Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- In the late 4th century a huge battle raged between the followers of Pelagius, a British monk working in Italy and those of St Augustine. On the one hand was Pelagius with his ‘icy Puritanism’ and his watch-phrase ‘if perfection is possible, it is obligatory’, which struck a real cord among the carefully formed and controlled aristocracy of the day. Opposing them was Augustine, who insisted that far from being about perfectionism, the Church was a ‘convalescent home’ for sinners. Coming to the faith as he did from a life of sexual licence and the upwardly-mobile court in Milan, where he was one of many socially ambitious young men not overly conscientious about how they got to the top, Augustine was well acquainted with the baseness of human nature, both pagan and Christian. In the end it was what would make him such a brilliant apologist for the faith, and even today the most accessible and empathetic of early Christian writers. Augustine recognised from his own life that, far from choosing the perfect to spread his word, God has, from the beginning chosen the weakest and the sinful, precisely because they can be the most persuasive in speaking of God to fellow sinners.
This surely was the experience of 1st Isaiah, (Isa 6:1-8), in the mid 8th century BC when he came to describe his calling as prophet of the Lord against an apostate nation. His vision of God in glory does not fill him with confidence that he is ‘the man’ for the job. Far from it, he is all too aware of his own sinfulness and accepts ritual purification by fire. Clearly, in reality he was not branded, cauterised by the burning coals, but this is symbolic of his being part of a sin offering to God, whereby the sinner Isaiah accepts whatever God requires him to do.
It’s much the same too with Paul, (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). His way of dealing with the myriad of conflicting ‘Christian’ messages current in Corinth, by those supporters of Paul, Apollos, Peter, and even Christ, was not to harangue them for their disunity; their cockiness; or even their supposed knowledge; but to refer them back to his own call as an apostle. Paul was guilty of the murder of followers of Christ, and he insists that it is by God’s grace that he is an apostle, not due to any advantages or abilities of his own; and it is by that very grace that he can appeal to the sure teaching of the Christian tradition of the life, passion and death and resurrection of Jesus as the only way to salvation. His entire claim to being someone for Christ is rooted in his own personal weakness, and his total reliance on the power of the faithful community to combat those false messages which threaten the infant Church of Corinth. His appeal through his weaknesses, not his strengths, stands in vivid contrast to the bumptious, self-confident, boasting, one-upmanship so typical of the people of the city.
Our gospel, (Luke 5;1-11), seems to present a similar picture, as we meet Peter who initially seems to think that he knows best – after all, he had been fishing all night even if he had caught nothing. Presented by the overwhelming abundance of the catch provided by Jesus, his immediate reaction was fear and the humility it brings, “Leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man.” He recognised that the one he was speaking to was of a completely different – and divine order, since the large number of fish represents the coming of the messiah; the moment Israel was waiting for. Yet we know that was not the end of the story, for the gospel and Acts shows us an impetuous Peter; one who would want to build monuments to his Lord; one who will run away and deny him at the cross; one who would renege on his commitment to pagan converts under pressure. No, clearly Our Lord did not choose the squeaky-clean or the super smart for spreading the gospel, rather he chose weak men for this most important of tasks, men whose very weakness gives them the empathy needed to relate to fellow sinners.
Perhaps this is why our Christian story, like the Old Testament history of the Jews, is a story of failures rather than massive successes. After all, apart from the gospels and the insistent re-enacting of the saving sacrifice of Christ in the Mass and the writings of the Fathers, it took some 500 years before the crucifix became commonly depicted in art. Christians preferred merely to hint at it with those great sheep mosaics in Ravenna, or later still carefully clothed the lot in magnificent Christ’s in majesty looking down from apses. That our story is continually fraught with failures from Borgia popes to child abusers is a salutary reminder that we can only truly represent Christ in our weakest and humblest and in this each of us surely has a part to play and can never say that they are not fitted to the task.