Thursday, February 11, 2010

02-07-2010: Fifth Sunday Ordinary Time

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 6:1-2, 3-8 /Psalm 138 / 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 /Luke 5:1-11
If asked, most people place morality at the heart of religion. Even some of the great atheists, like Freud, thought religion’s only useful function was to keep civilization from collapse by its enforcement of taboos against certain behaviors that would undo the social fabric. Both Isaiah and St. Peter, featured in today’s readings, might agree as they self-identify as sinners and thus undeserving of any good coming their way.

Sin, by definition, involves choice; it elicits intention. It’s long been understood in Catholic moral theology that an evil act must be accompanied by intention and circumstance to make the grievous act sinful. One of the greatest challenges that science has advanced inadvertently against religion is the clear evidence that we human beings were not as free as we once thought we were when it comes to moral choices. It seems our freedom to choose between good and evil is limited by any number of things, including our genetic and psychological make-up, which impinges on genuine freedom of choice.

But adherence to a moral code is not at the heart of the gospel – as much as we might want it to be. “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice,” Pope Benedict writes. “But the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life to a new horizon and a decisive direction.” If that is true – and it is a radical truth – then how do we understand the seeming centrality of sin and sinfulness in the Christian experience? Both Isaiah and Peter know they are sinners; yet they are invited to become intimate with the divine presence. Saints are people constantly acknowledging their sinfulness – their lack of adherence to the moral law; yet they are saints - by definition, friends and confidants of God. A contradiction or a paradox?

Perhaps the lesson of the saints who cannot forget they are sinners is that forgiveness does not make us perfect; it does not make us sinless, nor does it guarantee we sin less. Yet it isn’t unreasonable that we should expect religious people to be more morally upright. Society, especially secular society, has this expectation of religious people. That’s why scandal is that much more juicy when the moral infraction (read: sexual) is committed by a priest rather than, say, a movie director.

If we understand holiness as that encounter with the divine, then its relationship to the experience of sin is all the more baffling. The baffling part is made more evident when we read John’s account of today’s gospel story. In the Gospel of John, after Jesus has effected the increase of fish, Peter puts on his clothes and then jumps into the water to swim toward the Lord. Peter seeks that encounter with the divine so much that he acts illogically, putting on his clothes before jumping in the water. Why? He’s baffled. He knows he doesn’t deserve it, but he’s not going to let the opportunity pass.

The revelation of Christianity isn’t that we are sinners, imperfect men and women and, at times, way too selfish. People knew that long before Jesus’ time. What the gospel suggests is that sin need not be the primary focus of our lives but serve only to baffle us by the truth that we are not equal to our sins but created for divine intimacy, an intimacy that makes us do the most unusual and extraordinary and selfless things.

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