Our readings for this morning all have a common theme: Christ’s call to us to follow him.
The reading that speaks most directly to us is the Epistle. In his letter to the Christians at Corinth, Paul tells them that they are “called to be saints” and “called into the fellowship of [God’s] Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
When Paul says his readers are called to be saints, he isn’t just talking about a few especially faithful members of a particular first-century Church. Paul is speaking to all Christians. As Christians, we are all called to be saints, to be holy, to live as God created us to live, which is to say to live lives of perfect love.
And, when Paul says we are called into the fellowship of Christ, Paul teaches us that we don’t live out our Christian calling to be saints alone, that we are Christians with each other. We are a community of people called to be saints, and called to help each other become more saintly.
Now, I don’t know how you hear Paul on this point. But I find Paul’s reminder of our calling pretty daunting. I am a decent man. But a saint? In a Church of people on the road to sainthood? That doesn’t seem possible.
So, we look a little deeper.
Our Gospel reading offers some encouragement. In it, Jesus invites Andrew and a companion to become disciples, and Andrew immediately gets his brother Simon Peter on board. We don’t know who the companion was, and we don’t know much about Andrew’s journey. But we know a lot about Peter’s road to sainthood, starting with the fact that it was bumpy.
During Jesus’ ministry, Peter routinely misunderstood what Jesus was saying, once so badly that Jesus called him Satan and told him to go away. At the Last Supper, Peter blustered about how he would stay with Jesus to the bitter end. Then he slept when Jesus asked for moral support, fled as soon as trouble started, and denied that he ever knew Jesus. So much for being a saint!
But Peter’s journey continued. Peter received the gift of the Holy Spirit and eventually emerged as the great apostle of the early Church. Peter was called to be a saint in fellowship with others, and thanks to the grace of God, Peter got there in the end, almost in spite of himself.
Peter shows us that the road to sainthood can be long and winding, with lots of detours and backtracking along the way. And Peter shows us that the journey to sainthood is possible, even for a bonehead, if we have the help of the Holy Spirit.
In our Gospel reading, we see the very beginning of Peter’s spiritual journey. In our reading from Isaiah, we see the prophet farther along the journey, but struggling.
Even before Isaiah was born, God called him to be a prophet. God gave Isaiah the spiritual gifts he needed to be a great prophet indeed. Isaiah tells us God made his mouth like a sharp sword. That is, God enabled Isaiah to preach and prophesy with courage and power. I imagine Isaiah embarking on his prophetic career with high hopes.
But Isaiah’s hopes were disappointed. Isaiah said all the things he said, all the things God wanted him to say, but people refused to listen. By the time of our reading, Isaiah felt like a total failure. Isaiah lamented, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
There is no way to know exactly when Isaiah spoke those words. I picture him as having a midlife crisis. Or maybe he was already an old man, looking back at a life that hadn’t gone as well as he had hoped. What is clear is that, at some point in his life, Isaiah lost his way. Isaiah knew God had called him to prophesy. But Isaiah felt unable to answer God’s call, at least to answer God’s call successfully.
That’s not the end of our passage, but we should pause here. I think again about God’s call to each of us to become saints. If that’s my task, I could well make Isaiah’s words my own: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” The whole saint thing is not working out for me as well as I might have once hoped. It’s easy to get discouraged, and even to quit trying.
God’s response to Isaiah in that moment is what I imagine God saying to us whenever we get discouraged at our slow progress in saintliness.
But before we get to what God says to Isaiah, think about what you might say to someone who worried their life had been wasted. I would try to point the person to some of their successes, or to the reasons why they couldn’t have been expected to succeed.
That is NOT God’s response to Isaiah. God doesn’t say anything good or bad, nothing at all, about Isaiah’s work to that point. God doesn’t look back at the past. God looks forward to the future. And God dramatically ups the ante.
God says to Isaiah, that task you found so overwhelming, that task that was beyond your strength, it is not too big. It’s too small. I call you to something much grander.
Those are my words. Here are God’s. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Isaiah had been called to prophesy to the nation of Israel, and it was too much. Now God commands Isaiah to prophesy to all people everywhere. It must have seemed impossible, especially in Isaiah’s depressed mood. But well over two thousand years later, on a faraway continent Isaiah didn’t know existed, we still receive light from Isaiah’s words and example.
I don’t know what God has in store for me, as I continue my painfully slow journey towards sainthood. I don’t know what God has planned for all of us, as we continue that journey together.
But I know that we are all called to be saints, in our different ways and at our different stages of life. I know that we are called to grow as saints together. I know that the road can be long and hard. I know that we will get discouraged at points along the way.
But I also know that God is with us, as God was with Peter and Isaiah and the Christian at Corinth. And I know that, with God’s grace, we can make amazing progress.
That is the journey we are on—the journey to become the saints God calls us to be. The question for us is, what particular step is God calling us to take right now?
In two weeks, we will have our annual parish meeting, when we talk together about where we have been in the last year and about what God is calling us to do and be in the new year. I invite you to spend some time in prayer on these questions over the next few weeks, to talk to others about what God seems to be saying, and to consider concrete ways to live into your/our call in 2023.
In the meantime, I thank God for calling us together, for inviting us into ever deeper relationship with him, and for helping us along the way. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan