Calling Before We Are Ready
It is striking today to hear the call to the first Apostles, urging them to leave their nets behind for the service of the Gospel and of others, coming right after the call to repentance that opens the ministry of Jesus Christ. It would seem that in the mind of the Lord, repentance and vocation go together. Christ calls these men, soon to be His most trusted collaborators, in the same moment as he calls everyone to turn around and return to God. This follows a similar pattern elsewhere in the Gospels, according to which Christ gives people missions for the kingdom either in the same moment they first meet Him, or immediately after they come to believe, as in the case of St. Matthew’s conversion, after which the new disciple calls together sinners of every kind to come and meet Jesus. It would seem that for Christ, the moments of repentance and sending are often closely associated.
Sometimes we think that mission, cooperating with Christ in His work for salvation, comes after repentance and purification are finished. Once we are free of sins and major failings, then we will be able to offer credible example, and will be able to preach the faith with our lives. While it is true that we ought to focus on our own faults before we focus on the faults of others, and that we ought to live our lives with credibility by practicing the things we preach to the best of our ability, it would seem from Christ’s own actions that we are called to out and bring the Lord to others long before we are perfected, while we are still repenting. Though there are some tasks that require certain degrees of virtue ahead of time, our general call to witness begins from the first moment of our repentance, rather than after its end.
Repentance is in fact the work of a lifetime, a constant recognition that we are not complete or sufficient on our own, that we will always need a Savior. We repent at every moment, turning our minds back to the Lord and away from what tempts us, not with bitter hearts, but with the freedom that comes from knowing we do in fact have the Savior we need, and we are loved despite all of our many sins and faults. We need to confess our sins and receive mercy in that Sacrament, certainly, but this necessity does not make us hypocrites in the work of proclaiming the Lord Jesus. Hypocrites are those who do not even try to practice what they preach, holding others to a higher standard than they hold themselves. Those who struggle to live up to the message they carry though they fall along the way are simply called Christians.
We may consider the Apostles again. When Christ calls Simon, Andrew, James, and John in the Gospel today, beginning their mission as his close friends, and collaborators, they still have many failures ahead of them. Simon will, as we know, fail spectacularly, even denying Jesus three times during His Passion. James and John will ask to burn down towns that would not receive their Master, and then receive the very best places in His Kingdom. Jesus will heal and perfect them all in the end, but He did not wait for them to be perfect for asking them to fish for the souls of others.
He also calls us long before our repentance is finished to go out and fish for the souls of our neighbors. If we do so in humility, confessing our weakness, but asking the Lord’s mercy, we can trust that He will bring us one day to perfection as well.