One of the most diabolical traps which we who try to follow God will face along our way is an attack of the "unworthies." Without warning or reason, a voice will sound in our ears one day, telling us that, no matter what we do, we'll never be worthy enough to attain the status God has planned for us and called us to achieve.
We know from Sunday's second reading (1 Cor 15:1-11) that some in Paul's Corinthian community suffered such an attack less than 30 years after Jesus' death and resurrection. Though everyone believed Jesus had risen from the dead, a few thought they were too human or sinful to ever experience a personal resurrection. They simply felt unworthy to receive such an honor.
They weren't the first of God's followers to be ambushed by the "unworthies." More than seven centuries before, Isaiah the prophet described his attack when he reflects on his call by Yahweh (Is 6:1-2, 3-8). Standing in the presence of the glorious God and God's court, the prophet can only mutter: "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips."
Not so bad
In the same way, Peter, leader of the apostolic community, on experiencing Jesus' power in the miraculous catch of fish, falls on his knees and pleads: "Leave me Lord. I am a sinful man." He was convinced that only the "worthy" should attempt to follow God (Lk 5:1-11).
Yet, in each of the last two situations, the God whose presence first engenders a sense of unworthiness eventually assures both crestfallen individuals that, though they truly are unworthy, they're not as bad as they think.
In the first scenario, Yahweh dispatches a seraph "holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar." The heavenly messenger then touches Isaiah's mouth with the burning coal and assures him: "See, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin is purged." In the case of Peter, Jesus simply counters his objection with a terse "Do not be afraid."
Paul's argument against his unworthy Corinthians comes from a different direction and will not be complete until we couple the second reading with next week's. He initially reminds his friends that Jesus' death and resurrection are at the heart of Christian faith. It was the first "gospel" which Paul received, and the first which he passed on to the Corinthians when he evangelized them. How could they deny their participation in the most essential dimension of their faith?
Then, countering their protest of unworthiness with a classic "can-you-top-this?" case, he recalls his own life prior to conversion. "Last of all, He (Jesus) was seen by men," he writes, "as one born out of the normal course. I am the least of the apostles; in fact, because I persecuted the church of God, I do not even deserve the name." Finally, like Isaiah, Paul reflects on God's role in his ministry: "By God's favor, I am what I am."
Human weakness
It's important to see that in all three of these liturgical passages, God calls a weak, human person to ministry. Isaiah hears the voice of Yahweh saying, "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" And with newly instilled confidence, the prophet responds, "Here I am: send me!"
Likewise, Peter seems to take Jesus' command, "Do not be afraid!" to heart. The chastised fisherman listens attentively as Jesus proclaims, "From now on, you will be catching people." And immediately after "they brought their boats to land," Peter and his companion "left everything and became His followers."
Paul's remarks about having been called to be an apostle follows the same script: "This favor of His to me had not proved fruitless. Indeed, I have worked harder than all the others, not on my own but through the favor of God."
Perhaps the reason we refuse to take the God-prescribed antidote for our unworthies lies in the fact that when Isaiah, Peter and Paul did so, God sent them on a mission. As long as we insist on emphasizing our unredeemed human condition, we're off the hook. We'll never have to listen to God calling us to share in His work.