Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time(C)

February 7, 2010

People are attracted by uniqueness, not uniformity. Whilst an infinite variety of products galore are stacked up on supermarket shelves, each and every one of them tries its best to capture the attention of buyers and consumers with the promise of that one, single most crucial product distinction that seals its uniqueness, that makes it a stand-out in a sea of bland ordinariness and colorless genericism.

Uniqueness, not necessarily genuine usefulness, may well separate the most coveted from the mediocre and the ignored; the highly valued from what is ordinarily eschewed by discriminating users and consumers.

Uniqueness, that which clinches the most important “specific difference” between apparently similar items, may well serve as a good watchword to guide our reflection for today.

The world is awash in individuals who claim to speak for God, who style themselves followers of the Gospel. In fact, since the good Lord founded his Church on the rock that was Peter, hundreds of millions of people now claim to be his followers, who profess adherence to some denomination, some small community, or as in our case, the holy, Roman, catholic, apostolic Church, which alone can claim an unbroken historical connection to the original Church founded by our Lord Jesus Christ. Since Luther “protested” and effectively broke away from this Church in the 16th century, thousands of splinter groups have sprouted all over the world, and have themselves broken away from that original splinter group – an incontrovertible fact of history.

This reflection is not designed to say who’s wrong and who’s right. Although the historical facts can speak for themselves and give us rich clues to certain issues related to the question of the true Church, I do not intend to go into the polemics of this matter. No, my aim is a lot more modest than this. I only would wish to allow the three readings to speak to us all, in the hope that we can be helped to identify for ourselves that which can give our Christian discipleship that crucial “specific difference” I was referring to. Surely, there are some insights to be gained from the personally moving stories of Isaiah, St. Paul, St. Peter, and the original disciples of the Lord.

What makes them and their experience a stand-out in a sea of characterless followers? What makes them distinguishable like “salt that has not lost its taste” in the midst of so much blandness and insipidness?

First, let us start with points of commonalities. All three speak of an important personal experience of God. Isaiah’s passage is framed in the context of a theophany – a Divine manifestation, that for Isaiah, sealed his mission as a prophet: “Here I am; send me.” Paul, for his part, refers to the appearances of the Risen Lord to his disciples, himself included, for whom “grace has not been ineffective.” In the Gospel, the Lord shows a different side to the experience of Peter and the group of discouraged, tired, and cynical disciples who labored all night to no avail. The gospel passage’s ending is rather telling: “they left everything and followed him.”

Last week, though, we heard a different side of the fickle crowds. Some wanted to hurl him down the brow of the hill. Elsewhere in the Gospels, we see people who give him excellent reviews, especially after getting free sandwiches and being fed material bread. Later, we see the same crowds walking away one by one, for they his teaching too hard.

There are hearers and there are hearers. There are those of us who merely hear, and nothing more. But there are those of us who are also doers. There are those of us who are mere admirers. But there are those of us who try to be followers. Mere hearers abound among Christians who profess undyingly that they have claimed Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Indeed… so personal and “privatistic” is their faith that issues like war, famine and the gradual but sure ecological degradation all over the world which they abet, take part in, or actually support, do not bother them in the least. All they care for is their “fiduciary faith,” that brand of faith that puts a heavy premium on the affective aspect and not much else besides. For as long as I have my personal time of prayer and Bible reading, for as long as I have my “personal relationship” in place, not much else bothers my waking thoughts.

There are “doers” who jump right into the arena of action. They are the perpetual “do-gooders” who claim that the only way to show one’s belief is to be constantly on an adrenaline surge. They spend all their time either “doing penance” and endless reparation for the “sins of the world,” or they move from one soup kitchen to another, drowning their minds and hearts with a feverish desire to be constantly on the go, caught up in a web of urgent upon urgent task that are all top priority – all… except, of course, prayer and reflection. Their brand of faith is performative faith reduced to its bare essentials, understood as shallow and endless social action and activism of any kind.

And then, of course, there are the thinkers. These are hearers who hear with their mind, even before sound bytes actually fall on their ears. Their knowledge of the faith is flawless. They are the catechism kings and queens of yore, who can rattle off the tenets of the faith as fast as they can enumerate the names of all the cardinals of the Roman congregations, as quickly as they can give all the trivia and pertinent stats related to their favorite superbowl hero. These are the people whose faith is reduced to the intellective aspect, for whom faith-content is the end-all and be-all of Christian life, without due regard to its accompanying equally necessary faith-context. Religion is a mind-game, nothing more. Celebration and affective investment in it play no role. Their favorite prayer is a cold and dry “I believe.”

We ought not to forget the ritualists who reduce faith to a call to duty. That duty, of course, has to do with “hearing Mass” at least on Christmas and Easter, and, occasionally, on Sundays. These are those who cannot stand hour-long masses. They go around shopping for quickie Masses celebrated by equally ritualist-oriented priests whose greatest penance is to deliver a homily. Liturgy, for them, is not a celebration. A celebration is something one does willingly, happily, lustily, if you will. A duty is something one gets over and done with, with dispatch, preferably with clockwork efficiency. And, should the choir toss in that “extra song” called the recessional, why, what else is there to do but to make a quick dash for the exit doors right after the final blessing?

I would like to suggest that the readings today, among other things, show us a different side to being what we claim to be. I suggest that all three readings, speaking as they all do about a particular experience of God, are a call to a unique response that is both collective and eminently personal. All three readings speak about making a difference as a Christian, being of a different mould, being unique. Isaiah models this unique faith-discipleship for us: “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” Here, we are face to face with a common call addressed as much to Isaiah as to God’s people responded to by him in a distinctly personal way. That uniqueness is due to his response of becoming a disciple-in-mission. This same uniqueness juts out of St. Paul’s testimony. “Cephas and the twelve” saw the risen Lord, along with “five hundred brothers at once,” as did James. But his personal testimony counts as most important, over and beyond what “others say.” His faith, like that of Isaiah, was deeply personal and real. And that deeply personal faith made him leave everything in order to begin casting a different net.

Here is where the Gospel now challenges us. The Lord tells us as he told his discouraged disciples: “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” It occasioned a mild complaint from Peter, but the better of him eventually shone out – his obedience, his personal response to a summons from his master, teacher, and Lord. The “logical” thing to do, prior to that, probably would be to “believe more in experience,” and disregard the gentle command of Jesus. The safer thing, too, perhaps for us now, is to just follow the bandwagon, be nominal Christians, or choose any of the abovementioned paths in response to God, as most people do. The normal thing to do is to cast one’s net the way everybody else does, and behave in a way that does not “rock the boat.”

But as Isaiah, Paul and Peter show us, being a follower of the Lord is not to be equated with such conventional – if, convenient – stock-in-trade responses. Being a follower of the Lord really means casting a different net. It means being a disciple through and through – being hearers and doers of the Word; working as much for faith-content as faith-context; enriching our intellective faith, deepening our fiduciary attachment to a personal Lord and Savior, and engaging our performative faith in the human society and in the world, so full of injustice and gross inequality of all kinds.

We are called to cast a different net … to be faithful disciples-in-mission, in ministry, in service. In other words, it is all about making a difference in our own little way… for Jesus’ sake … for his Church … for His mission. “Here I am Lord. Send me.”