Sunday, 10 February 2013

Lord, I am not worthy - Homily on St Peter

Fr Stewart Keeley's homily for the Novus Ordo Fifth Sunday of the Year
at St Peter's Cathedral, Lancaster
A Meditation on St Peter
Readings: Isaiah 6:108, Psalm 137, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11

There's a common theme running through all of today's readings. That theme is "unworthiness."

The unworthiness felt by Isaiah in the presence of the Lord; the unworthiness of St Paul even to be called an "apostle"; and the unworthiness of St Peter - who is so acutely aware of his own weakness, that he asks Jesus to go away: "Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man."

A sense of unworthiness is probably something most of us experience at some time or another. We may feel unworthy for a particular task, unworthy of another's trust, unworthy of another's love. And that's not surprising. We know our failings and our weaknesses better than anyone. When someone puts their trust in us, even though we want to do our very best for them, we are afraid - afraid that we're not up to the task. And sometimes, sadly, we're not. Sometimes we do fail, sometimes we do let others down, sometimes we do betray their trust.

In calling Peter to become his disciple, Jesus places immense trust in him. Equally, some might say, Peter's willingness to put out the nets one more time, showed his trust in Jesus. Peter, after all, was a professional fisherman; he'd grown up alongside the Sea of Galilee. Jesus, on the other hand, came from Nazareth; he knew nothing of the sea or of fishing. So it does seem incredible that Peter should have gone along with Jesus' suggestion when all his better instincts must have told him it was pointless.

What makes it all the more surprising is that, as far as we know, Peter has no particular reason to trust Jesus. At this point he probably doesn't know him very well. Jesus hasn't yet proved himself with any great miracles. So maybe it's not trust we see in Peter's response to Jesus, maybe it's something else entirely. Peter, we can imagine, isn't feeling too good about himself. The night's fishing has been a complete disaster. He's failed at the one thing he's supposed to be good at. He is no doubt extremely tired, completely fed up. He's been out all night; he needs some sleep.

He's just finished packing up his nets and is about to head off home to bed, when along comes Jesus. He climbs into the boat, and starts one of his talks; a talk which goes on forever. When at last he's finished, and just as Peter thinks he can get off home for a kip, Jesus tells him to head out into deep water and put out his nets. I'm not at all sure Peter's response does demonstrate his trust in Jesus. I think it shows his complete exasperation, his irritation even: "Master we worked hard all night long and caught nothing - the fact is, there are no fish. I know it, James knows it, even young John knows it. Still, you know best, you say there are fish, so I'll pay out the nets." And it's then, when Peter is at his lowest ebb, when he's tired, irritable, feeling completely useless - that the miraculous catch of fish occurs.

And Peter is completely overwhelmed. Not by the fish, not by the power of Jesus, but by his own sense of sinfulness. He's thoroughly ashamed of himself, ashamed that he doubted, ashamed that he didn't trust. But even now Jesus doesn't criticise; instead, he invites Peter to follow him. It's not surprising Peter feels unworthy. The plain fact of the matter is, he is unworthy. But, having learned his lesson the hard way, Peter now leaves everything he knows and follows Jesus. He throws himself whole-heartedly into the task ahead; he is the most enthusiastic and energetic of all the apostles. He swears he will follow Jesus anywhere; that he would willingly die for him. And Jesus promises Peter that one day he will.

But for all his enthusiasm, we all know that when things become difficult, when Jesus really needs Peter most, Peter lets him down badly. He does what deep down he always knew he would - he fails, he betrays his friend, he betrays his trust. As Jesus is led out to Calvary, Peter is nowhere to be seen. How could Peter stand at the foot of the cross, when only the evening before he had abandoned his friend and denied even having known him? How could Peter bear to stand alongside Jesus' mother, alongside those who had truly loved him, knowing what he had done? He had been right at the very beginning, if only Jesus had listened. "Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man."

But it's after this terrible failure, this unforgivable betrayal, that Jesus entrusts to Peter the most important task of all, to feed his sheep. And again Peter rises to the challenge. He becomes the leader of the new Church; the first and greatest of all our popes. And when the Emperor Nero begins his vicious persecution of the Christians in Rome, Peter is amongst the first to give his life for the faith.

But even at the very end, Peter still knows that sense of unworthiness. As the soldiers drag him through the Emperor's gardens to be crucified, he asks for the cross to be turned upside-down, because even now, he is not worthy - not worthy to suffer the same manner of death as his friend.

And as Peter looks out across the Vatican Hill, perhaps he thinks back to that bright morning, back home by the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps in that moment he realises that this is what Jesus had foreseen, all those years ago, when he first looked deep into his heart and saw there the loyalty, the strength and the courage that Peter himself couldn't see. Today, when Jesus looks into our hearts, he sees things we can't even begin to imagine. He sees our weakness, he sees our unworthiness, he knows we will let him down - time and time again. But he's not interested in any of that, because he sees something more. He sees the possibilities.

Often, it's when we are at our lowest, when we have failed, when we are most acutely aware of our weakness, that Jesus comes to us and works his miracles. And it's then we have to trust in him, to launch out into deep water, knowing that it's not our strength or our talents that matter, but his.

"Lord, I am not worthy, I am a sinful man. But do not leave me. Instead, only say the word, and I shall be healed."

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