First, a couple of questions. ¿Are you a good person? Well, here you are in church - on Super Bowl Sunday - so presumably, yes. But, ¿Are you a saint?
The questions are different, and not just in degree. The first one, about being a good person, asks us how we see ourselves compared to other people. But the second question, "are you a saint?" asks us how God sees us, and introduces the idea of holiness.
Holiness is a tricky thing. In 742 BC - a long time ago - the priest Isaiah went to the temple in Jerusalem for worship (our first reading today), much as you have come to church today. But Isaiah had a vision, an experience, an encounter with God. And Isaiah’s reaction is not, “Oh wow! This is wonderful. I got a neat vision of God. God and I are BFF!!!” No, Isaiah’s reaction is almost one of terror: "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" Isaiah is frightened. He is scarred. He is overwhelmed.
Fast forward now almost 800 years to 37 A.D. While on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus also has a vision, an experience, an encounter with God in Jesus Christ. Again, it is terrifying, unsettling. Paul, as he becomes known, is struck blind. Just a week ago we celebrated the Conversion of St. Paul. It was a terrifying experience for Paul to meet the Risen Lord. And Paul’s reaction, which we hear in the second reading today, is: "I am the least of the apostles; in fact, because I persecuted the church of God, I do not even deserve the name."
Around 30 A.D. Simon Peter met Jesus. And on his boat while fishing Peter had an experience, an encounter with God in Jesus Christ. Again it is unnerving, unsettling. Peter’s reaction is to fall at the knees of Jesus and cry, "Leave me, Lord. I am a sinful man."
What’s going on? Three guys suffering from low self esteem? I don’t think so. That was certainly not St. Paul’s problem.
Obviously, the experience of God is unsettling. The experience of the Holy is over-whelming. The three men in our Scriptures today meet God, but God doesn’t make them feel comfortable and cozy and at peace. Their encounter with God is too much, too true, too real, and very uncomfortable. The encounter with God is not an "I’m OK, you’re OK" experience, but rather a "You are Holy, and I’m NOT OK" experience.
The experience of the Holy One sharply and painfully and frighteningly reveals my own lack of holiness, my sinfulness. And yet, this is a moment of tremendous growth and change for these three individuals. Indeed, it is an experience of creativity and liberation. For this is the moment that Isaiah becomes a great Prophet, that Saul
becomes the great missionary preacher Paul, and Simon becomes Peter, the head of the Apostles. All three are radically transformed.
It is only in recognizing their own unholiness, their own "defectiveness" before God, their puny creaturehood, that they were opened - indeed, violently torn open - to The Holy working through them.
Guess what? The same is true for us. The Scriptures are teaching us a paradigm of the spiritual life. We must be shaken out of our little securities, our comfortable but constricting complacencies, to be loose enough to serve as God’s instrument, to be sufficiently open for God to work in us. We need to be broken open in order to be transformed.
This is not comfortable. None of us wants to loose control. But there can be no illusion of being in control when you are in the presence of the All Holy. None of us wants to face the darkness and crud of our sinfulness; our laziness, our fear, our anger, our pettiness, our cowardice, our weaknesses that beset us. They go far deeper than we are willing to admit.
Therefore, most of us, I think, try to avoid The Holy. It is too unsettling. It reveals our un-holiness and challenges us. The awe that God’s presence inspires does not make us feel self-sufficient, but rather forces us to recognize our dependence on God, our utter neediness.
So to avoid this unsettling realization, we fill our lives with noise, and activity and diversions, and practically entertain ourselves into an oblivious state. No need to face the Living God if you can obsess on Super Bowl 50 or on Donald Trump.
That is too bad. Because we need God. The encounter with the Holy, according to one Catholic theologian, "is awesome and beatifying. .... It is only in contact with the holy that I am blissfully and intimately liberated from the ambiguity and vacuity of my self." In other words, only God can fulfill that gnawing we experience in our souls, the craving for truth, for beauty, for love. If we become self-sufficient, then we are doomed to endless frustration.
God’s presence does not admit of complacency. To be in the presence of God is to be in a highly precarious place, a dangerous place. In the Gospel today Jesus tells Simon to put out into deep water. Deep water is dangerous. You can’t stand safely on the bottom; you are in over your head. Jesus calls us out to deep water.
God is not to be found in the shallows of life, where we can stand on our own two feet, but rather in the deep waters where we have to give over control to the Grace of God.
And yet, that is the way to the fullness of life. Pope Francis keeps encouraging us to encounter Christ, to encounter Jesus daily! But this encounter always has an element of threat and scariness.
Isaiah, St Paul and St Peter were all called by God to serve God’s people. Today we have a great need in the Catholic Church in our country for generous young men and women to respond to God’s call to serve God’s people as religious and as priests. That great need is quickly becoming a crisis. I have just come back from a Paulist General Council meeting where we looked at the numbers of how many Paulists there will be to staff parishes and campus ministries in 2025, and it is not looking at all good. And every diocese and religious order in this country is facing the same reality. It is a real crisis. Continue to pray for vocations. If you know someone who would make a good priest or religious sister, tell them so. You could be God’s way of calling that person. It is really important for our future.
Jesus’ word to Simon Peter is simple but profound: “Do not be afraid.” We all need to move out of our comfort zone, from where we erroneously think we have some control, some security, out into the deep water of God’s grace, relying instead on God’s love for us, which is the only true security.
You are a good person. But the more important question is: are you willing to risk letting God transform you into a saint?
The Good News in today’s readings? “Do not be afraid.”