Third Sunday Before Lent
First of all, as this is my first sermon, I only hope that it all makes sense – not an easy task when you have an accent like mine. All I can promise is that if you don’t agree with my conclusions, in true American fashion, there will be a biased enquiry whenever I get around to it.
‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people’. Today’s Gospel reading offers a profound message which pushes us to imagine the link between the realization of who we really are and the missionary purpose of every Christian’s life on earth.
How do we realize who we really are? How do we react to a God who is pushing us towards this realization? Do we allow him in or turn away in fear of who we might actually be? The first step in this realization is obedience.
Obedience is not a popular concept these days, probably because we’ve all seen too many people in positions of authority abusing those who are supposed to obey them. But real obedience, whether between a parent and child, an employer and employee, or between God and any one of us, begins with a trusting relationship. Then, even if we don’t understand why we’ve been asked to do something, we’ll give it a try – we have faith that the reason will become clear to us.
This is exactly the situation Peter finds himself in today’s Gospel. After a long day of fishing in the Sea of Galilee, he can’t possibly see the point of letting down his nets, but he gives in, ‘If you say so, I will let down the nets.’
This moment is the great turning point for Simon Peter, the rock on whom Christ built his Church. This is Peter’s Road to Damascus, and it is extremely poignant to see him come to terms with who he is and what his role may be for the future of salvation right there in his element: out in his local fishing area, dropping his nets one last time on an otherwise uneventful day. If this passage is all about realization, then it starts on a very basic level. Who does Peter think he is? A Galilean fisherman.
But suddenly everything changes for Peter. He witnesses a miracle, the power of God in his midst, and he is afraid. He falls down at Jesus’ knees and says, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man’. On one level, this is a bizarre reply from a poor fisherman who has just been given the catch of his life. But on another level, suddenly who Simon Peter really is becomes astonishingly clear - a sinner adrift at sea. Everything he thought he was and could hold on to for security and happiness are gone in a flash. He has seen the Lord and he knows that big changes are coming his way.
Thinking about our true self is not an alien concept in our culture. There are thousands of books about being at one with your spirit, realizing your potential, living with purpose…I could go on and on. We’ve all seen them. I’ve even learned recently that Cosmopolitan magazine has hired a spirituality editor who hand picks articles and columns which help the modern woman squeeze time for her soul into her busy life.
I hope I don’t sound too cynical – I don’t normally feel the need to criticize Cosmo – but I think the error common to many of these trends is an emphasis on exactly the opposite of what we see Jesus telling us. Remember, Cosmo and self-help books offer beauty tips, sex quizzes, and all sorts of other ways we can improve OURSELVES – these are DIY guidebooks which are naturally suspicious of something external coming into our lives to change us.
In the 21st century we’re obsessed with what we can add to the mix, what we can pile on top of our messes to sort them out. I’ve always loved the Little Prince, which is full of pithy, timeless quotes which turn the world upside-down. A quote which seems appropriate here is ‘You know you’ve achieved perfection not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.’ There is no quick-fix to self-realization through Christ: we’re called to approach our lives from a whole new perspective.
I think the Church is sometimes guilty of the same thing: the same fundamentally flawed, self-help book section approach to realizing who we really are – who God wants us to be. We carry on with our Sunday services, ecumenical talks and ordinations, and when something challenges the security of who we think we are, we don’t trust in God enough to abandon our fear and shame. The controversial events in the Church over this past year seem to me a perfect example. Some parts of the Church suddenly don’t seem to conform to the image we have of ourselves as the Body of Christ, a gift from God and ideally not a human construct to begin with! Things are out of our control and some people are determined not to let go of the reigns – not to have the faith of St Peter.
As St Paul tells us today, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’ So if it’s all about what God is doing in us, why should we be afraid to realize who we are? In Peter’s case it was his sin which immediately separated him from the true self he was shown by Christ. The baggage of Peter’s life, his sin, was in the way of his becoming the real Peter. We too are separated from God by things built up over the years which need to be cleared away, and thanks to our redeeming Lord, we have no need to fear them either. We are forgiven when we come to Christ just as we are, throughout our daily journey to become the person we ought to be.
‘You know you’ve achieved perfection not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.’
I think that we as individuals and as a Church are being offered two images in two different mirrors. In the first we see ourselves, different, but somehow more ourselves than we could have ever imagined. In the second we see nothing unexpected or frightening, but the only trouble is, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t know who we’re looking at. Many people, I think, will continue to choose the latter option and pretend to see themselves there when it is actually someone incomplete and unrecognizable reflected back at them. But I’m convinced God wants us to go for the first option – we will be scared to see something different; but our fear must melt away with the relief we feel to be seeking God’s will.
Mary is perhaps the greatest example of someone who was offered a truer realization of who she was in relation to God’s will, and she took it. She said ‘Yes’ to God and by obeying God and being drawn closer to him, she became more fully human. Thinking of Mary this way brings us back to Peter. God makes it clear both to Mary and to Peter that the realization of who they truly are is intimately bound up in their particular mission. Mary’s mission was truly extraordinary. She was chosen to bring Christ into the world and help change the course of human destiny forever.
Peter’s mission, also extraordinary, may be a bit more like ours. Like Mary he is told not to be afraid, but following on immediately from that command he is told, ‘From now on you will be catching people’. The parallel becomes clear. It is only when we are comfortable with ourselves – when we offer ourselves to God entirely in our vulnerability, shame, and misunderstanding, that we will be equipped to spread the Good News. How will anyone trust the promises of the Church’s mission if we project to the world an image of falseness or incompleteness?
This is the moment to embrace our vulnerability. Like Peter, the only way for us to have the strength to accept who we are and begin what God has called us to do is to be adrift at sea – bewildered at times like the people in our reading from Isaiah: minds dull, ears stopped, and eyes shut.
Faith, after all, is about learning to accept certain things which we do not understand, and as human beings it is essential to our relationships with others. Trust will never be built and love will never be allowed to enter our hearts and change us if we keep our defences up and learn all of the answers first. The most important answers of all always seem to come AFTER.
Maybe this is a moment for the Church, whether we’re sure of the reasons or not, to offer itself to God in vulnerability – to be like Peter in seeking what God would have us be so that we may too be fishers of men. Maybe from time to time we must purify ourselves this way – to be burned down to one holy seed like the people of God in Isaiah’s vision and be built up again to flourish by the grace of God. Maybe then we will have the strength to come back to shore, to leave everything and follow Christ.
Let’s have faith that the reasons will become clear to us. Let’s be obedient to God by opening our arms to all who open theirs to us. Let’s find out who we truly are by letting go of what we’ve made ourselves into, and find out what God really has in store for us. Let’s proclaim the Good News fearlessly not with one side of our personality – our Sunday best – but with our whole self. Amen.