5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Video: YouTube Sung Wing Chun
My dear friends, are you familiar with the term sustainable energy? I’m sure you are, right? It refers to power drawn from sources that are both renewable and clean. Sources like the sun and the wind, for example. In contrast, fossil fuels, like oil and coal and natural gas, are unsustainable. Not only will they eventually run out, they also tend to pollute the environment. As you know, we use all these forms of energy to power our machines. But what about ourselves? Is there such a thing as sustainable energy for the human body? What do you think?
I recently came across a YouTube video that seems to suggest there is. In the video, someone named Chu Shong Tin, a now deceased martial artist from Hong Kong, a master of Wing Chun kungfu, speaks about how his teaching methods have evolved over the years. Earlier, he had focused on training students in the technique of pushing hands. However, he found that, while his students made good progress, they fell short in one significant way. Although most of them were much younger and physically stronger than him, they all tired out much faster. Eventually, Master Chu realised that, whereas his students relied on muscular strength, which didn’t last, his own energy came from a different source. And it was this mysterious inner power that he then tried to help his students access. We may say that he taught them to use a more sustainable form of energy.
But even if there is such a thing as sustainable energy in the martial arts, could there something similar in the spiritual life? A form of energy that is both renewable and clean? And, if so, how do we tap into it? I believe these, my dear friends, are the questions that our readings invite us to ponder today. They do this by offering us three examples. That of Isaiah in the first reading, of Paul in the second, and Peter in the gospel. And, in each of these examples, we see three distinct steps in the process of tapping into sustainable spiritual energy. Three key moments for gaining access to grace.
The first step is taken not so much by us as by God. It is the step of encounter. In the first reading, Isaiah has a spectacular vision of the Lord seated on a high throne, surrounded by a multitude of heavenly beings. In the second reading, Paul writes about how the crucified and risen Jesus appeared not only to the Twelve, but also to Paul himself. Paul is, of course, speaking about his experience of being struck down on the road to Damascus. In the gospel, out of all the seagoing vessels parked by the lakeside, Jesus chooses to board Peter’s boat. Which he uses first as a pulpit for preaching the gospel to the crowd, and then as a stage for demonstrating to Peter the power of God.
Isaiah, Paul and Peter. Three unsuspecting people, who each encounter the Lord. And although the exact details may be different, there are some important similarities. For example, all three have their lives disrupted in a significant way. In a way that demands from them a response, which each one feels painfully inadequate to make. Isaiah protests his own polluted state. I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips. Paul too is deeply aware of his own unworthiness. Since I persecuted the Church of God, I hardly deserve the name apostle. And Peter is moved to say to Jesus, Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man. If sustainable energy is, by definition, renewable and clean, then perhaps these protests are signs that the energy these men had relied on before was unsustainable.
Thankfully, however, the first moment of encounter soon leads to a second, and much needed, moment of empowerment. Like that old martial artist in the video, God helps each person to tap into a different and more sustainable source of power. An angel cleanses Isaiah’s lips with a live coal taken from the heavenly altar. Paul speaks of bearing fruit, not only by his own hard work, but by God’s grace. And Jesus tells Peter not to be afraid, for he and his companions will be given the ability not just to catch fish, but to gather people into the kingdom of God.
Encounter leading to empowerment. These are the first two moments of grace. But, on their own, they are still incomplete. A third is needed. We see this perhaps most clearly in the second reading, which begins with Paul speaking about the gospel not only as something that the Corinthians have received, but also as something in which they are firmly established. Unlike the martial arts, the power of the good news, the sustainable spiritual energy of grace, from which Paul himself draws, is not just something to be used only on special occasions, for performing certain specific functions, and then to be carefully stored away.
On the contrary, the grace of God is meant to be something on which one relies for the whole of one’s life, in all its aspects. Isn’t this what we find already in the opening prayer that we offered earlier? There, we spoke about relying solely on the hope of heavenly grace. Relying on grace not just in addition to other forms of power. And not just for performing certain religious actions at certain specified times. Not just at Mass on a Sunday, for example. But to rely on grace solely. At all times, and for all actions. To be firmly established on grace. We see this also in the first reading, where, after receiving his call, Isaiah ends up devoting his whole life to being God’s messenger. Here I am, send me. And, in the gospel, we’re told that Peter and his companions left everything and followed Jesus. They gave up their reliance on unsustainable sources of energy, and gradually reestablished their whole lives solely on grace.
Encounter, empowerment, and establishment. Three important steps for converting from a reliance on ourselves to a dependence on God. And are these not steps that we all need to take especially today? When so many of us find ourselves tired and stressed out? So often on the verge of burnout? Struggling to find meaning and purpose in the face of the many oppressive demands of daily life. Drawing from dubious sources of energy, like guilt and shame, or greed and envy, or anger and resentment, or loneliness and boredom. Energies that are not only easily exhausted, but that also tend to pollute our lives, and compromise our relationships, even in our own families.
And yet, in the midst of all this, God continues to call us, as God called Isaiah and Peter and Paul. God continues to call us to establish our lives on the sustainable energy that is the love of God shown most clearly in the Dying and Rising of Christ. The same love that we are gathered at this Eucharist to celebrate. To rely solely on the grace of God’s love. Isn’t this our true vocation as followers of Christ?
Sisters and brothers, despite notable exceptions, many countries and large companies around the world are taking steps to shift to more sustainable sources of energy. What must we do, you and I, to respond more generously to God’s call to us to do the same in our spiritual life today?