind person, and pop into church at Christmas and Easter because it feels nice. By baptism, each one of them has been made a temple of the Holy Spirit. But each week they dishonour that temple – because sacrifice is not offered there on the Lord’s Day.
Last week, the Vatican issued a letter about traps people can fall into these days. We can so easily fall into the trap of thinking that if we behave kindly to others, we will earn the right to go to heaven. That is not what Jesus teaches us. No, Jesus would be lifted up on the Cross, unlocking the gates of heaven. “Follow me! I will show you the way!” And following him means not only loving our neighbour, but doing what we’ve come here to do today, celebrating Eucharist and praying the Lord’s Prayer.
Sixty years ago, we were a defensive church. We weren’t allowed to go to the services of other Christians, and marrying out of the Catholic faith was a cause of shame. Then, after the Second Vatican Council, we opened up to the world – but lost confidence in the treasure we had been entrusted with, which is the call to follow Jesus within his original community of faith, the Catholic faith. When we lack confidence, we can hide behind the nice, inoffensive, “Let’s be kind to each other” kind of religion. Even some of the priests you may have met prefer this kind of faith, because it doesn’t cause trouble.
But our First Reading today began with a warning that even priests can lose sight of God’s commands. This is why I have always tried to be the kind of priest who puts God’s commands front and centre. Plenty of other charities and community groups will encourage you to love your neighbour and care for our planet. If I don’t lift up the Lord Jesus so you can follow him, who else will do that for you?
We can’t go on as we are. We must become a community of believers unafraid to life up Jesus in the sight of others. On Palm Sunday I’ll begin to set out our plans for how we will all be able to take part in the Discovering Christ course. We can’t go on as we are – but we don’t have to. Find our more next week!