Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Repentance and Discipleship

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Someone once told me that St Peter is such a likeable character and I had to agree. Here we have a person who wears his foibles like a badge. Whether it be his imprudent bravado to follow the Lord, his utter horror at hearing how the Lord must suffer at the hands of his enemies and the natural reaction of trying to reason Him out of committing suicide, his concern for status, his penchant for taking leadership even when uninvited, and finally, even his cowardly denial of the Lord when the Lord most needed him. He sounds too much like us. 

And yet, we see here the first among the Apostles, the first Pope of the Church, taking the lead in continuing the mission of Christ immediately after the latter’s departure. The Acts of the Apostles shows that the gospel preached by the apostles was a clarion call to repentance. At Pentecost, Peter concluded his sermon by inviting his audience to acknowledge that God has made Jesus “both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). The message penetrated his listeners’ hearts, and they asked Peter what response was expected of them. Peter said plainly, “Repent, and let each of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). Repentance was and is always the first step.

Why would St Peter make repentance the capstone of his preaching? Well, his prayer at the end of today’s gospel would provide us with the answer. “Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” The Lord had borrowed Simon Peter’s boat and preached a sermon to the listening crowds. After He had finished the discourse, He instructed them to launch out into the deep and let down their nets again. They obediently did so. A strange thing for experienced fishermen to do, especially when a landlubber was giving the instructions. They at once took so vast a haul of fish that the boats could not contain all and the net began to break.  Surprised  at  this  strange  miracle—overawed probably, by the One who had worked it, Simon Peter thought himself  quite unworthy to be in such company—and fell on his knees (note a position of worship) and cried out this strange prayer. “Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”

What a strange prayer this is. On the one hand, it is almost as if St Peter is trying to cast out the Lord from the boat as if the latter was a demon tormenting him. To paraphrase it, it may sound like this, “Get away from me! Stop harassing me!” When some troublesome friend or preacher tells us something we do not want to hear, specifically confront our sins, prick our conscience to the point that we cannot sleep or rest, we would certainly want to shoo them away. But thankfully, this was not Peter’s motive for uttering these words.

So why did Peter say, “Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man?” Well, it was because he recognised three simple truths about himself when confronted with the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. First, Simon Peter acknowledged that he was merely a man, a mortal creature, standing before someone far greater, someone whom he could only guess at this stage as a man of God, someone whom he would eventually confess as the Messiah, and finally, someone whom he would preach as “the Lord and Christ,” a message he would live and die for. Secondly, Simon Peter also recognised himself as a sinful man. As a sinner, he stood alarmed at the dazzling holiness of the All Holy One. Just like the prophet Isaiah in the first reading who confessed, “What a wretched state I am in! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips...” And finally in knowing that he was merely a man and a sinful one at that, he became humbled.

Humility does not involve deliberate self-denigration – “I’m not good!” “There are other people better than me!” Though these statements may be true, they do not necessarily disqualify us. You see, the call of a disciple isn’t about ‘US’, it’s always about God, it’s about Christ, who provides the necessary grace to those whom He calls, even if they are undeserving and do not merit such a lofty calling. So, it may be true that you are a sinner, that you are untalented, that you are unsuitable by human standards, yet, the call isn’t about ‘YOU!’ It’s about Christ and the mission which He wishes to entrust to you. The Lord calls sinners, just like Peter, sinners who are prepared to repent from their old ways and follow Christ on a brand-new life-giving way. What does it mean to repent? Repentance is sorrow for one’s sins. But repentance is also turning from one’s sin and going in the opposite direction, in the direction of Christ and grace.

Yes, humility precedes true repentance. A humble man can honestly judge himself and render a fair verdict, without distorting facts or inventing excuses. On the other hand, if we stubbornly hold on to our pride, there can be no true contrition or repentance. The Jewish Talmud tells us that it is quite difficult for an egoistic person to repent, for three reasons: First, he constantly finds various justifications for his evil behaviour, attempting to proof or argue that he was in the right. Second, if he does something so clearly wrong that he cannot provide a reasonable justification for his uprightness, he attributes the fault to his environment or he blames someone or something else. He thus remains blissfully free of responsibility. Finally, if he does not find an external cause or a pretext for his sin, he simply ignores it. If you want to continue telling a lie or living a lie, just silence the Truth. Thus, people who find themselves trapped in immorality, would often turn their backs on religion, the Church and God, and instead, blame these for making him feel guilty. The truth is that religion, the Church or God doesn’t make us guilty. It’s sin! In fact, it is religion, the Church and God that can provide us with the remedy for sin and thus the solution to overcome our guilt.

Yes, perhaps if the prayer of St Peter truly needed amending, it should sound like this, “Come nearer to me, Lord; I need you, for I am a sinful and weak man.” Thus, humility leads to true wisdom, the wisdom of understanding that all things are possible, even what seems humanly impossible, with the grace of God. Only God, can purge our unclean lips, clean our putrid hearts, strengthen our weak limbs and set us on the path of “fishing” for other sinful men.

The sad tragedy we face today is that many continue to have an aversion to the message of repentance and many churches and pastors have also fallen into the trap of confirming this delusion. In many thriving and popular churches, we seldom hear a word preached about repentance. In fact, sin is often omitted. Perhaps one of the reasons is that many pastors feel that repentance is too offensive. Most likely you would hear what you want to hear about God’s love, His blessings, how Christ is inclusive and welcoming, and only provides us guides in coping with life, but not a word about sin or the need for repentance. The sad truth is that many would also like to transform our Catholic Churches into spas for our egos, rather than hospitals for the sick sinners that we are. Yes, we can hear messages on loving others and being a good, nice and kind person, and we love to hear these messages too. But the message that we really need to hear, the only message that guarantees our salvation, is that of repentance.

As precious as this truth is, that Jesus welcomed sinners and called them to share in His ministry, we must never falsify the gospel to claim that Jesus approved of sinful lifestyles and perhaps may have even applauded them. The call to repentance is at the heart of our Lord welcoming and calling sinners. Jesus was indeed a friend of sinners - sinners like Simon Peter, like you, like me - in that He had come to save us from sin and offer us the life-giving and life-transforming gospel, in order that we may imitate Him, the Sinless and Spotless Lamb, who came to take away the sins of the world.

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