10 Feb 2013
“‘Depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man.’” (Luke 5:8) In the name …
108 million Americans watched the Super Bowl last Sunday. I wasn’t one of them. Although I did hear from a guy in his 80’s, in a nursing home, that the half-time show was outstanding. In his words: “Beyonce is all woman!” But someone pointed out that another part of the Super Bowl program that was televised on CBS was an anti-gun violence spectacle with song, celebrity and children. Then, however, CBS aired a bunch of ads for their own television programs – most of which included senseless gun violence. Both messages appeared on the same network and in the same time slot. Isn’t there a little bit of hypocrisy here? The FOX Network has begun running episodes of The Following, which stars Kevin Bacon. Now I like Kevin Bacon, even if he was tormenting that poor, misunderstood, small town pastor in the movie Footloose who was just didn’t like dancing, but now he’s the drawing-card for a television series that feeds-off the excitement around followers of some crazy, mass-murderer. After all of the real-life mass murders we’ve seen recently, do we need this kind of cop drama on the public airwaves? Whether we’re an NRA member or only a skeet-shooting enthusiast like our President, both sides of the gun argument want to keep the crazies disarmed, but then we allow into tens of millions of homes these messages and images that almost seem to glorify the gun violence in our society, or at least the spectacle of it. Aren’t we saying two different things, and doesn’t that compromise the honesty of both of them?
Now with that question still in our minds let me try and turn our attention to a similar mixed message that the church may be guilty of perpetuating. This is the third and final Sunday of Pre-Lent. In a few days we will observe Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the 40 days that culminate in the death and burial of Jesus. I don’t get to preach on Ash Wednesday because for 16 years now we have invited others to this pulpit as part of our Ecumenical Lenten Discussion Series, but I want to say something about those ashes, and this is my only chance. Because the ashes aren’t only a symbol of dust-to-dust but are rather the burnt, destroyed remnants of old palms, they can be overlaid with negative connotations that aren’t necessarily there.
The ashes literally mark the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. Too often though we confuse penance with the confession of our sins to God, but confession is only one part of penance. The purpose of confession is to bring to mind what we have done or failed to do that draws us away from the holy, but the purpose of penance is to draw us and God closer together – to correct what confessed. Penance, then, is not about calling us sinners; it’s about calling us back to God. Penance is supposed to redirect our efforts so that God is not at the edge of our lives, but closer to the center of them. The ashes, therefore, mark us not so much as sinners, but as penitential, and that’s a huge difference! They don’t mark us as bad, but as people who want to be better.
Lent is the season of penance in the church. It’s not a time designed to knock us down as sinners. It is a time to build us up spiritually as we prepare to approach the cross and its crucified Saviour. And this message should be as clear as we can possibly make it. There’s enough in this world trying to drag us down. Everything about Christ is trying to build us up, and that includes His cross. Lent should inspire us by the love of a God who on the cross tells us in no uncertain terms that He loves us more than He even cares about Himself. We shouldn’t send out mixed messages about Lent. The cross isn’t a condemnation of sinners. It’s instead the revelation that we are so sacred to God that not even the cross could stand between us.
And I say this, in part, because of the changing theology that is reflected in today’s two readings. In the first reading from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, the prophet is carried in a vision to God’s throne room in heaven. There Isaiah witnesses the grandeur of the Almighty. And what is his reaction: “‘Woe is me, I am doomed! … My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’” (6:5) The older theology is that God’s holiness was too severe for sinful humanity to withstand. This is why the Jerusalem Temple was built like a fortress on top of mountain and behind gated walls. The sacred and the ordinary needed to keep a safe distance. And then when we meet Peter in today’s Gospel we hear that he still holds on to this pre-Jesus theology. When Peter is overcome by Jesus’ miracle of the huge catch of fish, his reply is just like that of Isaiah: “He fell at the knees of Jesus and said, ‘Depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man.’” Peter is scared to death of what it means to be near God.
But then Jesus raises Peter to his feet, disabuses him of all notions of fear, and instead invites him to leave his fishing boats behind and become a fisher of God’s people right at His side. This act completely reverses the older notion of the holy. Jesus isn’t about condemnation; He’s about invitation. The Temple’s fortress walls are replaced by the touch of Jesus. Imagine being in Peter’s place. Fearful of God. Convinced of his sinfulness. And then he feels the hand of Jesus touching him, raising him up. Instead of “Depart from me,” Jesus says, “Come with me.” This is the gospel revelation that we need to make absolutely clear.
The ashes and even the whole purpose of Lent are not primarily about the confession of our sinfulness. They direct us toward penance, of coming back to God. Lent is our chance to grow closer to a God who loves us as much as the cross. The cross humbles us all not as sinners, as “Look what you did to Jesus,” but as loved so perfectly and selflessly by Christ that we should be humbled. I hope and pray we can all be here for Ash Wednesday, and I hope and pray that Lent’s 40 days may bring us all closer to Christ and to a clearer understanding of the cross as a sign of Jesus’ love not of our sinfulness. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo