In the book of Revelation (or Apocalypse), John the Apostle gives a description of a vision he had. He says that he heard a loud voice and when he turned around to see who it was he saw what looked like a man. His head and his hair were brilliant white. His eyes were like a burning flame. His feet were like polished bronze. Out of his mouth came a sword. John writes that he was so terrified when he saw this that he fell down as if dead. Who was this being? It was of course Jesus. Now remember that John had been a disciple of Jesus for three years and yet now when he sees him in this form he is terrified. Why would Jesus appear to him in this way? Perhaps to remind John and all of us who would read it, that this is who Jesus is: the holy one of God; the first and the last; and not just a man.
A couple of years ago I sat beside a man at a wedding reception who began telling me about all the wonderful things his family had achieved. They were very impressive; several of his children had PhDs and he was a very successful businessman. He then said that he really felt that we should do away with that part of the mass at the beginning when we say that we are sinners. We shouldn’t be putting ourselves down. We should be focusing on the fact that we are good.
Well he is right that we shouldn’t put ourselves down, but to acknowledge that we are sinners is not to put ourselves down. That is simply to acknowledge what we are. God is holy and we are not. That is reality. God is the Creator, and we are the created. That is also why we acknowledge this at the beginning of every mass and why the Lord asks us to confess our sins and to receive his grace. It is arrogant of us to think that we don’t need to.
In the readings of the mass today we are being given the same message in different ways. The first reading was written hundreds of years before Jesus came. This man Isaiah, whoever he was, had a vision of God in his glory and he was terrified. His first reaction was to realise that he was a sinner. He says, ‘I am doomed for I am a man of unclean lips.’ The holiness of God which he was allowed to experience made him realise straight away that he was a sinner. Then the Lord sends an angel to cleanse him of his sins. He doesn’t say to Isaiah ‘don’t worry about it', but the Lord does take away his sinfulness. And then God is happy to use this man Isaiah as his messenger, but first He needed him to see that he was nothing of himself.
Something similar happens in the Gospel reading. Peter, James and John were fishing. Jesus used their boat as a stage to preach from and then Jesus tells them to put out for a catch. Now the fishermen knew their trade and you can tell from what Peter says to Jesus that he was politely saying, ‘look mister preacher we know our trade, why don’t you stick to your trade. But so as not to offend you we will drop the nets.’ And then of course Jesus shows them who they are dealing with by working a miracle that would baffle them. He made the impossible happen and through a miracle they could relate to. What is interesting is Peter’s reaction. Wouldn’t you imagine that he would say something like, ‘wow, how did you do that?’ He was an expert fisherman and he knew that this was a miracle, but the first thing he said was, ‘leave me Lord I am a sinful man’. He became aware straight away of his own sinfulness and the holiness of Jesus. However, it was Jesus who said, ‘do not be afraid.’ Jesus didn’t say ‘it doesn’t matter’, he said, ‘do not be afraid.’
One of the most basic experiences we have in the presence of God’s holiness is to recognise that we are sinners before God. To acknowledge that and to confess it is what God asks us to do. Not to confess it is arrogant on our part, because we are basically saying I don’t need to confess that I am a sinner.
Every time that Jesus met someone who was possessed by an evil spirit, they nearly always cried out, ‘what do you want with us Jesus of Nazareth? We know who you are; the holy one of God.’ The demons knew who he was and they knew their place.
What is beautiful in both of these accounts is that God is not afraid to use us even though we are sinners. On the contrary, He tells us not to be afraid. We must repent, yes, but we must also realise that God is happy to work with us as we are, in our weakness. God doesn’t need us to be perfect, but only to be open to him.
Peter said: ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’ Jesus said: ‘Peter do not be afraid. From now on it is people you will catch.’