Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.Luke 5:10
Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips. (Isaiah 6:5)
I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle. (1 Corinthians 15:9)
Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man! (Luke 5:8)
These three memorable statements are made by three of the great heroes of the faith. And they are all sayings found in today’s scripture readings. So they point me toward a topic to reflect on today. And that is humility.
Humility is not one of the most popular topics in our country. If you were to write a self-help book on how to become more humble, I doubt that it would be a runaway best seller. Even in the church, humility is not always a popular topic. We prefer to talk about faith and confidence. Even here, we want to be successful. But humility sure is important. If Isaiah, Paul, and Peter have anything to say about it, it is even necessary.
We cannot count ourselves Christians without being humble, without being deeply aware of our sinfulness and our shortcomings and our need for a savior. When Jesus blessed the poor in spirit and the meek, was he not also blessing the humble?
Our Christian life really begins with faithful humility. And so, let’s dive into these three readings, and see what we can learn about the importance of faithful humility in our Christian life.
Let’s start with Isaiah, one of the great prophets of the Old Testament, and the most frequently quoted prophet in the New Testament. His call story is recorded in today’s first reading (Isaiah 6:1-13). It is a very famous story of a vision that Isaiah had in the temple.
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.” (Isaiah 6:1)
A little detail that is important to notice here is that Isaiah’s great vision took place in the year that King Uzziah died. That is important because Uzziah demonstrated in his life the very opposite quality of humility. Uzziah became the King of Judah after his father was assassinated, and he then reigned as king for 52 years. He would have been the only king that many people in Isaiah’s day had ever known. And he was a good king. According to scripture (2 Chronicles 26), “he did what was right in the sight of the Lord.”
He was a good king, that is, until pride led to his downfall. “He grew proud,” scripture tells us, “to his destruction.” King Uzziah’s pride led him to enter the temple without proper humility before God. The Lord immediately struck him with leprosy, and he was leprous until he died.
The year that he died is the very year that Isaiah had this powerful vision, in that same temple, when he saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; with the hem of his robe filling the temple. And what was Isaiah’s response to this vision?
“Woe is me!” said Isaiah. “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)
Isaiah responds this way because he is very humbled by this vision. He knows that he does not deserve to see the Lord of hosts. Who does, right? We are all sinful, living among sinful people. We don’t deserve to be in God’s presence. And yet, here we are, in this place, in God’s presence. Pretty amazing. And it should fill us with that same humility. We, too, are sinful. We, too, are lost. If we are honest with ourselves, how can we not be humble?
One way to think about humility is that it is simply to see ourselves as we truly are. To look in the mirror, openly, honestly, and to see who we truly are. This is not easy to do, because it is not pleasant to look at ourselves in that way. And so, humility without faith can be quite disheartening. But what about humility with faith? If humility is to see ourselves as we truly are, then humility with faith is to see ourselves as God sees us: To see ourselves as created in God’s own image, to see ourselves as God’s beloved children, to see ourselves as sinful, but forgiven.
Humility without faith may be disheartening. But humility with faith? The very opposite. It fills us with confidence, and with love. A love that is not our love, but God’s. And so, it is endless. And forgiving. And wonderful. But this love can’t be poured into a cup that is full. Which brings us back to humility.
In our second reading (1 Corinthians 15:1-11), it is Paul who demonstrates this kind of faithful humility. Paul is writing a letter to the church in Corinth, and by the time of this letter, Paul is acknowledged as one of the most important leaders in the early church. A former leader of Judaism, a Pharisee, who has been converted to Christianity, and is now fearlessly bringing the good news of Jesus to everyone, Paul has every reason to shed his humility.
But in this passage, Paul confesses to the church in Corinth that he is “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle,” because he “persecuted the church of God.”
Yes he did, but long ago, and he is not doing that anymore. He is now one of the leaders of the church who is being persecuted. But Paul is demonstrating here his deep humility. Unfit to be called an apostle. The “chief of all sinners,” as he puts it in another of his letters. But his humility is not without faith. And so, Paul can write these words right after his confession that he is unfit to be called an apostle:
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.”
This is faithful humility. And this is what makes Paul a great leader of the early church. He sees himself as he truly is, but he also sees himself as God sees him. And so he accepts himself as he truly is, and that is all that God really wants. To be ourselves, truly ourselves, to humbly accept the grace of God, and to let God use our humble gifts to his glory.
And that brings us to our last reading, today’s gospel reading (Luke 5:1-11). In this reading, we find the future apostle, Simon Peter, also being called by God. But not in the temple. Peter is in his boat fishing. He has worked all night, but caught nothing. Jesus told him to let his nets down one more time. He obeyed, and then caught so many fish it threatened to break the nets.
Peter fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Humility, true humility. But not yet humility with faith. And so, he does not even want to be in Jesus’ presence. “Go away from me, Lord.” Why would Peter say that? Because he knew that he didn’t deserve to be with Jesus. He was sinful, and filled with fear.
But don’t you love Jesus’ response? “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” It caused Peter to leave everything and follow Jesus. So, let’s think about what Jesus said to him in two parts.
First, Jesus told Peter not to be afraid. In scripture, it seems like every time someone is afraid in God’s presence, they are told not to be afraid. Every time they demonstrate true humility, and reverence, and a kind of “holy fear,” because they recognize their unworthiness to be in God’s presence, they are told not to be afraid. Don’t be afraid. By the grace of God you are what you are. And you loved as you are. And forgiven.
There is no need to be afraid before God, because God cannot help but love you. Yes, you are a sinner. And yes, you are forgiven and loved. And knowing that leads to faithful humility.
And when you empty your cup in humility, and have it filled with God’s love, you are ready to do what Isaiah and Paul and Peter all did. Not in the way that they did, of course, because you are not them. But in the way, the unique way, that you, and only you, can.
Which brings me to the second part of what Jesus said to Peter. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Catching people? Kind of a strange thing to say, isn’t it? But Peter was a fisherman. He spent his life catching fish. He knew how to do that. He knew what it meant. And so, he would have immediately understood what Jesus meant.
Jesus needed Peter to be Peter. Not Isaiah, with his grand vision in the temple. Not Paul, with his academic training and knowledge of scripture. But Peter. A fisherman who would not be catching people. And who would become a leader in the church, too. Not because he became more like Paul. But because Jesus called him. And with a cup emptied by faithful humility, Peter was the perfect vessel to undertake this task.
What About Us?
So what about us? Here we are, sinful, unclean, unworthy. Humble. But also, here in faith. Trusting that we, too, are God’s beloved. We, too, have a task to do. Not by being Isaiah, or Paul, or Peter. But being ourselves. And by emptying our cup through humility, to have it filled through faith.
We may not feel like we have the faith of Isaiah, or the boldness of Paul, or the courage of Peter. But here we are. God’s chosen. By the grace of God. We are what we are. And, as the old hymn goes, we may not preach like Peter, we may not pray like Paul, but we can tell the love of Jesus and say, “He died for all.” We can all do that, in our own unique way, which is all that God wants.
These incredible heroes, Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter, can each teach us a great deal about what it means to be called by God. They can each teach us of the faithful humility that this call creates in anyone who sincerely believes it. And they can teach us one more characteristic of the Christian life that always seems to come with faithful humility, and that is confidence.
Isaiah, Paul, and Simon Peter, were all humbled by God’s call, and even filled with “holy fear” by the awesome nature of the call. But they also had the confidence that it was God’s call to them. And they trusted that God never calls us to go where God will not also accompany us. And if God is with us, we can surely do whatever is asked of us. And so they each responded to this call with confidence. And so can we.
Here I am, Lord, they each said in their own way. Send me. Here we are, Lord. Send us. Amen.