Fourth Sunday before Lent
Isaiah 6.1-8; Luke 5.1-11
We find ourselves back in ordinary time now, after our celebration of Epiphany; but the
experiences depicted in our readings are anything but ordinary. Isaiah sees God in the temple;
or at least, the hem of the Lord’s robe, which is enough to fill the whole temple. This is an
image of immensity and transcendence, inviting a response of awe and humility. A similar
response is made by Simon Peter after the miraculous draft of fish: astonishment and
unworthiness in the face of God’s abundance and generosity.
Sometimes, we have experiences where time stops still, and we sense things may never be
the same again. Isaiah’s experience was certainly like this; as was Simon Peter’s. They are
changed by their encounters with God; they are transformed by the revelation of God’s grace.
An awareness of their own limits—their sinfulness, their disorientation, their empty nets—is
an invitation to depend on and trust in God. And from this acceptance of their limitations,
they are able to respond with trust to the call of God, and set out on a new path: Isaiah
becomes the great prophet; Simon Peter becomes the leader of Christ’s church.
We’ve heard it said many times that the coronavirus pandemic is a collective, global
experience of time stopping still. Even as we start to hope and trust that the worst is behind
us, the experience of living through this is going to change us, our church, our society, our
world. The pandemic has brought about an awareness of our own limits. It has certainly
brought about disorientation. The stress and strain and anxiety has meant that nobody has
been at their best all the time, even though we have all tried our best to cope. This has been
a bruising and tiring experience for us as individuals and as a church community. Our readings
invite us to ponder some questions about this experience. Can we respond to this awareness
of our limitations with deep trust in God’s grace and God’s call? Can we acknowledge our
tiredness; the sense that we have worked hard through this difficult time, even if there may
be nothing much to show for it? Can we offer God our empty nets and our unclean lips, and
allow God to transform them with grace in the way that only God can?
The task ahead for us as a church community at this time seems daunting—how do we rebuild
and revitalise and rejuvenate our life together; how do we go about answering God’s call to
share the good news of the kingdom, to safeguard creation, to be witnesses to God’s love, to
bring hopeful and peaceful messages to a world that seems so full of despair and conflict?
The task is so daunting that it’s hard to know where to begin. But our readings make it clear:
we begin always with God’s grace; by attending to our relationship with God; by
acknowledging our own limitations, and by offering God not our hard work and good
intentions, great as these may be; but by offering God our trust and our commitment. ‘Here I
am; Send me’.
One feature of contemporary society—at least in our pre-pandemic world—is the sense that
human beings are somehow without limits; that if we just work hard enough, we can achieve
anything. And there is something to be said for this ‘can-do’ attitude; we all need goals and
aspirations. But if we aren’t careful, we can easily find ourselves with a misplaced view of
human nature and the relationship between God and humanity. We can easily fall into the
trap of thinking that our value and worth come from our work and achievements; we can
easily end up depending on ourselves rather than on God; and then getting quite disappointed
when, like Simon Peter, our own resources and efforts run dry.
Those of you familiar with church history may sense where I am going with this. I’m alluding
to something known as the Pelagian controversy: a debate in the early church, in the fourth
century, between Pelagius (a British monk) and St Augustine (the Bishop of Hippo, in modern
day Algeria). The debate focused on the question of whether, after baptism, Christians are
able to lead a good and moral life by their own efforts. For Pelagius, the answer was yes:
human beings are capable of reaching moral perfection if they try hard enough; we have the
freedom to choose the good, and grace illuminates a moral law that we’re capable of knowing
and following for ourselves. For Augustine, on the other hand, both his lived experience and
his experience as a church leader, led him to a different view. Of course Christians should
strive for moral goodness and a life of holiness. The problem is that we generally don’t
manage it. We mess up; we struggle; we get things wrong; we work all night to no avail; we
are not without limits; our freedom is weakened by sin; we need to be healed and restored
by divine grace. We need to learn to depend on this grace; and through this relationship of
dependence, we are then empowered and set free to do the work of God.
Augustine’s view prevailed in the debate, and I’m glad it did. It seems to get the order of
priority right between God and us; it avoids the implication that we need to earn God’s love;
it reminds us that our capacity to lead a good and holy life comes from God; and that even
when we mess up, God asks us to trust more, rather than to work harder. Augustine’s own
lived experience was similar to both Isaiah and Simon Peter. He was a complex and messy
human being who stumbled across the divine; and realised that he didn’t need to change first
in order to be accepted by God: he was already accepted, and this enabled him to change.
Likewise, Isaiah, face-to-face with the vastness and greatness of God, doesn’t pluck up his
courage and try harder to be good. He is simply healed by a power beyond himself. And it’s
only when Simon Peter lets down his net as an act of trust rather than an act of hard work
that God’s power can break through.
What are the empty nets and the unfulfilled plans in your life? What have you been labouring
over that has made you tired and disappointed? What has made you feel lost and
disorientated at this time of pandemic? Bring all of this to God in prayer, knowing that God
only needs your trust and your commitment; and that grace will take care of the rest.