Year B Lent 1
12 March 2000
Genesis 9: 8-15
1 Peter 3: 18-22
Mark 1: 12-15
Catholic or Protestant?
"Did you enjoy the play last night?", my wife asked me the other day. For reasons which need not concern us, she hadn't come with me.
"Well, I did and I didn't", I replied.
Now she knew exactly what I meant, and I knew what I meant, but in case anyone doesn't know what it means when one uses an apparently self-contradictory statement like "I did and I didn't" or "it is and it isn't" or "one should and one shouldn't" then let me introduce you to the Common or Garden Paradox.
"The truth", a somebody once said "is rarely pure and never simple". Whenever we try to describe something to another person we shall find ourselves sooner or later using a paradox, because no other method is anywhere near so neat also accurate. "I did and I didn't", says it nearly all.
Furthermore (and this is its importance for us this and morning) most of the truths of the Christian faith which you and I profess, are best set out in the form of a paradox. "God is Three yet God is One"; "God loves us yet he allows us to suffer"; "Jesus Christ is perfect God and perfect Man". Those are just three examples of statements about God which are best presented for people’s consideration in the form of the paradox.
But anyone who supposes that when you have stated a paradox you can leave it at that, is profoundly mistaken. Paradoxes must be explored and explained. God is indeed three and God is indeed one, but thousands of books have had to be written explaining what this means. Jesus is indeed both Man and God, but the implications of that paradox are enormous: the world itself, Saint John assures us, wouldn't be large enough to contain all the books that should be written about it.
ASrmed with that knowledge, let us look at a paradox that is thrown up by today's readings.
St Peter compares the Church of God on earth to Noah's Ark; and the particular point he wants to make is how few people, eight to be precise, went into the Ark and were therefore saved from the disaster which overtook everyone else.
Turn then to the Gospel and we find Jesus preaching to all and sundry that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and the therefore they should repent and believe the Good News.
In other words we have the paradox in these two readings between, on the one hand, Jesus spreading his net far and wide to bring in as many people to his Kingdom as possible, which emphasises the Catholic or universal nature of the Church, the Body of Christ on earth which is for everyone regardless of age, race, intelligence, wealth or anything else; and on the other hand the image of the Ark which reminds us that it is only a few, the Faithful Remnant as it's sometimes called, who respond to that invitation.
The Church is designed in other words to be "for the many" (that is, Catholic); but it depends at any given moment in time and space upon the Few. If we think of the Few as being those who actually testify or bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ we shall be right if we call such witnesses Pro-testants or Protestants.
So we are Catholic Church which has, at any given moment, a Pro-testant membership. Now there's a paradox! What are we to make of it, especially in the light of the dramatically declining number of churchgoers which is taking place in every denomination?
Well, let's begin by recognising both that this is a real paradox, and that the decline in numbers is every bit as dramatic as it's said to be. It's no good being in a "state of denial" that this is generally so. If particular churches like St Andrews or St Stephen's have bucked this trend by appearing to lose fewer members, or even to have made a small net gain over the past few years remember that this means that the decline elsewhere is even more dramatic. The Anglican Church in Ireland and Scotland are only a fraction of their former selves for example.
Next, we need to understand that, however gloomy the prospects look locally, the Catholic Church, when seen from another vantage point, the heavenly as opposed to the earthly one, looks quite different.
For the fact is that the vast majority of those who are "on board" the Church of God are people who have already died and gone to heaven. When we say that "we believe in the Communion of Saints" it means that we are lifting our eyes to behold not just the present membership of the Church here on earth (which may be quite small at any one time or in a given place) but on the staggering number of people who throughout the course of history have, in St John's words, "come through the great tribulations and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb".
When people talk about the "membership of the Church" they are most likely thinking about the people they meet Sunday by Sunday in a particular building, in Croydon or Lewisham.
Well, they're right and there are wrong – and that's another paradox.
Go back to the story of Noah and his Ark. God's purpose in telling Noah to build the Ark was not just in order to preserve those eight human beings but the whole of the created order: beasts clean and unclean.
So it is with the Church of God. The Church, as someone once said, is "the only human organisation which exists for the sake of those to don't belong to it".
Whilst the Ark is still being built, that is here-and-now, you and I cannot possibly know who will or will not, climb on board when the moment comes for the gangplank to be drawn up or the doors to be shut.
That's why we must continually be lifting our eyes from the present wilderness to the everlasting hills "from whence cometh our help". The problem with the wilderness of this world in which we presently find ourselves, whether we think of it as a desert or an ocean, is that there are no landmarks: everything looks like everything else, and pretty dreary it looks, too! We can’t really judge by appearancesl whether we are getting anywhere or not.
The joy of being Catholic is that it lifts our eyes from the here-and-now, and gives us a glimpse of eternity. Like Jesus in the wilderness we become aware of angels and archangels and the whole company of Saints ministering to our needs and praising God alongside us. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
But for each one of us this vision can only come true by faithfully bearing witness, by being what I've called a thoroughgoing Pro-testant, an individual witness to the faith that we believe.
So to the question "are we Catholic or Protestant?" the answer must be the paradox "we have to be both of these things of the same time".
We have to be Pro-testants in the sense that each one of us must run with patience the race that is set before him; but we have to be Catholics in the sense that, surrounded as we are by that great cloud of witnesses we raise our eyes from this present world like St Stephen and St Andrew did, and turn them towards Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith Wwho, for the joy that we set before him, endured the Cross and the Wilderness around it and is now sitting at the right hand of the throne of God to make intercession for us."
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