Today, dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we should learn from our Scriptural readings something about the spiritual life of a Christian, something essential for any would-be-faithful disciple of Christ, something quite distinct from the good Christian life commonly lauded by the world around us.
In our Gospel reading we heard that:
Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid. From now on you will be catching men."
Just as Simon and his companions used a net to catch fish, so Jesus would, He said, use Simon, and with Simon his companions, to catch men.
Notice that People of God, because many today dislike the thought of salvation being mediated to them by other human beings, they object to idea of owing their salvation to God’s goodness in Christ and through the Church: they want to have a direct personal relationship with God or with Jesus the Saviour. They think that in their case God should catch them as does some fresh-water fisherman who goes to the edge of the river and feeling under the rocks or the bank catches hold of one fish in his hand: that is how God personally seeks and saves them, they like to think. They cannot stomach a Church, Peter’s Church, a human organisation, being used, like some vast net, to catch them along with numberless others over the ages. They do not want to feel humble and grateful before a universal Mother Church, and they positively refuse to obey a human authority such as the Pope, the Vicar of Christ. And yet, it cannot be denied that Jesus did indeed say to Simon:
Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.
That refusal of many to accept the One True Church of Christ, their denial of Peter, established by Jesus as the Rock of the Church and the Shepherd of His sheep, is an expression of the human and worldly pride of modern man, and a prominent characteristic of the false religious spirit abroad in our times. There are other aspects too that our readings clarify for us today, aspects that are more abject than proud, but no less harmful to the true Christian spirit, no less destructive of life with and for God in Jesus.
In the first reading we heard how Isaiah had the remarkable vision of God in the glory of His holiness and majesty:
I saw the Lord sitting on a high and lofty throne, with the train of His garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above. They cried one to the other, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with His glory!"
That would be enough to fill any human being with awesome fear and humble reverence; however, we are told that Isaiah:
heard the voice of the Lord, saying: "Whom shall I send? Who will go for Us?" "Here I am,” he said, “send me!"
Does that not seem to be somewhat presumptuous on the part of Isaiah? Does not the worldly picture of the good Christian involve the humble recital of words such as “I am not worthy”?
Let us now turn to St. Paul and observe his behaviour, for he tells us that:
Jesus was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.
Now, some of the Corinthians to whom Paul was writing were inclined to denigrate him: who was he, after all? Everybody knew about Peter individually and the group of Twelve Apostles who travelled far and wide spreading the Gospel, and then, of course, there was James the brother of the Lord and head of the Church in Jerusalem. Who was this fellow Paul in comparison with them? As you heard, Paul was the first to admit that he did not have the supreme authority of Peter, nor he was one of the original Twelve. But whatever his detractors might say or think, Paul would not shrink before them: he confidently asserted, “Jesus, appeared to me also “. And not only did He appear to Paul, He also chose to send Paul on a mission; in other words, he, Paul, was indeed an Apostle, one sent by the risen Lord to proclaim the Gospel: and he had been sent to the Gentiles, to Corinth, with that Good News. “No matter what some of you may think”, he was saying to the Corinthians, “I am an Apostle, indeed, I am your Apostle”
For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. (1Corinthians 4:15)
So in our readings today we have not only Isaiah pushing himself forward “Send me!” but also Paul is seen fighting verbally to have himself recognised as an Apostle.
This was most important for Paul because, even in the very early Church, it was the Twelve who were, then as now, acknowledged to be of supreme importance. Then came apostles, those disciples of Jesus, that is, who had seen the Risen Lord (cf. 1st. Corinthians 15:80), and who had subsequently been sent (Apostle means “one sent”). In the beginning of his work Paul had been sent on his first missionary voyage together with Barnabas by the Spirit through the church at Antioch. But it was Paul himself who had subsequently been guided and decided by the Spirit to set out on his second with Silas as his chosen companion, before undertaking his third and final missionary journey.
Paul did not want to be thought of then or remembered later as merely one sent out by the church of Antioch: he was, he insisted, a true, a full, Apostle. For, he had – despite his own unworthiness as a persecutor of the Church – originally been chosen by the Risen Lord Jesus Himself to proclaim and suffer for His Name, before being expressly sent by the Spirit of Jesus on his second and third journeys; indeed, on all three journeys, the Gospel he preached and the authority he exercised came from the Risen Lord. In defence of his missionary standing he even went on, in his second letter to these Corinthians, to sing loudly -- but most affectingly -- his own praises as he compared himself with all other apostles, whoever they might be: the Twelve, or any others accorded the title ‘apostle’ in the Church at that time:
Are they ministers of Christ? -- I speak as a fool -- I am still more, with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, far worse beatings, and numerous brushes with death. (2 Corinthians 11:23)
People of God, today the popular conception of Jesus and of a ‘good’ Christian is of someone who is nice, never nasty, never pushy, never fighting for self in any way; always smiling at children and patting dogs, always speaking soothing words and totally incapable of condemning sin or punishing evil-doers. In other words, the world’s picture of a virtuous Christian is colourless, insipid and negative, and so the Gospel is robbed of all challenge, of all its power to inspire and strengthen. Even the good works done for others become tasteless, because they are human good deeds done for human satisfaction; since they are not directed towards God’s glory, they remain within the orbit of this world, and though they be reproduced over and over again they cannot renew the world … and ultimately are condemned to become ordinary and meaningless, just as the words “I forgive” become trite when they are not spoken in prayer to God (“Father, forgive them”), but rather offered meaninglessly to those who are not in any way either interested in, or asking for, forgiveness.
Since I am saying that the comfortable picture of a ‘good’ life painted by lovers of this world is insipid, do I thereby say that Catholics and Christians should become extremists? By no means! Let us look again at Isaiah and Paul.
In the first reading, the apparently “pushy” Isaiah had had his sin taken away, as he tells us that:
One of the seraphim (from before God’s throne) flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged."
So you can begin to appreciate that Isaiah had – most probably -- been in no sense pushy: God had prepared Him for the work and so Isaiah was able to cry out with deepest gratitude and confident zeal in answer to God’s inspiring call.
Look again at St. Paul. He was fighting to establish his own authority indeed, but only so that the Gospel truth for which he had been commissioned as Apostle to the Gentiles just as Peter was Apostle to the Jews (cf. Galatians 2:7), might not be brought into doubt by others who had more attractive worldly credentials and who were preaching a version of the Gospel which was dependent on the old Jewish understanding whilst failing to appreciate, and fully respond to, the new wine of the Gospel of Christ. Therefore, Paul was not really fighting for himself, he was fighting for the Gospel entrusted to him by the Risen Lord, the full Gospel for his new converts whom he would not allow to be saddled with the old, worn out, Jewish prescriptions; he was, indeed, fighting for the truth of Christ, the glory of God the Father, and the spiritual fulfilment of his hearers.
Our readings today, People of God, encourage and guide us to authentic spirituality as disciples of Jesus. We are not to conform to, settle for, the flabby, colourless, “goodness” of those who want to win the approval of modern society and accommodate modern morals, and who want, above all, to avoid the Cross of Christ. Yet neither are we to seek to make a name for ourselves, striving to be dynamic and contradictory, flaunting authority, and ignoring normal sensibilities. No, we have to despise both those attitudes: we must not be so weak as to seek the world’s good pleasure; we must not be so proud as to seek our own glory and set our own standards.
Zeal for God and self-forgetfulness, as displayed by Isaiah, easily lead to the world’s mockery, disdain, and contempt; faithfulness to God and courage, as shown by St. Paul, frequently bring down upon themselves criticism, antagonism, and confrontation.
At the very beginning of His own public ministry Our Blessed Lord made abundantly clear for His specially chosen disciples the attitude they should have with Him, in His service:
Getting onto one of the boats -- the one belonging to Simon -- He asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then He sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. After He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.’ Simon said in reply, ‘Master we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at Your command I will lower the nets.’ When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signalled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so the boats were in danger of sinking. When Simon Peter saw this he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’
Awareness of their own insufficiency, simple trust and confidence in Jesus’ guidance, grateful commitment to His command, and deepest humility before His Person ..... such were dispositions of the Apostles who left everything and followed Him.
Such dispositions were taught by Jesus at the beginning of His relationship with His specially chosen disciples; and they were most firmly anchored in their minds and hearts when, as St. John tells us, – at the end of their earthly relationship with Him and in His hour of supreme glory -- the Risen Lord appeared to them by the Sea of Tiberias where He found them once again fishing without success; He confirmed His original teaching, foreshadowing still greater fruitfulness for their future labours, and offering the surest hope of unfailing help and eternal reward.
In all things we have to seek to know, love, and obey Jesus. The mode and measure of our holiness is not our’s to produce in consonance with human conceptions, but His to give according to His unsearchable wisdom, inconceivable beauty, and supreme goodness.