Today Peter cries, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” when he realizes that he is in the presence of God. Today Isaiah cries “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!" when he realizes that he is in the presence of God. In both these readings, and throughout Scripture, we hear the shock and shame human beings experience when they see God’s infinite holiness in contrast to who they themselves are. When it hits home how big the gap between the two is.
In both our readings today, God also immediately responds in love. In Isaiah, we hear how God acts to purify and redeem his overwhelmed servant. The seraph touched my mouth with a coal, and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!" God moves Isaiah from trembling recognition of his uncleanness to being commissioned as the messenger of God.
Peter has a similar experience on the lakeshore with Jesus. As soon as he sees the presence and power of God, he also sees his own sin, but immediately Jesus replies, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." And when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. Jesus moves Peter from trembling fear at his sinfulness to being commissioned as a follower of Jesus.
When we read the whole story, what stands out most is how God reaches out in love and forgiveness, despite each person’s unworthiness. God instantly moves to heal and transform. Yet both these stories of transformation begin with the person’s clear-eyed realization of their unworthiness. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!"
Because sentences like that sound negative, there are all kinds of forces around and within us that encourage us to avoid them. Almost anybody living in the West in the 21st century will be tempted either to denounce this kind of talk as unhealthy, or to pass over it as outdated, or to give it only a superficial glance before turning to something that feels more affirming and encouraging. Now in one sense I understand this.
Scriptural language of judgment and sin (what a priest I once knew used to call “miserable worm” language) can be misused, and has been, in ways that can all too easily end up suggesting a kind of self-loathing. In some quarters, the church gets a reputation of teaching that not feeling good about yourself is almost the goal of Christianity. And then part 2 of that reputation, I suppose, would be the idea that this teaching produces in church members an addiction to pointing at other people and telling them they should feel bad about themselves.
If and when this happens in the church, though, we need to name that it’s wrong. It’s a misrepresentation and a misuse of Scripture. And the best antidote to misuse of Scripture is not to stop using it, but to use it well. Let me say that again. The best antidote to misuse of Scripture is not to stop using it, but to use it well. You have to read the whole story, rather than only the parts that sting – or, by the way, only the parts that comfort.
The climate we live in, though, means we have trouble sticking around for the whole story. We are sorely tempted to just stop reading as soon as a text gives any critique of the self, as soon as sin or unworthiness is mentioned at all. Contemporary Americans tend to be very, very cautious about allowing people to encounter any language that might lead to not feeling good about themselves. Affirming your self, accepting your self, in your own way and on your own terms, has come to feel like a sacred duty to us, something almost holy.
So I understand the desire not to talk about sin or unworthiness. And particularly in terms of correcting for past mistakes of the church, I think there are some good reasons for that desire.
But there are also a lot of bad reasons, short-sighted reasons, and honestly, those are the ones that more often motivate me to avoid the topic of my own sin and my own limitations. But what I’ve learned in the years I’ve been a Christian is that the more I downplay my sinfulness, the less I will be able to appreciate the infinite love of God. We see this dynamic hinted at in our readings today: the two go together, and in fact the two are proportional.
The extent to which we admit our own finite limitations, for example, is the extent to which we will marvel at what it means for God to make creatures like us partakers of his infinite divine nature. The extent to which we acknowledge our own mortality is proportional to the extent to which we will grasp how gracious God’s gift of everlasting life really is. The extent to which we recognize our own sins and the fallenness of the world is the extent to which our hearts will be melted by the lengths God went to in saving us and restoring his creation.
And that proportional effect works from the other direction too, as we saw in Isaiah and Peter today. When we discover God’s holy beauty, we will realize our shabbiness in a new way by comparison. When we get a wider vision of, say, God’s compassion for people we’ve scorned or feared, that itself will point up how small and confined our compassion has been. When the reconciling love of Christ starts to dissolve a chronic logjam in our family or friendships, and we watch in awe as this intractable problem is actually healed by Jesus, that itself will point up how absolutely powerless we were to do anything about it alone. The gap was too big. We couldn’t stretch ourselves far enough to overcome it.
I mean, think what kind of scale we’re talking about here. In the long run, if you really take a good look across that gap in both directions, we’re talking about two, by definition, irreconcilable opposites – however we name them -- sin and holiness, death and life, judgment and mercy, limits and limitlessness, utter powerlessness and effortless tender power. The two sides of the gap between humanity and deity have many names.
But however we name them, like Peter, like Isaiah, once we see the gap it’s overwhelming. We can barely conceive, much less hold, those two irreconcilable opposites. We want to shrink it. We want something easier and smaller. Or we want one side of the story without the other. Because we can’t hold them together by ourselves.
But here’s the thing. Those opposites were held, once. The whole story was encompassed, once. Not by you, not by me, but this gap, these two irreconcilable opposites – however we name them – they were brought together at a single meeting point, in a single body, on a Friday outside Jerusalem on the hill they called the place of the skull. Sin met holiness in Jesus’ body on the Cross. Jesus held them both for us. Judgment met mercy. Jesus held them both for us. Powerlessness met power. Death met life that day on the Cross, and you know, after that death was just never the same again. And life? Well, life was so different after that day, you almost need a whole new word for it. In the New Testament, there actually is one.
What Jesus did in his cross and resurrection unites the whole story, this story that doesn’t skirt sin and thus also doesn’t skirt mercy. This story that doesn’t shrink everything down to feeling good about yourself, but has room for overthrowing the power of death and sin, and redeeming all of creation. Thanks to that moment of God in Christ holding death and life for us, bridging that gap in one crucified body that became a risen body, we can face sin fully and find full redemption. We can encounter a love that overcomes every gap between the finite us and the infinite God. And we can see how much Jesus has done for us that we could never do for ourselves.
Simon Peter said "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" But Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." And they left everything and followed him.