The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 7 February 2010
I Corinthians 15:1-11
Saint Luke 5:1-11
If the Hebrew Scripture and the Gospel are linked, this Sunday, it is in their focus on Mission. And, as the luck of a lectio continua (continuing reading) in Corinthians would have it, we get to look at St. Paul’s take on what the message of the mission – the Christian message of the mission. The reading from Isaiah is very interesting in that it contains a verse sung by the seraphim as they flew about the enthroned “Ancient of Days”. In his Deutsche Messe (German Mass), Martin Luther took this verse and set it in a hymnic setting that he used as the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) in the mass. I can remember, when serving as Vicar at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saint Luke in Chicago, at the usual Wednesday mass held for the school children, this hymn/sanctus would be sung by them, with their high, and untroubled voices singing the words of the heavenly chorus – and it was – heavenly!
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory."
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!" And he said, "Go and say to this people:
`Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.'
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed."
Then I said, "How long, O Lord?" And he said:
"Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the LORD sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
This is a remarkable piece of scripture. In it we witness, along with Isaiah, a vision that he has of the Most High. In this vision, which is precisely dated, “In the year that King Uzziah died” (ca. 742 BCE), Isaiah shares with us his impression of God, and his call as a prophet. Just as Jeremiah would do at his call (ca. 626 BCE), so Isaiah would object to the call, complaining that he was a man of “unclean lips.” Last in the vision is the message, a conundrum really, that is to be shared by Isaiah with the people.
In the vision, Isaiah sees God in the guise of an oriental potentate surrounded by his minions. The seraphs (in Hebrew seraphim, literally “burning ones”) each with six wings hover around the throne of the Most High, singing the holy song. It is one of the seraphs who solves Isaiah’s existential dilemma by flying to the altar of the Temple, and takes a hot coal to purify the mouth of the prophet. The call ends with a question as to who will go and represent God – and Isaiah answers, “Send me”.
It is the last section, which is most engaging, as we tear ourselves away from the vision of God in splendor; we encounter a wholly different psychology. Isaiah was astute as to what was going on about him. Up in the Northern Kingdom, there were regular threats from the Assyrian Empire, and in a few short years, Jerusalem itself would be besieged (but survive) and the Northern Kingdom would vanish; its people’s being deported to other parts of the Assyrian Empire (The Ten “Lost” Tribes). Isaiah knows this not only as a threat to Judea, but as a poignant message from God, which if we look at the initial verses of the third section, people are clearly not understanding. Isaiah wonders how long will the message be hidden from those who need to know. God’s answer is succinct – the signs must be unmistakable (“until cities lie waste). But even in this threat that lies at the beginning of his ministry, Isaiah sees signs of hope in the terebinth (oak tree) whose stump remains, and from which a righteous branch will emerge.
Breaking Open Isaiah:
- Isaiah thinks of himself as a “man of unclean lips.” Whom else does he see as unclean?
- The seraph purifies the prophet’s mouth with the live coal. What other spiritual graces are imparted in this act?
- Is God’s message always clear to you? When has it been clear, and when has it been unclear?
- What would Isaiah see and say in our time?
Psalm 138 Confitebor, tibi
I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with my whole heart; *
before the gods I will sing your praise.
I will bow down toward your holy temple
and praise your Name, *
because of your love and faithfulness;
For you have glorified your Name *
and your word above all things.
When I called, you answered me; *
you increased my strength within me.
All the kings of the earth will praise you, O LORD, *
when they have heard the words of your mouth.
They will sing of the ways of the LORD, *
that great is the glory of the LORD.
Though the LORD be high, he cares for the lowly; *
he perceives the haughty from afar.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe; *
you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies;
your right hand shall save me.
The LORD will make good his purpose for me; *
O LORD, your love endures for ever;
do not abandon the works of your hands.
In this psalm of personal thanksgiving, we see reflections, or foretastes of other psalms and scriptures. In a way, the psalm mirrors the passages from Isaiah, but all of it is cast in a more positive vein – its thanksgivings mute the anxiety that must have come before the poet wrote these verses. “When I called, you answered me” is a more positive take on the outcome of the conversation between God and prophet/poet. There are no unclean lips, only God’s response, “you increased my strength.” The seventh verse anticipates the program Luke has in his Gospel, namely advocacy for the poor and the lowly, and a slight remove from the rich. The following verse seems a recast of verses from the 23rd Psalm.
Breaking open Psalm 138
- For what does the Psalmist give thanks in this psalm?
- What do you make of the first verse, and its mention of “before the gods”?
- What is the difference between Isaiah’s vision of what God will do in the world, and what this psalm sees?
- Isaiah sees hope in the terebinth. Where does the psalmist see hope?
I Corinthians 15:1-11
I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you--unless you have come to believe in vain.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them--though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
I first became aware of the power of this particular reading when I read C. H. Dodd’s The Founder of Christianity, in which he looks at each of the resurrection narratives. This narrative by Paul is the earliest and lists two lists of witnesses:
James (head of the Jerusalem Church)
The Twelve (Disciples)
All the Apostles
500 Brothers and Sisters
In these lists we begin to see the early organization of the Church, and more importantly we begin to see the formation of the Creed. In relating to the reader what he “had first received”, Paul begins a series of “creedal statements”, 1. That Christ died for our sins, 2. That he was buried, 3. That he was raised on the third day, and finally, 4. That he appeared. This is the core faith that gathered the early Christian Communities, and this is message that has been at the center of the Christian mission.
Paul, like Isaiah, and Jeremiah, falls into the ranks of those who think they are unworthy. He comments that even though he was like someone “untimely born” (an abortion) Jesus appears to him. He goes on to call himself the least, and a persecutor. In spite of all this it is Paul who breaks through this self-deprecation and understands that it is God’s grace that is with him in his ministry. Here he is ahead of his prophetic forebears. But the proclamation is not about his personal grace – although this is heartening news for all of us – but rather the risen Christ who accepts all of us.
Breaking open I Corinthians:
- What do you understand about the resurrection of Jesus?
- Has the risen Christ appeared to you? How and when?
- What do you proclaim about Jesus?
Saint Luke 5:1-11
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
Peter (Cephas in the Epistle) now becomes the third person in our readings for today, who shrinks from the task of the Gospel. Doubtful of Jesus ability to inform them about a better way to fish, Peter is nonplused when Jesus’ method proves fruitful. His response? “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” There is a pattern here. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul, Peter and others have all heard the call, and made excuses. It is interesting that it is Mary who greets Gabriel’s perplexing message with, “be it to me according to your word.” The closing verse is remarkable, that in spite of all the excuses and the reluctance, “they left everything and followed him.” What a story is that!
Breaking open the Gospel:
- When did you decide to follow Jesus?
- Do you revisit that decision from time to time?
- What about Trinity Church would you like to share with someone else? Have you done it? If not, why not?
- Have you ever written down, or spoken out loud what your faith is?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.