Both the first reading and the Gospel capture the experience of persons wishing to back away from God on account of an awareness of their own sinfulness. Isaiah views himself as doomed to be so close to God. God however has other plans and, in his mercy, sends an angel to purify Isaiah and then empowers him for the work of mission.
The same is true for Peter in today’s Gospel. The miracle of the huge catch puts Peter squarely in the presence of the mystery of Jesus. Who is this man? Peter, sensing his own sinfulness and something far greater and more holy than he at work in Jesus, begs Christ to depart from him. Jesus however knows what he is about and calls Peter to come and be his disciple. Time and again you and I are made aware of the nearness of God and this causes us to become acutely aware of our own sinfulness and thus would sooner have God depart. Yet it is precisely at these moments that God asks us to stay with him and become more deeply his disciple.
One example of this may be during prayer. Anyone who has quieted themselves in a real attempt to draw God near in prayer has bumped against an awareness of their own sinfulness. It does not take much self-reflection to encounter how we may have failed others, ourselves or God. In this moment of honesty our human weakness would sooner abandon the whole affair. It is at these moments however that we must resist and embrace the truth that God has called us to prayer and does not wish us to leave. He has called us to friendship and, like Isaiah, he will purify us for his presence. It is in prayer that he slowly begins the work of convincing us of his love for us, so that we like Peter can be about the work of mission.
Sometimes this desire to back away from God is experienced when we are to speak some truth of God or of the faith. This may be with family or friends or some other public witness. It can be a very awkward encounter. We may feel inside the prompting to speak, always with charity, and yet, at the same moment, our humanness knows all too well the contradiction of our sinfulness. We can sense a fear inside of hypocrisy. The desire is then to have the Lord depart and choose someone else, and yet if sinlessness were the qualification for speaking the truth of the Gospel, the church would be silent. In God’s strange ways he chooses the weak and the foolish to preach to the proud.
Consider also those times when we seek God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation. The highlight of the whole sacrament is the final gift of absolution and the wiping away of all sin, and yet this is often the moment that we struggle to believe that it’s all over and that all is now well. It is as if the soul is still saying to God, “Depart from me I am a sinful man,” and yet God asks us for great faith in his love at this moment.
Opportunities for Holiness
1. Persevere in prayer despite an awareness of sin.
2. Accept an invitation to speak truth in love.
Fr. Vander Steeg is pastor of St. Bernard Parish and St. Philip the Apostle Parish, Green Bay.