Stay Aboard

A Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B

Window in the Eucharistic Chapel in the Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, Paris

God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water.  This prefigured baptism, which saves you now.

–1 Peter 3:20-21–

If the devil can’t take what God has given you, he will simply make you despise it, encouraging you to wish you had something better.

–Becky Thompson–

            In our second reading from the First Epistle of Saint Peter, we have the idea that Noah’s ark is a type or image of the Church.  Just as the ark of Noah was the means whereby God saved humanity and all living creatures from the waters of the flood, so the great vessel of the Church is the means whereby God saves humanity through the waters of baptism.  Thus down through the ages, we see the Church depicted in art and literature as the Bark of Peter, a great, tall sailing ship with the cross of Christ as her mainmast.

           Saint Ambrose, in the fourth century, was one of the first to liken the Church to a ship.  In a letter to a fellow bishop, he advised:

You have entered upon the office of bishop.  Sitting at the helm of the Church, you pilot the ship against the waves. Take firm hold of the rudder of faith so that the severe storms of this world cannot disturb you. The sea is mighty and vast, but do not be afraid, for as Scripture says: he has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the waters.[1]

            Our Gospel[2] mentions Jesus’ temptation by the devil.  We, of course, are also tempted.  I firmly believe, then, that one of Satan’s favorite temptations is to persuade us to abandon the Ship of the Church.  Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of how I almost jumped ship.

            In my first few days as a student at Harvard Divinity School in the fall of 1980, I met a fellow student, whom I shall call Jacob Douglaston.  Jacob, sell-assured and affable, introduced himself to me at a dorm meeting, and one of the first things he wanted to know was whether I had accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior.  “Of course I have,” I replied.  “I’m a Roman Catholic.”

            Well, over the next few weeks, Jacob did everything he could to persuade me to leave the Catholic Church and become a member of his church.  I actually attended some of the church’s Sunday evening services, which were held in a rented Baptist church in nearby Lexington.  I noticed, for one thing, that while the hymn singing was enthusiastic and full of gusto, there didn’t seem to be anyone at the services older than the age of forty.

            Not only did Jacob insist on my attending services with him, he also came to my dorm room at strange and random times, brandishing his Bible and claiming that the Catholic Church was wrong about this or that point of doctrine.  I think I gave him a run for his money, because I actually won a few of the arguments and left him speechless.  Yet Jacob kept insisting that I join his church.

           Wouldn’t you know it?  After my repeated refusals, I actually received a visit from Jacob’s minister, a young man in a three-piece suit whom I’ll call Bill Kipling.  Reverend Bill did his best to convince me that the authority of the Bible was greater than that of the Church, even though, as I pointed out, it was the Church’s authority that identified which books actually belonged in the Bible.  As Jacob’s pastor waxed eloquent as to why the Catholic Church was wrong, I took a glance at my bookshelf.  On it were volumes by Saint Augustine, Saint Teresa of Ávila, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, and Saint Thomas More.  I remember thinking to myself, Whom should I trust: the saints who stood the test of time or Reverend Bill?  In the end, I politely showed the minister the door, and I recall thinking that I felt almost as Jesus must have felt after Satan left Him in the desert.

           After that, Jacob wanted absolutely nothing to do with me.  “You were just a potential scalp to him, Bernie,” one of my friends explained to me.  “He cares nothing about you.  He’s interested only in maintaining a membership quota.”  All this, as I said, took place in 1980.

           Fast forward eleven years to 1991.  I am an ordained priest teaching at Bethlehem Catholic High School.  I’m correcting test papers one evening with a TV news network on in the background.  All of a sudden, my ears perk up as I hear how alias Reverend Bill Kipling is actually wanted by the FBI.  Why is he wanted by the FBI?  For being a religious scam artist.

           You see, the Reverend and his operatives would target vulnerable college and university students and get said students to join his “church.”  After a while, the kids would be pressured into making a significant donation to the church, even so far as to maxing out their credit cards.  The donations having been made, Reverend Bill and his friends would drop the benefactors, leaving them high and dry.

           Wow! I thought to myself.  I, with the help of God, had actually spurned the advances of a nationally wanted religious scam artist.  Quite a notable accomplishment, if I do say so myself!

           Satan tried to use the scam of an organized religion to get me to leave the Catholic Church.  Today, however, I think the devil often uses the opposite tactic, persuading individuals to reject organized religion altogether, convincing people that it is better to be “spiritual rather than religious.”  How many times have you heard that line?

           Here’s what Catholic convert and author Trent Horn says in his wonderful book, Why We’re Catholic.  This comes from Chapter Six:

Many people believe that there is a God, or at least a “higher power” that created the universe. What they don’t believe is that they need to be religious in order to understand God. They ask, “Why should I be a part of a religion like Christianity with all of its rules and hypocrisy? I’d rather be spiritual instead of religious.”

Spiritual Versus Religious

First, it’s not bad to be spiritual.  A spiritual person knows there’s more to reality than physical matter.  He may even thank God for the beautiful world he created.  But just as most people would love to meet their favorite artist, a truly spiritual person would want to know the artist who created the entire universe.  This process of coming to know God and responding to his revelation is the essence of religion.

Hypocrisy, violence, and “long lists of rules” aren’t good reasons to reject organized religion, or any organized human activity.  Imagine someone who said, “I don’t believe in organized sports.  Sports leagues are filled with cheaters and the fans are obnoxious jerks.  Some of them even cause violence when they riot after games.  And there are so many pointless rules!  I can be athletic on my own without playing or even watching organized sports.”

You can see how this compares to critiques of organized religion.

Just as it would be unfair to say all athletes are cheaters or all sports fans are jerks, it’s unfair to smear all Christians as hypocrites.  The same is true when it comes to claims of religious violence, like the idea that “religion is responsible for most wars.”  Sports rioters don’t speak for all sports fans and violent religious people don’t speak for all the faithful. Most wars aren’t fought over religion but for non-religious reasons, such as securing land or natural resources.

What about religion’s supposedly pointless rules?

First, every culture has expectations for behavior that, if you wrote them all down, would be a rather long list of rules.  Say “please” and “thank you,” put away your phone at dinner, take off your shoes when you come into the house, don’t dive into the shallow end of the pool, and so on.  The NFL’s official rulebook is more than 300 pages long–and that’s just for one game!  Since God loves us, and life is more complicated than table manners or football, we shouldn’t be surprised that God’s revelation would include a fair number of principles to help us be happy and spiritually healthy.

Again, that comes from the book Why We’re Catholic by Trent Horn.  It is such a good book that I won’t be offended if you take out your cellphones right now and order it even as I speak.

            In my case, the devil attempted to get me to abandon the ship of the Church by prompting me to jump off her starboard (right) side, in favor of what appeared to be another organized religion.  In the case of many young people today, Satan tries to get them to jump off the port (left) side of the Church, in favor of no organized religion at all.  If you want my advice, I think it’s best not even to think about leaving the Church.  We should simply stay on board and never, ever abandon ship.  Let us sail on together and take the adventure as it comes.  Remember the old proverb, “A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.”

            Mow [boatswain’s pipe], please stand for the Creed.  [Point to the Tabernacle.]  The Admiral is aboard.

[1] From the Office of Readings for the Feast of Saint Ambrose.  The italicized words are from Psalm 24:2.

[2] Mark 1:12-13.