THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
5th Sunday after the Epiphany
“Perfect people need not apply.”
That’s what the sign outside of the small country church read.
“Perfect people need not apply.”
As I was driving by that church sign in rural BC so many years ago, it brought a smile to my face and little warmth to my heart even though I was—at that time—still wading into the waters of Christian commitment.
“Perfect people need not apply.”
What a wonderful word of acceptance and accommodation.
What a wonderful way to let every stranger know they are welcome on Sunday morning.
What a good way to practice love of neighbor in the name of the one who first practised it all those years ago in Gennesaret.
That day, many, many years before some clever woman or man thought up “perfect people need not apply” and put it on a church sign, there was only Simon Peter and his sad request:
“Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man”
Why does Simon Peter say this? The disciple who would become the Rock of Jesus’ church?
While it’s true Simon Peter, like all men, like all people, has sinned and will sin again (especially in his 3-fold denial of Jesus later in the Gospel), why exactly does Simon Peter wish for Jesus to go away from him?
Is it shame?
Does Simon Peter feel that, because he is imperfect and Christ is perfect, that he does not deserve to be given the gift given him by Jesus?
If this is the case, we might say that this story is mostly about the task and challenge of accepting Grace which is always difficult to do, especially in a culture (then and now) that demands we “earn” everything we receive…
Or is it something else?
Is it simple fear?
Is Simon Peter fearful of the change that following Jesus and becoming a “catcher of people” will cause in his life. Is he afraid to have everything he knows turned upside down?
In this case, the story would be less about Grace and more about accepting God’s Call even when it requires us to give up the life we know.
But I think actually, it is another kind of fear: the kind of fear that the powers of sin and “the accuser” use to keep us from hearing and speaking Christ’s Good News.
This is the kind of fear that says not just “I am ashamed of my sin before Jesus” or “I am too afraid to accept the call” but rather a deeper and more personal kind of fear that has the power to separate us from Christ, entirely, if we give into it. And for that reason, this story might really be about learning to get out of our own way.
CS Lewis, in his Screwtape letters, tells us that because satan and sin are no match for God and God’s forgiving redemption in Jesus Christ, satan does not meet God head on. Satan does not take on a fight he cannot win. Rather, satan makes the clever move of attacking us: filling us with doubt, filling us shame, filling us with fear, so that when God does call us; when we do receive an opportunity to serve Christ, to take on his cross, to share our faith, to be “fishers of people,” we might end up paralyzed by fear. Satan may not be strong enough to take on God, but—Lewis claims—satan is strong enough to convince us to say “no” to God, at least for a while.
Through Scripture and theology, we are reminded that Satan’s task is to accuse and to convince us of our sin. To make us believe we have not or cannot be saved by Christ on the cross.
And from this perspective, it seems that Simon Peter was struggling to resist this accusation:
“Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
What’s interesting about this kind of rejection; this kind of fear; this kind of inability to resist accusation and to accept Christ, is that we, here today, find ourselves in one corner of the world where we are more susceptible to it than others.
For the Good News to work:
-For Simon Peter to accept Christ in Gennesaret.
-For any of us or our neighbors to accept Christ in Saskatoon.
What is needed is for us to say “yes.”
-Yes, I will accept Christ’s call in my life
-Yes, I believe that I have been redeemed by Christ on His Cross
-Yes, I will accept this gift offered by Christ and participate in the building of His Kingdom on earth
I say we are at a disadvantage to do this in this part of the world because here in Canada, here in Saskatchewan, here in Saskatoon, we live in a culture that practices an odd sort of reverse pride, a pride that restricts what we can say “yes” to:
As Canadians: we’re proud to be humble
As Saskatchewanites: we’re proud of being mild
As Saskatooners: we’re proud of our lack of boasting
As Christians in this part of the world, we live with the difficult task of trying to say “yes” to Christ while also trying to tow the line that demands we be quiet and mild about it all: about Christ and about ourselves.
If you need proof of this, simply consider any Canadian who we consider to be “too successful,” or “overexposed,” or “too full of themselves”…
Every few years a new example comes along…
A new Joni Mitchell
A new Nickelback
A new Justin Bieber
The most dangerous position to be in as a Canadian might be these positions of fame, where one is too well-known, too successful, too well-loved that they can no longer fit into the culture of forced humility.
As Christians in this part of the world, we live in a culture that cannot stand naked pride but highly values this reverse pride of humility.
As Christians in this part of the world, we struggle to live into the words of Paul in Galatians 6: 14, who says:
“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
In our culture it’s perfectly OK to boast about being humble, to boast about being more humble than the next town over, or the next country under, but it’s not so OK to boast about our faith in Christ (the “our” part or the “Christ” part).
And whether or not Simon Peter had to deal with this societal pressure to practice outward acts of humble pride, he did have to contend with a culture that rejected both the Gospel and his Lord.
So, what does it mean to follow in the footsteps of the disciples, in the footsteps of Simon Peter (‘The Rock of the church’) in our own time?
How do we follow Simon Peter’s lead to get out of the boat and follow Christ in a land where to speak proudly of Christ or anything other than humility itself is met with distasteful looks?
And really, if we’re honest with one another, aren’t these the stakes we’re talking about as Christians in Canada?
-No one is going to beat us for speaking about our faith in Christ
-No one is going to put us in prison
-No one is going to take our land and displace our family
-No one is going to chase us or kill us
-All that is going to happen if we all went out there and spoke loudly and proudly that:
-“Yes, we believe God sent His only Son to save us from our sins”
-“Yes, God cares about His creation and loves us and sent his Son to prove it on the cross”
-“Yes, the time is surely coming when Christ will come again in glory and bring forth the Kingdom of God; a time of overwhelming peace, when lions will lay down with lambs.”
-All that is going to happen if we go out into the streets to do that is some people will give us a distasteful look. And even though there are others; there are others who will join us, there are others who will proclaim with us, there are others who will learn they are loved by Christ because of our witness, the threat of those distasteful looks is enough to keep us in check.
And yet, that is enough to keep us in check. I admit, even in my own life of discipleship, it is (more often than I’d like to admit) enough to keep me in check.
And even though that reality stinks;
Even though we might not feel good about it;
This sin, this sin of being too quiet to bare true witness to God, this sin of serving a culture that would rather say nothing than risk saying something important, this sin is precisely where we meet Simon Peter on that boat.
This is where we meet Simon Peter.
“Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Go away from me Lord, for I am too comfortable in the sin of quietness.
Go away from me Lord, because I don’t want those eyes on me, the hopeful ones or the distasteful ones.
Go away from me Lord, because I don’t have what it takes to be a disciple or to build your church.
But even though we meet Simon Peter in this same place of pleading with Christ, we have the opportunity to change as he changed, to get up and follow Jesus! As complex and flawed and sinful as Simon Peter was, we have the opportunity to follow him in getting out of our own way and resisting the accuser!
In a Gospel story where it appears for a moment that the Good News of Jesus will in-fact lose to the limitations of Simon Peter’s sin, we realize the truth that allows the Good News to flourish in our hearts as well as his:
The truth that it is not about us!
As Paul told us this morning in his letter to the Corinthians:
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is within me.
The Good News is that Christ doesn’t need us to be special, not especially brave, not especially righteous, not especially anything!
“Perfect people need not apply”
What Christ does need is for us to get out of the boat! To get out of our own way and accept the Grace that God has already put in our hearts.
The Good News of Simon Peter’s call is that God does not select the best, and the brightest, and the most righteous.
God selects people.
God-in-Christ selects these people to be and to build His church!
God-in-Christ selects us to do these things.
The Good News of God-made-flesh is that God chooses to work with a sinful humanity to achieve His purposes.
God works with the messiness of humanity, with the greatest and the least of us, with the most proud, the most humble, and the most proud-to-be-humble.
All over the world, God works with people who are brave enough to face certain death by giving witness to their faith.
And God can also work with people who are afraid of the distasteful look their neighbor will give them when the word “church” comes into the conversation.
In Simon Peter, God worked with a man who was indeed sinful.
A man who was at-first too overcome with his own sense of sin to accept the call;
A man who often did not understand his Master’s teachings;
A man who would reject Jesus three times before the cock crowed the day he was arrested.
And this is who God calls “The Rock” of his church, a church we now come to worship Christ at with one another.
The wonderful Good News about Simon Peter, his plea, and his boat—for us—is that not only are we joined with him in his struggle, but we are joined with him in the word Jesus spoke to free him from it:
“Do not be afraid.”
Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
And may we have the faith to follow both the Rock and the Lord.