Homilies written and presented by Monsignor Peter Magee
Homily 2-8-2004
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Homily 5-9-2004 Easter 5 (C)

Sunday 5 (C): Read Is. 6: 1-8; I Cor 15, 1-11; Lk 5, 1-11

 

                One of the worst effects of sin, if not its main aim, is to make us think that God stops loving us: God is our enemy. Feeling bad about ourselves, we presume God feels the same way about us. And since sin is a regular feature of our lives, we can feel that God is never really happy with us. That “realization” can make us feel even worse: we sense we are almost permanently distant from God. In its turn, this can become resentment against God, the Church of God and the sacraments of the Church: “why is it all so difficult?” we complain. A next step might be simply to pretend there is no sin at all, that it’s all a ploy by “the clergy” to keep us under control. There follows a shift to an outlook on life which either cuts God and Church out completely or transforms them into what we want them to be. That may mean, for example, making religion a spiritual security blanket, or turning it into a pass-time, like going to a concert or a museum. This, of course, is the real aim of sin: it’s not so much the illicit pleasure of the moment (which Satan would deny us if he could) as the long-term break with the true God and the deformation of true religion.

                God knows the tactics, the strategy and the objectives of sin. However, He has His own counter-plan vis--vis the sinner. It is revealed in all three readings of today’s Liturgy, but perhaps especially in the Gospel. Consider very carefully what happens between Jesus and Simon Peter. Peter is minding and doing his own business, probably somewhat annoyed that his night’s work has yielded “ziltsch”, nothing. Jesus, too, is fishing for believers among the crowd which is practically pushing Him into the water. Jesus knows the hearts of His listeners, but He also knows the heart of the man a few hundred yards away from him cursing his broken nets. Quick on the uptake, Jesus approaches Peter, not yet directly, but through his boat; Peter was a practical man and would resonate with the practicality of Jesus asking for use of the boat as a kind of pulpit. Maybe Peter thought he’d get something for the favor; later, he would, of course, beyond his wildest dreams. But Jesus still gave priority to teaching the crowd, and only afterwards, speaks to Peter. We can presume that Peter all the while had heard at least something of what Jesus was saying. We can also imagine him thinking: “this guy must have something good to say. Look at all these people. I must ask some of them what they think of Him. They say He performs miracles: I could do with one myself after last night! Right enough, I like His way of talking: no mumbo-jumbo, straight to the point, knows what He’s talking about. I wonder what He’s made of.” Whatever Peter’s thoughts, there is no doubt Jesus made an impression on him. And Jesus most probably knew it, otherwise it would have been rather off the mark of Him more or less to command Peter to put out into deep water for a catch. In this command, Jesus moves not just into Peter’s boat, but into his life, his work, his concerns and frustrations. Peter realizes it and, after a mild professional protest, does what Jesus asks simply because Jesus asks him.

                It’s not impossible that Jesus lent a muscular shoulder to help in the fishing. Why should we imagine Him sitting majestically at the back of the boat? He was a practical Man; there were apparently only two others with Him in the boat, Peter and Andrew. So it is likely that Jesus would have worked hard with Peter and with all the others involved in the expedition. The abundance of the catch –think of the two boats almost sinking with the weight- speaks to the plenitude of the generosity of Jesus. It also speaks to just how much He must have wanted Peter’s faith and love. The abundance also speaks to the generosity of Peter’s openness to Jesus: notwithstanding the odds, he had obeyed the word of Jesus, and Jesus rewarded Peter’s trust in Him. So it was not just the boats that were full or overwhelmed: the Heart of Jesus was also overwhelmed with love for Peter; and the heart of Peter was likewise overwhelmed with astonishment. Why such astonishment? At the catch of fish, yes, but at much more. Peter somehow realized he was in the presence of someone holy, someone who manifested the power of God. Like Isaiah in the first reading, and like all human beings before the holiness of God, the natural reaction is one of awareness of sin: in becoming aware of God’s holiness, I become aware of my own sinfulness. “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” This is the deep feeling of the soul to which I referred at the beginning: we sense distance, indeed we strangely want distance from God. Jesus had commanded Peter: “Put out into deep water”, and Peter commanded Jesus, “Depart from me!”

                The response of Jesus to Peter’s “command” brings utmost consolation. Jesus does not deny Peter’s sinfulness. He does not say, “you have not sinned.” Rather He does much more. First, He sees Peter’s humble confession: Peter had fallen “at the knees of Jesus” and confessed, “I am a sinful man.” That very confession was the result of giving Jesus access to his boat, hearing the words of Jesus as He taught from the boat, obeying the command of Jesus and accepting that Jesus was the power behind the draught of fishes. Jesus sees all this, and because of Peter’s humility and faith, He responds: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Do not be afraid! Do not fear your sinfulness! Do not focus on your sins! Do not allow your sins to have the first or the last word in your relationship with Me! Do not let sin attain its aim of separating you from Me! Do not let your sin be more important than what I have just done for you! Do not let your many sins seem more than my generosity to you, my desire for you and for the faith and love of your soul! Do not let your sin get in the way of the great things I want you to do for me! It is not sin which determines who you are; it is I! It is not sin which prescribes the direction of your life; it is I! Sin is not the authority in your life; it is I! Sin is not your way, your truth or your life; it is I! Sin is not your God; it is I!

                Yes, Jesus died for our sins, but that does not mean that our sins were the main purpose of His coming. We are that purpose! If sin infects us, Jesus heals us, not because He wants the sin which He removes from us, but because He wants us, whole, holy, healed and happy with His own joy. Sin may separate us from God, but it does not stop God from coming close to us. The separation sin causes is, as it were, on our side; God is always close for those who wish to close the separation, i.e. to repent. That is why Jesus calls the sinner. Knowing, as did Peter, the gentle approach of Jesus, His ability to reach the heart with His Word, His desire to enter into our lives, our work, our company, His readiness to show us the fullness of His generosity in wonderful deeds: it is no wonder that Peter and his companions abandoned everything and followed Jesus. Never had anyone so completely reached into their hearts with such powerful yet tender love; never had they been so overwhelmed in their whole being and their whole lives. In opening themselves to Jesus, despite their sins, they … fell in love with Him; they knew their lives would never be the same again; they knew they would never understand themselves in the same way again; they knew that, although they had sinned, Jesus wanted them, not their sins, and that He would purify them from those sins.

                This is Good News! This is the Gospel! To be sure, we cannot deny the pain we feel when we sin, but that pain is nothing in comparison with the joy and solace which pour forth into our hearts from the merciful Heart of Jesus. So as to feel good about ourselves after we sin, there are two options: either we deny that we have sinned and find a worldly happiness we invent for ourselves; or we confess our sins with humility and faith, trusting in the love of Jesus, and find joy in Him. If we try to handle sin and guilt alone, it will eventually destroy us, to the great sorrow of our Merciful Lord. But if we come to Him, especially in the sacrament of reconciliation, He will destroy it and exalt us in the joy of His merciful love. We can live genuine, happy and purposeful lives only if we allow Jesus to approach us personally and unite Himself with us. Otherwise, we may find some moments and experiences of passing jollity, but our hearts and souls will be deeply complaining and lamenting because they remain in the darkness without Him.

                It offends contemporary sensitivities to speak of sin, guilt, repentance and confession. Certainly, some Church leaders have been guilty of using the doctrine on sin to instill fear and to manipulate people. It is good that we are freed from false understandings of these matters. However, freedom from false understandings of sin and its minions does not mean freedom from sin itself. Indeed, this is perhaps the heresy of today: a false understanding, not of sin, but of freedom, a freedom apparently disanchored from any responsibility to God. It’s as if someone were to say: “You tell me I’ve sinned, and I’ll take you to court, and if you insist, I’ll take you to the Supreme Court to decide the constitutional meaning of the Gospel.”

                But it is Christ alone, and those to whom He has given His authority, who determine the true meaning of the Gospel. It is Jesus Himself, in texts like the one we have read in today’s reading from St. Luke, and many of His dependable teachers of the faith, who teach us the true meaning of sinfulness and freedom, and how Jesus interacts with the sinner to make him truly free. Sin alas has its place, dark and destructive, and must be taken duly seriously. But we need always to deal with sin in the powerful presence of Jesus Christ so that our trust and hope in Him may deliver us from every evil and restore us to the glorious freedom of the children of God. So, put out into the deep waters of the merciful Heart of God and your abundant catch will be the joy of God Himself.

 

Msgr. Peter Magee

Sunday, February 8th 2004: St. Matthew’s Cathedral, DC – 10.00 am