5th Sunday Year C - Homily 3

Homily 3 - 2016

When Pope Francis talks about the mercy of God, he looks like one who means it. He is full of it himself. He enjoys it. He spreads it both by who is and what he does. He would love us to discover God’s mercy, too, not just superficially but truly personally, to know it down at our roots. 

I don’t think that most of us realise God’s mercy spontaneously, or easily. Look at today’s readings, especially the First Reading and the Gospel. Isaiah was in the Jerusalem Temple, where he had a remarkable experience of God. But no one can comprehend God, even when God reveals something of the mystery. We see God with our own ways of seeing and thinking. So Isaiah sees the holy God, the warrior God. That is essentially the God of his tradition, what he expected, without realising he was doing the filling-in between the dots. The seraphs, whatever he imagined them to be, were crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” “Holy” means different, separate, diametrically unlike the secular, the ordinary. And “hosts” refers to armies arrayed in their splendour. Both descriptions engender insecurity and fear. Rather than stay transfixed and attracted by God [perhaps we cannot blame him!], Isaiah became absorbed with himself, specifically with his unworthiness, “What a wretched man I am! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips – and my eyes have looked at the King, the Lord of hosts.”

Something similar, but less spectacular, happened to Peter. He and his partners had had a totally unprecedented experience, not a vision, but an uncertain insight into the mystery of the externally ordinary Jesus who had begun to captivate them. Peter’s immediate reaction was to look at himself, a self whom he spontaneously judged, and judged negatively, “Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man.”

Why, after an experience of the mystery of God on the part of both, the spontaneous sense of insecurity? And it was not just Isaiah and Peter. I suspect that it is the experience of us all. Why the instinctive sense of unworthiness, of shame? Why judge ourselves, and judge negatively? Just let us sit with it – and quietly observe.

Isaiah could have filled-in the dots differently. In his Hebrew tradition, along with the marked insistence on the holiness and power of God, there was an equally firm tradition of God’s gratuitous mercy, and God’s readiness to enter into deep and personal covenanted love with Israel. Yet Isaiah did not automatically go in that direction. God had, once more, to make the move. In his vision, Isaiah had a kind of second thought: he sensed the seraph, the messenger of God, gratuitously touch his lips with the sacred ember, take his sin away and purge his iniquity – not due to any sudden conversion on Isaiah’s part but because of the unmerited, unconditionally merciful initiative of God. Isaiah could relax.

Peter, in the Gospel story, had just had the experience of the nets filled to breaking point, boats even threatening to sink – a clear illustration of the extravagant God, the unmerited, unconditionally abundant heart of God. Yet, his first reaction was not to be captivated by the boundless heart of God but by himself and his own miserable unworthiness – as if it mattered to God!

Holiness, or mercy? Which sums up the deepest essence of God? Jesus opted for mercy. John, one of Peter’s partners in today’s Gospel scene, in a later Epistle, would assure us that God is love. God is love! We may not gravitate there spontaneously – but let us notice our experience, and quickly choose instead to relax into the unconditional love and mercy of God. We do not need words – simply sit in silence. Over time, God’s merciful love can even transform us into living bearers of that love-made-flesh, our flesh, more effectively than can a thousand determined resolutions on our part. 

Jesus, then, calls us, not just Pope Francis, to proclaim God’s superabundant grace and mercy to our world.