Sermon: Fourth Sunday before Lent, 10 February 2019, St John the Divine

Readings Isaiah 6.1-8; 1 Corinthians 15.1-11; Luke 5.1-11
Preacher Revd Neil Summers

In the Bible, it is often the case that when God’s servants hear his call, it is accompanied by a profound awareness of their own unworthiness, even sinfulness. In our reading from Isaiah this morning, the prophet declares himself lost in the presence of God because he is ‘a man of unclean lips’ who lives among ‘a people of unclean lips’.  In today’s epistle, Paul declares himself to be ‘the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God’.  In the Gospel we just heard, as Jesus’s power is revealed in the miraculous catch of fish, Peter falls to his knees, crying: ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’  Only after this is he called – along with James and John – to fish instead for people.

Each member of the body of Christ has to discern the specific shape of his or her vocation. It is vital to remember that we all have a vocation: this is not something confined to priesthood or to authorised church ministries.  And for all the baptised, whatever our calling, awareness of our own inadequacy is an important feature of this process of discernment.  There are two reasons for this. First, the recognition of our unworthiness and our tendency towards sin (which essentially means that – despite our best intentions – we frequently miss the mark), remind us that we can fulfil our vocation only through an ever- deepening dependence on the grace of God.   Second, a sense of our unworthiness is an antidote to the pride that can corrupt and frustrate the working out of this grace in our lives.  This sort of thinking is quite countercultural in a context where there is pressure to put ourselves at the centre of the universe, often compounded nowadays by relentless demands of self-image and social media.

It is sometimes suggested that the Church’s focus on sin is a life-denying and destructive thing.  And it can be, when misused.  People’s self-esteem can be destroyed, and the guilt of failure, of missing the mark, can become a burden too heavy to bear.  Let’s face it, the Church as an institution has a less than proud history of piling on the guilt.  I really struggle with the language employed by those brands of Christianity which talk about the ‘conviction of sin’.  But I think today’s epistle helps us to understand why, on the contrary, an appropriate sense of our sinfulness is, in fact, liberating. Paul knows that he is not saved by his own accomplishments or righteousness, but because of his belief that Jesus had somehow died to destroy his sense of unworthiness. His being chosen by God is not something for which he can take any credit.  As he writes, it is ‘by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain’.  There is, therefore, no need for anxious comparisons of his own performance or achievements with those of others.

As he observes in the final verse of our reading, it is immaterial which apostle is responsible for the faith of the Corinthians.  That, ultimately, is the fruit of grace and cannot be the source of any human boasting. The same is true for every Christian: neither our calling, nor what is accomplished in that calling, is ultimately our possession: it – and we – are God’s.

This should be a source of consolation and peace; for, as Paul explains elsewhere, if God has called us, we can trust him to be faithful. It is only when we imagine the work to be our personal possession that its burden proves impossible to bear.

Luke’s Gospel as a whole shows us why a sense of our unworthiness – or sinfulness, to use the traditional language – is also a vital antidote to pride. Peter’s declaration that he is a sinner recalls Isaiah’s. It introduces a theme which becomes increasingly important as Luke’s gospel story proceeds. When the Pharisees criticise Jesus for associating with sinners, he replies by declaring that his mission is to call sinners, not the righteous, to repentance. So to respond rightly to the call of God is to repent.  By contrast, imagining that your religious status makes repentance unnecessary is a sure way to spiritual death. Jesus makes it very clear that those who regard themselves in this way thereby cut themselves off from God’s grace.

The corrosive effect of spiritual pride is described by St Augustine in the classic book of Christian philosophy called City of God: ‘Pride is the beginning of sin. And what is pride but the craving for undue exaltation?  And this is undue exaltation – when the soul abandons him to whom it ought to cleave as its end, and becomes a kind of end to itself’. 

Whoever else might be damaged by our pride, we ourselves are always among its greatest victims. In a Christian approach to life, it is in the humble, and humbling, service of Jesus, the servant king, that we find our ultimate good.  The consciousness of unworthiness, of not being up to the mark, which we encounter in Isaiah, Paul, and Peter is, therefore, anything but destructive.  Indeed, it is their humility and penitence, their recognition that they are unworthy, which preserves them from spiritual self-destruction. That is how they can flourish in their vocation.

Yes, it does go against the grain of the cultural context we inhabit here today. But every would-be follower of Jesus can feel confident in responding to God’s call.  There’s no such thing as ‘not good enough’, for what undergirds life for the Christian is the love and the grace of God.  ‘Grace’ can be a hard word to define, but try this for size: ‘grace’ is the undeserved favour of God, and it is accessible to all of us, no matter how ill-equipped or unworthy we may feel.  When Peter said to Jesus, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man’, it is the authentic response of someone feeling himself, almost unbearably, exposed to the glare of this vast, unconditional love. He can’t believe that he is being called, warts and all, and wants to run and hide.  Yet having known it, he could never let it go and would give up everything to follow it.

This was nothing less than a conversion experience, but it doesn’t happen only once for Peter. Recall that later, as Jesus neared death, Peter would deny he knew Jesus at all. The Gospel tells us that when that happened, Peter ‘went out and wept bitterly’.  For me, this illustrates that conversion is not a one-off experience, which is why I struggle with the sort of Christianity that says it is.  Better by far to keep on trying, to be open to many conversions, day by day, as God’s Spirit shapes us into who and what we are meant to be.  Inevitably, there will be a lot of getting it wrong, a lot of missing the mark.  But keep yourself open to the call of Jesus, and be assured that your vocation and mine rely totally on the inexhaustible love and endless grace of God seen in him.

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