Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.
Few stories in the New Testament are as well known as this. Few go home more deeply to the heart of man. Most simple, most graceful is the story, and yet it has in it depths unfathomable.
Great painters have loved to draw, great poets have loved to sing, that scene on the lake of Gennesaret. The clear blue water, land- locked with mountains; the meadows on the shore, gay with their lilies of the field, on which our Lord bade them look, and know the bounty of their Father in heaven; the rich gardens, olive-yards, and vineyards on the slopes; the towns and villas scattered along the shore, all of bright white limestone, gay in the sun; the crowds of boats, fishing continually for the fish which swarm to this day in the lake; -- everywhere beautiful country life, busy and gay, healthy and civilized likewise -- and in the midst of it, the Maker of all heaven and earth sitting in a poor fisher's boat, and condescending to tell them where the shoal of fish was lying. It is a wonderful scene. Let us thank God that it happened once on earth. Let us try to see what we may learn from it in these days, in which our God and Saviour no longer walks this earth in human form.
'Ah!' some may say, 'but for that very reason there is no lesson in the story for us in these days. True it is, that God does not walk the earth now in human form. He works no miracles, either for fishermen, or for any other men. We shall never see a miraculous draught of fishes. We shall never be convinced, as St. Peter was, by a miracle, that Christ is close to us. What has the story to do with us?'
My friends, are things, after all, so different now from what they were then? Is our case after all so very different from St. Peter's? God and Christ cannot change, for they are eternal -- the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever; and if Christ was near St. Peter on the lake of Gennesaret, he is near us now, and here; for in him we live and move and have our being; and he is about our path, and about our bed, and spieth out all our ways: near us for ever, whether we know it or not. And human nature cannot change. There is in us the same heart as there was in St. Peter, for evil and for good. When St. Peter found suddenly that it was the Lord who was in his boat, his first feeling was one of fear: 'Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord.' And when we recollect at moments that God is close to us, watching all we do, all we say, yea, all we think, are we not afraid, for the moment at least? Do we not feel the thought of God's presence a burden? Do we never long to hide from God? -- to forget God again, and cry in our hearts: 'Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord'?
God grant to us all, that after that first feeling of dread and awe is over, we may go on, as St. Peter went on, to the better feelings of admiration, loyalty, worship and say at last, as St. Peter said afterwards, when the Lord asked him if he too would leave him: 'Lord, to whom shall we go? for thou hast the words of eternal life.'
But do I blame St. Peter for saying, 'Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord'? God forbid! Who am I, to blame St. Peter? Especially when even the Lord Jesus did not blame him, but only bade him not to be afraid.
And why did the Lord not blame him, even when he asked Him to go away?
Because St. Peter was honest. He said frankly and naturally what was in his heart. And honesty, even if it is mistaken, never offends God, and ought never to offend men. God requires truth in the inward parts; and if a man speaks the truth -- if he expresses his own thoughts and feelings frankly and honestly -- then, even if he is not right, he is at least on the only road to get right, as St. Peter was.
He spoke not from dislike of our Lord, but from modesty; from a feeling of awe, of uneasiness, of dread, at the presence of one who was infinitely greater, wiser, better than himself.
And that feeling of reverence and modesty, even when it takes the shape, as it often will in young people, of shyness and fear, is a divine and noble feeling -- the beginning of all goodness. Indeed, I question whether there can be any real and sound goodness in any man's heart, if he has no modesty, and no reverence. Boldness, forwardness, self-conceit, above all in the young -- we know how ugly they are in our eyes; and the Bible tells us again and again how ugly they are in the sight of God.
The truly great and free and noble soul -- and St. Peter's soul was such -- is that of the man who feels awe and reverence in the presence of those who are wiser and holier than himself; who is abashed and humbled when he compares himself with his betters, just because his standard is so high. Because he knows how much better he should be than he is; because he is discontented with himself, ashamed of himself, therefore he shrinks, at first, from the very company which, after a while, he learns to like best, because it teaches him most. And so it was with St. Peter's noble soul. He felt himself, in the presence of that pure Christ, a sinful man:- not perhaps what we should call sinful; but sinful in comparison of Christ. He felt his own meanness, ignorance, selfishness, weakness. He felt unworthy to be in such good company. He felt unworthy, -- he, the ignorant fisherman, -- to have such a guest in his poor boat. 'Go elsewhere, Lord,' he tried to say, 'to a place and to companions more fit for thee. I am ashamed to stand in thy presence. I am dazzled by the brightness of thy countenance, crushed down by the thought of thy wisdom and power, uneasy lest I say or do something unfit for thee; lest I anger thee unawares in my ignorance, clumsiness; lest I betray to thee my own bad habits: and those bad habits I feel in thy presence as I never felt before. Thou art too condescending; thou honourest me too much; thou hast taken me for a better man than I am; thou knowest not what a poor miserable creature I am at heart -- "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord."'
There spoke out the truly noble soul, who was ready the next moment, as soon as he had recovered himself, to leave all and follow Christ; who was ready afterwards to wander, to suffer, to die upon the cross for his Lord; and who, when he was led out to execution, asked to be crucified (as it is said St. Peter actually did) with his head downwards; for it was too much honour for him to die looking up to heaven, as his Lord had died.
Do you not understand me yet? Then think what you would have thought of St. Peter, if, instead of saying, 'Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord,' St. Peter had said, 'Stay with me, for I am a holy man, O Lord. I am just the sort of person who deserves the honour of thy company; and my boat, poor though it is, more fit for thee than the palace of a king.' Would St. Peter have seemed to you then wiser or more foolish, better or worse, than he does now, when in his confused honest humility, he begs the Lord to go away and leave him? And do you not feel that a man is (as a great poet says) 'displeasing alike to God and to the enemies of God,' when he comes boldly to the throne of grace, not to find grace and mercy, because he feels that he needs them: but to boast of God's grace, and make God's mercy to him an excuse for looking down upon his fellow- creatures; and worships, like the Pharisee, in self-conceit and pride, thanking God that he is not as other men are?
Better far to be the publican, who stood afar off, and dare not lift up as much as his eyes toward heaven, but cried only, 'God be merciful to me a sinner.' Better far to be the honest and devout soldier, who, when Jesus offered to come to his house, answered, 'Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof. But speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.'
Only he must say that in honesty, in spirit, and in truth, like St. Peter. For a man may shrink from religion, from the thought of God, from coming to the Holy Communion, for two most opposite reasons.
He may shrink from them because he knows he is full of sins, and wishes to keep his sins; and knows that, if he worships God, if he comes to the Holy Communion -- indeed, if he remembers the presence of God at all, -- he pledges himself to give up his bad habits; to repent and amend, which is just what he has no mind to do. So he turns away from God, because he chooses to remain bad. May the Lord have mercy on his soul, for he has no mercy on it himself! He chooses evil, and refuses good; and evil will be his ruin.
But, again, a man may shrink from God, from church, from the Holy Communion, because he feels himself bad, and longs to be good; because he feels himself full of evil habits, and hates them, and sees how ugly they are, and is afraid to appear in the presence of God foul with sin.
Let him be of good cheer. He is not going wrong wilfully. But he is making a mistake. Let him make it no more. He feels himself unworthy. Let him come all the more, that he may be made worthy. Let him come, because he is worthy. For -- strange it may seem, but true it is -- that a man is the more worthy to draw near to God the more he feels himself to be utterly unworthy thereof.
He who partakes worthily of the Holy Communion is he who says with his whole heart, 'We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.' He with whom Christ will take up his abode is he who says, 'Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof.'
For humility is the beginning of all goodness, and the end of all wisdom.
He who says that he sees is blind. He who knows his own blindness sees. He who says he has no sin in him is the sinner. He who confesses his sins is the righteous man; for God is faithful and just to forgive him, as he did St. Peter, and to cleanse him from all unrighteousness.