Not I, but the grace of God

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“God does not call the equipped; He equips the called.”  I have no idea where that phrase originated, but it’s one you hear often in ministry circles.  I’ve certainly found it to be true in my time as a campus minister.  Often I have felt unequipped for a situation only to find out later that I had precisely what was required.

“Equipped” can mean many things, of course.  It can refer to our talents and skills.  It can refer to personality traits, such as empathy, compassion, or being “a good listener.”  Or it can refer to time — many don’t volunteer in their church or community because they don’t think they have the time to devote to it.

But there is one way that everyone who feels called to serve the Church feels ill-equipped and that is holiness.  We think of priests, nuns and monks as holy people. (Maybe some of you even think of campus ministers as holy people, who knows?)  So when we take an honest look at ourselves and recognize our own sinfulness, we feel that we could never serve the Church like these people do. We’re not holy enough to do God’s work.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret.  No one is holy enough.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you ever meet anyone who thinks they are, you should run fast in the opposite direction.  I would further say that recognizing that you are not holy enough to serve Christ indicates that you are qualified, because one thing all good servants of Christ need to have is humility.  Humility is a necessary prerequisite to holiness.  Humility tells us that we need to rely on Christ and not ourselves.  Humility allows Jesus to do the heavy lifting for us, because we know we are not strong enough on our own.

Consider Isaiah in our first reading.  When Isaiah has a vision of God, he cries out, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.”  He recognizes his own sinfulness before God.  But then an angel touches Isaiah’s lips with a burning ember (that must have hurt!) and says, “Your wickedness is removed; your sin purged.”  Only then was Isaiah able to reply to God’s call, “Here I am, send me!”  Isaiah knew he was not holy enough, but through God he became a great prophet.

Likewise in our second reading from 1 Cor 15:1-11, St. Paul refers to himself as “the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God.”  St. Paul, before his conversion, was one of the most hardened persecutors of Christians, standing by as St. Stephen was martyred (Acts 8:1).  Even after his conversion, as one of the Apostles, he could write, “For I do not do the good  I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Rom 7:19).  St. Paul was not holy enough, “But by the grace of God I am what I am.”  He became one of the greatest saints of the Church.

Lastly, in our gospel reading we see Simon Peter being called by Jesus.  Simon’s response to our Lord was like that of Isaiah — he recognized his own sinfulness before God.  “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8).  But Jesus did not depart from him.  He saw Simon’s humility as something which could be put to great service.  He told Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men” (Lk 5:10).  Simon Peter was not holy enough, but through the word of God became the head of the college of Apostles, our first Pope.

“Do not be afraid.” Christ says the same words today to every young man considering the priesthood who does not feel holy enough; to every person considering the consecrated life who does not feel that they are as pious as they should be; to every young person considering marriage who does not feel “ready” for such commitment. Do not be afraid!

If you don’t feel ready for whatever vocation God is calling you to, that’s good!  You shouldn’t! The world does not need husbands and wives who think they have it all together; it needs husbands and wives that are willing to rely on each other and on God for help.  The Church does not need bishops, priests, deacons, nuns, monks or friars who think that they are already saints.  The Church needs ministers who know that they are sinners.

This coming Wednesday millions of people will come to the Church to hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  It is a reminder of what we are without God — mere dust and ashes.  This is what all of our efforts to “equip ourselves” to serve Him will amount to if we try to do it on our own.  Maybe you are doubting your vocational call because you don’t feel as holy as you imagine priests need to be.  Maybe you are putting off going to confession until you can overcome that sin you’ve been struggling with.  Stop it. Stop doubting God’s ability to heal you and draw you to Himself.  Listen to Jesus’ words. “Do not be afraid.”

God doesn’t call people who are already saints.  God calls sinners that He can transform into saints, and thereby glorify Him.  Let us be humble enough to accept the call God has for each of us, so that we might say, like St. Paul, “Not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor 15:10).