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What Does It Take to be Perfected?

Updated: Mar 1, 2022

Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Times, Cycle C, given at St. Jude, February 5 & 6, 2022,

by Deacon Ken Steponaitis

I used to believe that a good Catholic was someone who knew the laws and precepts of the Church and lived them out. That somehow, we were supposed to be so disciplined that we would have the responsibility to perfect ourselves, to make ourselves worthy of going to heaven. If we chose to do the wrong things and somehow died before we confessed the sin, and especially if we died in mortal sin, we were destined for hell.

I don’t know about you, but that seems to me to be a faith based in fear. That the only reason I would do the right thing is because I don’t want the alternative to heaven. That I do something simply because I am afraid of the result of not being disciplined enough to please God.

Here’s the good news … that sense of faith is so far from where God wants us to be. It is so far from what God wants from us.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying here. I am not saying we should not follow the laws and the precepts of the Church. I am saying that our motivation for doing so should have nothing to do with fear of going to hell. God does not work that way.

I often state, whenever I can, that the purpose for being Catholic Christians is not for us to perfect ourselves. The purpose of being Catholic Christians is to be perfected. God knows I am not perfect, ask my wife and kids. And God knows that even though I have tried to perfect myself, it seems to me to be virtually impossible. Within 5 minutes or even less, I realize I’ve failed. So how is it that all of us can be perfected?

As it turns out, we have three great examples of people being perfected, not by their own discipline but through the grace and love of God. So, let’s look at each of these. And as work through these, think about how this applies to your own life. Think about how God with our cooperation can move you into the way of perfection.

In our first reading, we read about Isaiah being commissioned to be a prophet. A prophet is simply someone who speaks the word of God to the people who need to hear God’s words. In the case of Isaiah, God is trying to get a message out to the people of Judah, the southern nation of the Israelites. At this time of Isaiah, the Assyrians had already destroyed the northern nation of Israel and were basically on the doorsteps of Jerusalem. As you may know, however, it is Babylon who would ultimately destroy Jerusalem and the temple, and it would be Isaiah’s mission to speak out to the leaders of Judah and tell them where they were going wrong, why it was that their nation would be destroyed. Isaiah would tell them where they had failed to listen, where they had failed to do the will of God not only for themselves but also for the people they led.

So, looking at our reading today, we hear about a vision that Isaiah has. In this vision he sees the Lord seated on a throne and seraphim (angles of purifying fire) hovering over the throne of the Lord crying out “Holy, holy, holy Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!”

Isaiah is scared because he feels like he is doomed. Why? Because he feels he is not worthy to be in the presence of the Lord. He is too sinful. Only the perfect stand a chance at surviving the presence of YHWY. He couldn’t control his own life. He was as he put it, “a man of unclean lips.”

But then he realizes, wait a minute, I haven’t been obliterated by the Lord in fact “my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

We all know that to enter the presence of God; to enter into heaven and live, we have to be perfect, but God is not going to wait for us to perfect ourselves, he is going to send down to us someone that perfects us. Now in the case of Isaiah, look at what happens. “One of the seraphim flew to [Isaiah] holding an ember that he had taken with tongs from the altar [and] touch[ed his] lips removing the wickedness and purging his sin!

It's an incredible vision. Isaiah who thought he was not worthy to stand before God … and he wasn’t … was purged of his sin! God had perfected him! Now Isaiah recognizing God’s work in him, voluntarily was willing to be sent out into the world to speak for God as a prophet.

In our second reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, Paul too knew he was not worthy to be an apostle of Jesus. And yet he was! You all know the story. Paul before he followed Jesus was a persecutor of those who followed what was known at that time as “the way.” He endorsed and promoted the killing and incarceration of those who followed Jesus so that these followers would not corrupt the Jewish faith and would not cause insurrection. As far as Paul was concerned, followers of “the way” were blasphemers. And if they did not follow the laws of Moses then he had every right to get rid of them.

Paul was on the road to Damascus to do some more persecuting. He was knocked down by the risen Lord, Jesus, who appeared to him as a brilliant light that blinded Paul. Jesus asked Paul, why are you persecuting Me? Why are you persecuting those who follow me and are doing my will, those who we call the Body of Christ?

Now blinded, Paul was led to Damascus and after 3 days God sent a man called Ananias, a follower of Jesus, who laid hands on Paul. As the book of Acts, chapter 9 puts it, Ananias told Paul:

“My brother, the Lord has sent me, Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came, that you may regain your sight and be filled with the holy Spirit.”

Now who was perfecting who? It certainly wasn’t Paul who perfected himself! Paul even says in our reading today, “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.”

And then in our Gospel, we read this marvelous story about fishermen who had been fishing all night and had given up on catching anything. While they were cleaning their nets, Jesus happens along and asks Simon … who we know as Peter … to put out a short distance from the shore. Jesus had so many followers that to get away from the crowd he wanted to teach from the boat just off the beach.

After Jesus was done teaching, he told Peter to go to deep water and cast, again, his nets. Peter wasn’t all that thrilled at the idea, but something told him to listen, to cooperate with Jesus. And, well, you know the rest of the story. They ended up catching so many fish that two boats, full, were nearly capsized.

Again, was it Peter that was the perfect man? Was he even trying to perfect himself? Who knows, but clearly Peter did not feel himself worthy to be in the presence of Jesus. Peter even said after the catch, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Remember Peter, a mere fisherman, only concerned about survival, it was he who was called by God to become the leader … as we Catholics see it … the first Pope of the Church! How can that be? How can a fisherman, an average guy out on a boat just living life be asked by God to be the first leader of the greatest and most influential religious group ever! Again, I ask, who is perfecting who?

One of the reasons we fail in perfecting ourselves is because we are too egotistical to recognize that our power, our goodness, does not emanate from us. Our power and goodness come from God; it is God who emanates through us! We control nothing except for one thing. That one thing is we have a choice to be in relationship with Jesus or not, to cooperate with God’s will for our lives or not. I know I have been too egotistical to believe that it is not I who can perfect me, it requires the grace of God. It requires a savior.

In our humility we are told that must die to ourselves. We must kill off this notion that we can save ourselves. We must be saved by the very God who created us. And to come to that conclusion is such great news! We don’t have to perfect ourselves! We don’t have to burden ourselves with that anymore. Jesus himself tells us in Matthew, Chapter 11 versus 28-30,

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

So, what is Jesus asking of you and me today? It is simply this. Fall in love! Fall in love with the God who loved us into creation. Fall in love with those who don’t deserve love. Learn about the ways that Jesus lived his life in perfection, follow Jesus’ will for your life. Allow God to make you fishers of men. Go out and be Christ to the world and you and all who you encounter will also be perfected.

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