This Sunday we hear three different accounts of three different people who all accomplished great things despite their personal feelings of unworthiness. Each tale is distinct, but the parallels are apparent.
In the first reading from Isaiah, the prophet sees a vision of God seated on a mighty throne, surrounded by Seraphim (the highest of the angels). Isaiah cries, "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips..." We like to imagine God as a warm, cuddly, bearded father-figure, benign and somewhat toothless. But Isaiah's reaction tells us otherwise. Faced with the power and majesty of the Almighty, the prophet trembled and despaired. For it is only in the light of perfect holiness that we are able to see just how unholy we are by comparison.
I heard the Chicago priest Fr. Robert Barron say once that the soul is like the windshield of a car. It may look clean until we point the car towards the sun. Suddenly, when the light hits the glass, we can see every streak, smudge and squashed bug, and we realize just how dirty our windshield is. Isaiah, standing in the light of God and His angels, realized just how unclean he was, unworthy to be in God's presence.
Admitting his unworthiness for having unclean lips, one of the seraphim came to Isaiah and touched a burning ember to his lips. The angel said, "Now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged." (There is an allusion to purgatory here. The word "purgatory" means "a purging," where we are cleansed from any lingering attachment we have to our sins before we enter the presence of God in heaven).
Having thus been cleansed, the prophet is ready to respond bravely to God's mission for him. "Whom shall I send?" "Here I am."
The gospel reading today tells of a similar encounter with the Almighty. In Luke 5:1-11 we read of Jesus coming to Peter (then still called Simon) on the shore of Lake Gennesaret. Jesus draws a crowd, preaches to them from one of the fishing boats out on the water, and then commands Simon to row out and lower the nets. Now they had been fishing all day and caught nothing. But they did as Jesus asked and hauled in so many fish they had to call out a second boat to hold them all. Knowing that he had just witnessed a miracle and was in the presence of divine power, Simon falls on his knees before Jesus and says, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man."
Like Isaiah, Simon Peter recognized his own imperfection in the shining light of the perfect God. Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid," (a message He would often repeat), "from now on you will be catching men." Simon left everything of his old life behind that day and began to follow Christ. Of course we know how the story ends. Simon the fisherman becomes Peter, the head of the Apostles, first Pope and Vicar of Christ, the Rock upon which Jesus builds the Church.
What is the message here? That God can do great things through weak men? Certainly, that is part of it. That God can heal us of our sins and shortcomings, cleanse what is unclean in our souls? Certainly, that is true, as well. But Isaiah and Peter were two great men in the history of the faith. They were special cases, right? What about people like us, just regular ordinary people?
Or you may be thinking, Isaiah and Peter were imperfect, sure, but how bad were they really? I've done some pretty rotten things; there is no way God can be calling me to do His work. I've worked too hard against Him for too long to do Him any good now.
St. Paul would say otherwise. Our second reading today is from 1 Corinthians, where St. Paul calls himself, "the least of the Apostles, not fit to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God." Now you need to know some history of Paul to appreciate this. Paul (or Saul as he was called then), was a Pharisee. In fact, he was the most pharisaic of the Pharisees, the most zealous in persecuting Christians, whom he viewed as heretics and blasphemers. He was out to destroy the Church, travelling from synagogue to synagogue encouraging the Jewish people to punish anyone who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Paul was personally involved in imprisoning many Christians. He was involved in their torture, trying to get them to renounce their faith in Christ. And when St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was being stoned to death, Paul was there holding the coats of those casting the stones. So when Paul says he was unworthy to be called an Apostle, he meant it.
So what happened? Did Paul just change his mind, suddenly becoming a good guy?
No. Christ happened.
"I have toiled harder than all of them," Paul says. But then he continues, "Not I, however, but the grace of God that is in me." And that's the key. Paul, the sinner, would be completely incapable of doing God's work on his own. Any of us would be. But because Christ now dwells within Paul, it is Christ who works through him.
If you are a baptized Christian, then you have been united to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ dwells within you, too, just as He dwells within Paul. And you are just as capable of accomplishing what God wills for your life as Paul was. That does not necessarily mean you are going to be an apostle, or a prophet. As we heard in last Sunday's readings, some are apostles, some are teachers, some are prophets, some work mighty deeds, etc. We all have different tasks.
You are not Isaiah. You are not Peter. You are not Paul. You are you, a unique person made in the image of God, with your own perfection before you. God wants the same thing, ultimately, for all of us. Holiness. But holiness looks just a bit different on each of us, for we are different people. What is God calling you to become? If you don't know, have you asked Him? Whatever it is, you can take comfort in Christ's words to Peter. "Do not be afraid." He's not calling you to do anything that He's not ready to help you accomplish. For He lives within you, and works through you, if you only allow Him to do so.
God bless, and have a great week!