I remember several times as a young child praying that a statue of Jesus would speak to me. I wanted something like St. Francis experienced when the cross of San Damiano spoke to him. I am not sure what my motivation was at that time but reflecting back I believe I wanted some indication that what I was told about following the rules was not true. Up to that point in my young life I was told that by following the rules I could avoid the eternal damnation of the fires of hell. Yet something in my heart was telling me that what Christ did through his life and death offered more than what was offered by following the rules.
As a child I saw many people who did not go to church doing good things. Without any guidance from anyone those people were doing what I was being taught. That fact made me question why I who was following the rules was left with a feeling of hopelessness. What I think I needed then was a way to overcome the feeling of hopelessness I had every time I broke one of those laws.
I was far too often filled with a feeling of condemnation that remained even after the sacrament of reconciliation. That feeling kept telling me that I would never change; I would never live up to the expectations of the laws of right and wrong. I realized now what I was seeking from Jesus was a message affirming that I could overcome my weakness and tendency to sin. I needed Jesus to tell me that he had not already condemned me and there was hope for me.
Like Peter in today’s gospel I knew my life was not worthy to be in the presence of Christ. Even though I wanted a statue to talk to me, I was really saying “…depart from me Lord for I am a sinner.” I, like Peter, did not need a visual reminder of my sinfulness. If a statue of Christ would talk to me then perhaps I would know that there was hope. I could then follow Christ rather than push him away. I needed an experience like the prodigal son where the presence of a loving Father does not condemn but instead offers restoration. I needed to feel the experience of the woman caught in adultery who was told by Christ “…is there no one her to condemn you, then neither do I.”
What I failed to learn as a child was “…sin is not to have power over (me) since (I) am not under the law but under grace” (Rom. 7:7). What I failed to learn as a child is the demands of the law can only point out our failings but it can do nothing to help us overcome those failings. Paul says “where there is no law, there is no sin” (Rom. 4:19). Paul is not inviting us to redefine sin but is pointing out a simple fact about the law; it can only define behavior as good or bad. Thus not to covet is good while coveting is bad. The law has to have a purpose in our lives especially in our early faith formation. Paul confirms this when he says the law is “…to be a tutor to lead us to Christ” (Gal. 3:24).
The law does not help us to eliminate any of the ways we sin; the law can only point out sin. The sad thing is that far too many of us as adults depend on the law to earn forgiveness and everlasting life. We have taught ourselves to become seekers of righteousness instead of seekers of the arms of a loving God.
Listen to this passage from scripture: “…(the) gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have achieved it, that is righteousness that comes by faith. Israel, who pursued the law of righteousness, did not attain it…because they did it by works” (Rom.9:30-32). We who desire so much to be in the presence of God are just like Peter in today’s story. We see our sin and we push the one who came to forgive sin away. We want what he offers, yet we are not willing to receive those blessings as a gift of grace. In this year of mercy, we are offered an opportunity to open the gates of our hearts to God’s love and mercy.
It is amazing how we will quickly accept the invitation to walk through the jubilee doors of a cathedral in order to receive a special blessing. Yet we do not open the doors of our hearts and minds to the gift of grace offered us by a loving God. What is offered us is mercy, unearned and unmerited. We fail to understand how God’s mercy is endless and freely given us without any condition except one — confessing with our lips that Jesus is Lord. We do need the law until we understand righteousness has been provided to us in Christ -“…if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal. 2:21).
My brothers and sisters the scriptures show us Peter eventually overcame his feeling of sinfulness. Peter who considered himself a sinner asking Jesus to depart his presence eventually walked on water toward Jesus. He overcame his own feeling of worthlessness and defied all logic to get to Jesus. Peter was transformed by his years as a disciple and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. We are invited to make that same journey of transformation. Paul says the law was our tutor to lead us to Christ (Gal. 3:24).
God desires that we hear him speaking to our hearts every day, all day, in every circumstance. We do not need a statue to speak to us because we have the promise of the Spirit poured upon us will lead us to the truth that we are loved and forgiven. Lent is upon us, let us this year make a sacrifice of giving God our hearts and make our payer one of asking the Holy Spirit to “pour the love of God into our hearts.”