EPIPHANY 5 — 7 February 2010
St. Paul’s Durant — 9:00
Isaiah 6:1-13 | Ps 138 | 1 Cor 15:1-11 | Luke 5:1-11
Simon Peter fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
A remarkable man, this Simon Peter whom Jesus chose as chief of his followers—after Jesus himself, and your patron St. Paul, whose own writings we have, we probably know Simon Peter better than any other figure in the New Testament. A hearty, blustering man, whose mouth was usually several steps ahead of his brain, a man of many promises made and somewhat fewer kept, a man who swore unswerving loyalty yet sold out at the first temptation before the night was out—and then wept bitterly for his faithlessness.
In today’s Gospel we get a typically human glimpse of Peter—Peter, as he is confronted by God’s power in Jesus, as he confesses his sinfulness, begging that God’s Holy One depart from him, lest his weak and silly soul be burnt up in the radiance of the awesome righteousness of God.
It’s part of long-standing Christian tradition that we spend a lot of time whining about what sinners we all are, how unworthy we all are, how much less we are as persons than we are meant to be, how in our unwholeness we are as nothing before the holiness of God. Sometimes when we talk about our own sinfulness and unworthiness we’re just fishing for the reassurance that we’re really not so bad after all. But often enough we really mean it. And it’s good that we mean it, and it’s good that we say it, because it’s true. We are sinners, we are unworthy, we are as persons far less than we are meant to be and called to be, in our unwholeness we are as nothing before the holiness of God. It’s true of me, it’s true of you, it’s true of Simon Peter.
But we mustn’t stop with that, because that’s only half the truth. The full truth is that God knows perfectly well what we are, and God loves us anyway—loves us enough to go all the way to win us back. “While we still were sinners Christ died for us,” St. Paul writes to the Romans [5:8].
Too much concern over our own sinfulness can be a dangerous thing, actually. It focuses our attention on ourselves, and we become fixated with the notion of how rotten we are, and spend so much time moaning about our own unworthiness that we can no longer see God and the life God is calling us to. If all we see is our own sinfulness, we grow to detest ourselves. And pretty soon we detest everyone else, too. Because they’re even worse than we are; or, what’s really even worse, they’re better than we are! And so, having learned to detest ourselves and one another, we learn to detest God as well.
Christian people in the past, and some even yet in the present, have taken this sort of attitude: we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God” (as the noted American colonial preacher Jonathan Edwards put it in his most famous sermon). But this can result in the sterile heartlessness of puritanism perverted — and then all too often we go out and displace this hostility onto everyone else around.
Well, we do need to take our sinfulness seriously — but in a way that leads to confession and repentance. It has been suggested that our society has lost its sense of shame, and we need to recover that — not that we may be degraded, but that we may be moved to repent. Repentance is turning around, changing direction, letting the past be past and starting anew by God’s grace—repentance is not morbidly wallowing around in our own filth or hammering on the gates of heaven with noisy protestations of our utter wretchedness. God knows perfectly well how wretched we are—God knows it far better than we do ourselves. And God says, “All of that is really quite beside the point, you know; the point is, I love you and I want you.”
The Scripture readings today all have to do with how God calls human beings who are really quite unworthy of being called; but you see God doesn’t care about that. We hear Isaiah’s account of his great vision of the LORD in the Temple in Jerusalem. And he said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips!” And a seraph flies to him and says, “Well, we can fix that! (Though this may hurt a little.)” And God says, “Whom shall I send?” And Isaiah says, “Umm…send me?” And God says, “Okay! You’re on!” (This is kind of like what God said to Jeremiah last week, you may recall.)
Then we hear St Paul proclaiming the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus, the breaking in of new and eternal life, the death of sinfulness and unworthiness. “Unworthy? I’ll tell you unworthy!” says Paul. “I persecuted God’s Church! I’m not worthy to be called an apostle. But my unworthiness doesn’t have anything to do with it! So by God’s free gift, no strings attached, here I am, me of all people, an apostle of Jesus Christ!” We might think that Saul of Tarsus was the last man in the world God would want to do business with. But that’s the kind of God God is. God doesn’t call us because of who we are; God calls us because of who God is.
Jesus summons us all to proclaim and enact God’s Reign with him, to catch people for God’s Kingdom. He calls us with those joyful and exhilarating words which we so rarely see in the employment ads any more: “No experience or qualifications required. Will train.” Jesus calls us, not because we are worthy, but precisely because we are not worthy. Yet he loves us, and his love gives us worth. We can cry with Simon Peter, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinner!” But Jesus replies, “Yeah, yeah, I know that! But that’s just why I won’t go away! So don’t be afraid! It is you whom I am calling! Come! Follow me!
“(And bring a net!)”