The 5th Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13)
Psalm 138
I Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11

When humans encounter God’s revelation, there is danger, great awe, and a reversal in the direction of their lives.

Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13)

The reading from the prophets continues the call narratives of the Israelite prophets, this time with Isaiah’s vision of God in overwhelming power in the Jerusalem temple. The optional verses also give Isaiah’s own commission to deliver a message of judgment to his people.

This passage has long been one of the traditional readings for Trinity Sunday (most recently June 7, 2009), where the heavenly chant of the triple “Holy, Holy, Holy” is understood to express a threefold mystery in the Most High. Our text is used for Epiphany season, however, because it is a great account of the revelation of God. “Epiphany” technically means “appearance,” but for practical purposes it means revelation. The common thread of the lectionary readings emphasizes, not only the awesomeness of the revelation, but also the response to revelation by the people who are called.

In Isaiah’s case, the prophet is overwhelmed by the revelation, confessing, “Woe is me! I am lost…” The revelation forces the human to see that there is a great chasm between one’s current world and the holy realm of God’s activity. The action that follows, however, moves the prophet from the side of the unholy people over to the ranks of the many who carry God’s messages and do God’s will (the members of the heavenly council). That is, after the seraph has touched his lips with an incense coal, Isaiah is purified, and now he can hear what is said in the council of God’s servants and is even able to present himself for duty when he is needed.

The result of Isaiah’s going over to the other side is that he has a message for his people that, at first sight, is devastating and demoralizing. He is to say to them, “Hear, indeed, but do not understand; / See, indeed, but do not grasp” (Isaiah 6:9, New Jewish Publication Society translation). In practical terms, this means, “Keep looking in the wrong places, keep doing what you are doing, because that is guaranteed to lead you to disastrous results.”

Part of the privilege of being included in God’s council of servants is that divine strategies may be explained to you. (For an intriguing comic-tragic illustration of this, see I Kings 22:1-23, especially verses 19-23.) God gives further instructions to Isaiah that explain why this misguided people is to be encouraged in their ways:

Dull that people’s mind,
     Stop its ears,
     And seal its eyes —
Lest, seeing with its eyes
     And hearing with its ears,
     It also grasp with its mind,
And repent and save itself. (Verse 10, NJPS)

The message in the heavenly council is finally a word of salvation — when it provokes a true repentance and reversal of direction by the prophet’s people.

Psalm 138

The Psalm reading has pale echoes of the God who called Isaiah. The speaker of the psalm has experienced deliverance by God: “On the day I called, you answered me, / you increased my strength of soul” (verse 3, NRSV). The speaker’s response is to sing thanks and praise before heavenly beings (“gods,” like Isaiah’s seraphs) and to bow down toward the temple, where God’s name is exalted on high (verses 1-2). A dimension of world sovereignty is revealed when the speaker expects “all the kings of the earth” to sing of the Lord’s “glory,” which in the Isaiah reading fills all the earth.

This singer (perhaps a female voice, a Zion voice) knows that the lofty God pays attention to the lowly folk (verse 6), and she herself speaks more on the side of the people than of the heavenly council when she says, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, / you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; / you stretch out your hand, / and your right hand delivers me” (verse 7). God’s deliverance from distress IS this psalmist’s revelation, and she expects her song of response to be shared even by the world’s kings.

I Corinthians 15:1-11

The Epistle reading is about the supreme revelation of God to the followers of Jesus — the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection. Paul reminds the Corinthians of the radical core of that gospel as proclaimed by the earliest disciples as well as himself, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,…and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…” (verses 3 and 4, NRSV). The first syllable of the gospel message is the forgiveness of sins – but the basis for believing that our sins are forgiven is the message of the resurrection, which Paul goes on to recite.

Paul’s statement here is the earliest direct testimony to the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament. All the narratives of the empty tomb in the Gospels are from second generation Jesus followers, later than 70 CE. Paul is writing around 55 CE and reporting commonly known traditions from much earlier (“I handed on to you…what I in turn had received,” verse 3). Paul reminds the Corinthians of what they had heard before, about how the risen Jesus had appeared to certain of his followers proving to them that he was risen and exercising power at the right hand of God (compare Romans 1:3-5).

In this passage (verses 5-8), Paul gives three lines of personal experience of the risen Jesus. He is not describing empty tomb events, as the women of Galilee reported in the later Gospels. He is attributing to Peter and James the kind of vision of the heavenly Jesus that he Paul had experienced. (According to Galatians, Paul had talked with Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, a few years after Paul’s revelation experience, Galatians 1:18-19.)

Paul’s review for the Corinthians groups the three revelations: Peter, and with him “the twelve” (verse 5); James, the brother of Jesus, and with him “all the apostles” (not confined to the twelve, verse 7); and finally Paul himself, who knew only the risen Jesus (verse 8). (Paul also refers to Jesus’ appearance to a mass of people, which Luke would later write up as the Pentecost experience: “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive,…” verse 6.) The revelation experiences of the key figures — Peter, James, and Paul — would authorize the main lines of early Christian tradition. Experiencing the risen Jesus was the foundation revelation for the gospel as it was common to all Jesus followers.

Luke 5:1-11

The Gospel reading is Luke’s version of how Peter was called to be a disciple. Like the story of Jesus returning to Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), Luke’s account is different from the one in Mark. Mark (1:16-19) told how Jesus, before he had started his healing and teaching in Galilee, walked along the shore of the lake and called two pairs of fishermen — simply said the word and they came. Luke tells a more extended story about fishing (which also appears in a varied form in John 21:4-14).

Jesus is already teaching and healing the people with such success that people crowd him by the lake shore. He gets in a boat in order to speak to them on the shore. Then he tells the boat’s owner, Simon (Peter is his Greek name), to put out into the lake and drop the nets in the deep water. Peter is tired and explains that they have fished all night and caught nothing. Nevertheless, he does what Jesus asks and gobs and gobs of fish are caught so that they need help from a second boat because their nets are about to split.

This amazing catch of fish — in extremely unlikely circumstances — is the revelation to Peter. He responds in the manner of Isaiah: “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (verse 8). An awesome event has occurred, and — like the Isaiah revelation — it creates two sides; the Lord is on one side and sinful people on the other. Peter’s instinct tells him this is an overwhelming force, frightening and condemning. Jesus’ response to Peter’s outcry is, “Do not be afraid,” even though this is a scary thing, “from now on you will be catching people [instead of fish]” (verse 10, NRSV).

The revelation anticipates what lies in the future: after long periods of unfruitful labor in the old places, the word of the Lord leads the fishermen into deep water and to enormous catches. Simon Peter’s response to the revelation and its call was, “when they brought their boats ashore, they left everything and followed him” (verse 11).

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