God’s saving grace
February 2nd, 2016
By Father Charles Puthota
A man dies and goes to heaven. At the Pearly Gates, St. Peter says to him, “We have a point system. You tell me the good things you have done. I’ll assign points to each of those. If you get 100 points, you can make it into heaven.” The man says: “I was married to the same woman for 60 years and was always faithful to her.” St. Peter says, “Wonderful, I give you three points.” The man says, “Three points? Okay, I never missed church on Sundays and always tithed and volunteered.” St. Peter says, “Fabulous, I give you two points.” The man says, “What, only two points? I started a soup kitchen in the neighborhood and worked in the homeless shelters.” St. Peter says, “Fantastic, that’s good for two more points.” The man in disbelief says, “At this rate, I can get into heaven only by the grace of God.” St. Peter says, “Bingo, 100 points, come on in.”
The familiar charming story highlights the profound religious truth that we are all touched and redeemed by God’s grace, not by the merits of our deeds. Our unworthiness notwithstanding, God’s grace shines brightly. Despite our sinfulness, God calls us and sends us out. He wants us – and he needs us. All three readings this Sunday in a rare alignment dramatize God’s love and generosity toward us.
Isaiah has an awesome vision of God in the temple which leads him to the deep realization of his sinfulness. The angel of God purifies him. God’s grace has now claimed him to be his prophet, and Isaiah says: “Here I am, send me.”
Paul includes himself among those who met the risen Christ. Acknowledging that he persecuted the church, Paul calls himself “the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle.” He quickly adds though: “But by the grace of God I am who I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.” Where is Paul the fierce persecutor of the church? He is now the most ardent promoter of the same church.
At Jesus’ word, Peter puts out into the deep, after a night’s failed effort. The abundance of fish fills him with the divine presence of Jesus. Deeply aware of his unworthiness, he says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” But Jesus has other plans for him. Peter now has to become the catcher of people for the kingdom of God.
A pattern emerges in these accounts. With a personal experience of God in Jesus, we become acutely aware of our sinfulness, but God calls us all the same, graces us, and uses us for his work. Charles C. Morrison says, “The Christian Church is a society of sinners. It is the only society in the world in which membership is based upon a single qualification: that the candidate be unworthy of membership.”
The word of God this Sunday is a perfect vocation promotion material. The church needs young women and men for God’s service in religious life and priesthood. In the wake of their personal encounter of Jesus, their rising sense of sinfulness will be of no consequence to Jesus. He has the power to purify and grace them. But they have to rise to the occasion and say, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.”
With Ash Wednesday just around the corner, let us enter Lent joyfully, not mournfully. We acknowledge we are sinners, not to be laden with guilt and shame, but to celebrate the liberating grace of God in Jesus who loves us and delights in us. His mercy is everlasting. This Year of Mercy, proclaimed by Pope Francis who calls himself a sinner, let God’s grace penetrate our patterns of sin and cycles of addictions. True, we are sinners, but we are graced and treasured.
Father Charles Puthota is pastor of St. Veronica Church in South San Francisco.
From February 4, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.