When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man... and Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.
To come face to face with God, in such a way that we recognize Him, brings us to the realization of our own unworthiness, of our own sins. We know from the Gospel of John that Simon had already met Jesus, and was aware that He was a holy man. Andrew, Simon’s brother and partner in their fishing business, had declared his belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Simon was ready and willing, as we see, to defer to Jesus, to give Him use of his boat, and even to follow His instructions about a matter that must have been, as this fisherman would have thought, outside the expertise of a carpenter and rabbi. Nonetheless, at the Lord’s word, out of respect for Him, and perhaps out of affection for Andrew as well, Simon Peter went out and let down the nets, despite what a wasted effort fishing proved to be all night long. But, in what happened next he saw that this Rabbi was in command of nature, and that even the fish in the Sea obeyed Him.
The Old Testament has a companion text, in the sixth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah. Like Simon Peter, Isaiah was going about his daily routine. The vision he saw took him by surprise. As he wrote it:
“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. And He said unto me, Go and tell this people Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not.” (Isaiah 6:1-11)
He saw the Lord, and heard the angels cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy” - three times crying “holy”; once for each Person, for the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Because he saw God, Isaiah was aware of his own sins. “Woe is me. I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips..” As Simon, centuries later, would fall down at the knees of Jesus, saying “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man,” we see that Isaiah was suddenly overcome by the knowledge that he was not worthy to be in the presence of the Holy God of Israel. Isaiah already knew, as later Simon also knew, that God is holy; and each of them knew of his own shortcomings; and even though centuries apart, each of them was, in his own time, suddenly face to face with God. Face to face with the Holy God who is like a refiner’s fire- indeed, as everyone will be if only at the Last Day, when He comes again in glory to judge the quick and the dead.
The angels in the temple cried “the whole earth is full of His glory.” We can go about our daily lives in great comfort, in a state of relative calm, because the idea of the Lord upon a heavenly throne keeps Him just a bit distant, maybe even too far away to notice the every day sins we allow ourselves to get away with- or so we think. But, Isaiah saw Him upon the earth, the earth that was, as he heard the angels say, “full of His glory.” That glory was not only an ethereal glory, for he saw God, present here in this world. The temple, as he knew, was the place of God’s presence, but hidden behind a veil in the Kadesh h’ Kadeshim- the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest could go, once a year and not without blood. With God in heaven and behind a veil, life feels safe. "God is in his heaven, All's right with the world." Even the temple felt comfortable as long as God kept His distance, safely behind the veil. But, suddenly Isaiah saw Him, not only as the God of heaven. He saw the Lord here on earth.
One might even ask, what was God doing here where, surely, He doesn’t belong? It is most unsettling. So, with Simon Peter, the Lord is not any longer only behind the veil, or hidden away on His heavenly throne. He is here, present in the flesh, standing before Peter in his own boat. Into this little wooden craft- a whole world of daily work, sweating, toiling and all the anxieties of normal life, where Peter and Andrew were accustomed to their routine- comes the Shekinah, the visible presence of God, the Word made Flesh. Like Isaiah centuries before, it was terrifying for man to see that God is here, on earth, present in the world, and present in our own world. Like Isaiah of old, Peter knew one thing above all else at that moment. He was a sinner, a man of unclean lips, not worthy of this Presence before which he found himself.
And, that is a good place to begin. When people are influenced by New Age thinking, that, as they think, a thing called spirituality is better than a thing called religion, their outlook is clouded. A culture that cannot accept moral standards, with churches that no longer teach the commandments of God, exalts a morally neutral concept, a thing called “spirituality.” “Spirituality”- a word without definition and context- should ring hollow in your ears, as Christians. When you hear people speak of being spiritual, without the effort to be holy- if I may borrow a popular phrase from the movie world- they give in to the Dark Side. .......“Spirituality” can be a morally empty word, especially if we consider that Satan has been a spirit far longer than any of us have been alive. We need to remember instead that
, in his epistles, tells us that all Christians have one vocation in common. No matter who we are, we are all “called to be saints.” That is, called to become holy. In comparison, it is the easy way out to choose a thing called “spirituality” instead of this revelation about the Christian life and vocation. And, as we see, the only way to start on the path to holiness is by seeing the truth about our own sins in light of the fact that God is present here on earth. The earth is full of His glory- therefore full of His presence. It is so whether we see His glory or fail to see it. Saint Paul
When Isaiah said “Woe is me” and when Peter said “Depart from me,” each man suddenly very aware of God’s holiness, and each convicted of his own sin in the light of that holiness and awful Presence, the answer to each came in the call to ministry. Forgiveness was more than implied; cleansing and purification were also more than implied. We are reminded every time we have this service of Holy Communion, that the full price for our sins was paid by Christ Himself, and that forgiveness is no mere sentimental thing; it was granted to us by His suffering and death on the cross. But, also, we are called to ministry- that is, to service. Now, not all Christians are called to the Ordained ministry, obviously.
But, as the Epistles of Saint Paul point out, we have all been given gifts by which we serve God, serve one another and both show forth and tell His word to the world around us. It is an old tradition to refer to the sacrament of Confirmation as the ordination of the Laity. That sacrament is not a rite of passage, or simply a ticket to Holy Communion. Based upon the Book of Acts, the theology of Confirmation is this: through laying on of the apostle’s hands the Holy Ghost is given. In short, that means that when you were confirmed you were given gifts from Christ, concerning which you yourself may be unaware. You, each of you who have received that sacrament, are carrying precious treasure in an earthen vessel, each one bearing Christ Himself, to show forth by deeds, and in some cases by words, wisdom and power that do not come from your own strength.
And, in another mystery, here today we come face to face with God. The bread and the cup of which we will soon partake are the Body and Blood of Christ. We dare not approach them except we first, with hearty repentance and true faith, confess our sins, and hear the words of forgiveness. And so, we need not say to Christ “depart from me” because we know that in confessing and forsaking our sins we find mercy. We are about to have communion with the Incarnate and Risen Christ in a mystery beyond our understanding. He is not simply hidden away in heaven. He is here on earth, both in the little boat of your daily life as well as in the temple of our prayers. He has made known His presence, ultimately as He has come in the Flesh, died and risen again; and He has sent His Holy Spirit to empower His Church with gifts of service. And, He comes this morning in the Blessed Sacrament, in gifts and creatures of bread and wine that become His Body and Blood.
When you return from the house of the Lord into the daily common places, the fishing boats of your life, remember that upon seeing His glory and receiving His cleansing, you have heard His call. By the life you live this week, among all sorts and conditions of men, you are going out to tell this people. As Christ our Lord said to Peter on his boat, we may hear Him say to us. “Fear not.” We are henceforth going out to catch men.