Most Catholics, I am sad to say, prefer to be fairly private about their religious beliefs. My guess is that part of the reason for this is that we don’t want to offend other people who may think differently from us. We want to live and let live. We don’t want people to get the idea that we think our religion is superior to theirs, and so we end up hardly ever sharing it at all. Also we are taught, as I spoke of last week, that the Catholic Church does not condemn other religious beliefs, and we all too easily think that this means that we must not promote our own…… in case others think we are being intolerant! But we also keep quiet for another reason .. simply because we don’t think we know enough about our faith, nor are good enough, to defend it adequately.
Either way, today’s readings are an uncomfortable challenge to those of us who think like this, not least because we see three great prophets and preachers of the faith – Isaiah, Paul and Peter – also thinking the same, that they weren’t good enough to do what they ended up doing. In each case there is no doubt about their faith, for each has a vision of the glory and holiness of God, but great doubts that they are good or wise enough to proclaim what they have seen. So Isaiah says “I am a man of unclean lips!”. (Isaiah 6:1-8). Paul says “I hardly deserve the name of apostle” (1 Cor 15:1-11) and Peter is even more dramatic, “Leave me Lord: I am a sinful man.”(Luke 5:1-11)
What we fail to notice in our modesty, is that it is their very modesty, their admission that they are not worthy, which makes them fit for the job. Think about it for a moment. What would we think of any of them, if having had a vision of the glory and holiness of God, they simply said. “Right, now I’ll go and tell everyone else about it.” ?What we have to offer to the world is not something trivial, not a few holy ideas about how to live our life, but something which is almost too deep for words. But what is it? How can we explain it, if it is so holy that even the greatest prophets shudder at the task?
When I was in Pakistan for a month, some years ago, staying with a Pakistani Moslem family, I spent quite a lot of time studying as well as talking to them, about their faith. There is much to be admired. Particularly, they have a great sense of the need to pray, that can make the prayer life of many of us Christians look a little feeble. I often recommend to people who are finding prayer dull to follow the Muslim way and actually put their prayer into physical action – stand… kneel.. prostrate yourself .. Let your body remind you what your mind is meant to be doing! It is the same with the use of Yoga or other physical techniques from Hinduism and Buddhism. But none of these religions have at their heart what our faith has.
All these religions are trying in various ways to reach God.. to make themselves more good, or holy or prayerful in order to make themselves right with God. But all of them fail for me to express the great and glorious mystery of our Christian faith. The Muslim faith thinks God is so great and holy that he is always far away .. a thing to be stretched towards by heroic acts of fasting, prayer and pilgrimage. The Hindu, and especially the Buddhist faith, thinks of God (or the gods) as so close that he or they cannot be distinguished from the world around us.. indeed some Buddhist do not believe in God (as we understand him) at all!
The God we Christians believe in is both all holy and other, as in the great vision of Isaiah we heard today, and yet chooses to come close to us, to be one with is, as |Jesus.. a human amongst his fellow humans. Only now and then does he show glimpses of his glory, as Peter and the disciples see it when they unexpectedly catch all those fish. They might have said “Oh that’s a bit of luck!”.. but instead they recognise in an event in the natural world, the presence of the holy God, and they fall to their knees in amazement and awe.
So in Pakistan I learnt again what I had to share, what was distinctive and glorious about our faith. That is that we do not find God just in a Book, however holy we may believe our book, the Bible, to be, nor do we find God just in hearts as we pray and mediate on God. No, principally we find and meet God in a fellow human being. That is the glory we have to share… simply Jesus and finding God by being his friend. Jesus… a man like us.. a man with a mother that can be our mother, a Man of great love and great sacrifice to inspire and lead us, the one who both dies for our sins but is also eternally alive for us, so that the all-holy God is always eternally near us as our Master and Friend.