The truth is that I was not worthy then…and I am not worthy now. Doesn’t matter how many Masses I serve, how many Rosaries I pray, how many acts of charity I might do…I will never be worthy because I am a sinner. And no matter how hard I try, I still sin. I continue to stumble and sometimes I fall. At every Mass, I confess – we all confess – Lord, I am not worthy, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
And that, my friends, is the truth. None of us is worthy. At least, none of us is worthy based our own merit. It’s not possible to make ourselves worthy by doing this or that. Rather, we are made worthy by his grace. We are saved by his grace and his grace alone. Do not get me wrong. Good works are essential; faith without works is dead. But, good deeds alone are not enough to make us worthy.
Today’s readings, all three of them, focus on our unworthiness. Isaiah, Paul and Peter – three of the greatest figures in the church – confess they are unworthy sinners.
Isaiah received his call to be a prophet when he was in the Temple of Jerusalem. While he was praying, the majesty, holiness and glory of the Lord took possession of his spirit, and his eyes were immediately opened to the depth of human sinfulness, including his own. The great divide between God’s holiness and Isaiah’s sinfulness overwhelmed him. But the purifying heat from the ember taken from the altar cleansed Isaiah’s lips and prepared him for his mission. Here I am Lord. Send me. With his sins forgiven, Isaiah accepts his missionary call and becomes one of the greatest prophets.
St Paul, before his conversion, was known as Saul, a terrible persecutor of Christians. The Book of Acts tells the story of his conversion. Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, was on his way to Damascus when a light suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice. Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? Now get up and go to the City and you will be told what you must do. At his baptism, Saul’s sins are forgiven. He is reborn into the life of Christ and goes on to become the greatest contributor to the New Testament. Like Isaiah, Paul has an encounter with God, his sins are forgiven, and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, is sent on a mission.
While on mission, St. Paul acknowledges his unworthiness when preaching to the Corinthians. I am the least of the apostles, not fit to even be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God. How about that? The brutal persecutor becomes the greatest evangelizer. How can that be? Paul himself gives the answer: But, by the grace of God, I am what I am.
And then there’s Peter. After a long, tough night of fishing, he and some of his friends disembarked and were washing their nets. Jesus steps into his boat and instructs him to try again. Peter shrugs his shoulders and does what Jesus tells him to do. When he catches a ton of fish, Peter realizes who was with him in the boat. He falls to his knees and cries out, Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man. After his encounter with Jesus Christ, unworthy as he was, Peter receives the invitation to become a fisher of men. Strengthened by God’s grace, Peter accepts his mission. He leaves everything and follows Jesus.
So even Peter, our first Pope, is a forgiven sinner. Today, in the city of Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica marks the gravesite of this unworthy fisherman. Jesus got into his boat, addressed his sinfulness, and then sent him on a mission – a mission that continues to this very day.
Anytime we see a story in the Bible about Peter and the disciples doing something in a boat, the boat is a symbol of church. Always has been. Just as the Ark was the means by which Noah and his relatives were spared from destruction, so too, the Church is the ark that protects Christians from the treacherous waters. Just as God used the flood to purge the earth of moral sin, the waters of baptism wash away the stain of sin. St. Augustine said that the ark represents the Church in the New Testament – the wood of the cross and the waters of baptism.
In the Gospel account, Peter is the captain of his boat. The boat protects Peter and his friends from the dangers lurking in the waters. Think of the boat as the Church and Peter as the head of the Church. Jesus gets into the boat and teaches the crowds from the boat. In other words, Jesus comes into the Church and teaches us by his word during the Mass. After we hear what Christ teaches us, and receive his grace through the Sacrament, we are then instructed to go out into the deep waters, into the troubled world, and lower the nets. Note that nets are used for the catch. Which means all kinds of fish are caught. The Church nets are meant to catch everyone, of every race and color.
Note that Peter and his partners were unsuccessful when fishing in the darkness. Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing. No surprise there. In the dark, we are lost and confused. When Jesus shows up at dawn, the light of Christ shows them the way. Peter does as Jesus commanded. He was obedient. They lowered their nets and caught so many fish that they need help bringing in the haul. That’s where we come in. Our mission is to help bring men, women and children out of the deep, dark troubled waters into the safety of the boat.
It’s all about grace and mission. Just as Isaiah had a powerful encounter when praying in the Temple…just as Paul had a powerful encounter on his way to Damascus…and just as Peter had a powerful encounter when Jesus stepped into his boat…when we come to Holy Mass, we have our own powerful encounter with Jesus Christ. With the Host and Chalice of Precious Blood in his hands above the altar, the priest says, Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb. Our humble response: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
At Holy Mass, we acknowledge our sinfulness and receive God’s forgiveness. Having reconciled with God, we receive His healing grace, principally through the Eucharist. We end the Mass with God’s blessing, recalling the mission we received at baptism. Go forth, glorifying the Lord by your life.
As much as I hate to admit it, it is true. I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips. I am a sinful man. I am unworthy. Yet, by the GRACE OF GOD, I am what I am. Here I am, Lord. Send me!