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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany - Year C
Isaiah 6:1-13; Psalm 138; I Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany - Year C


ISAIAH 6:1-13         Here we have another classic example of a prophet
called to a special ministry.  As the smoke of the morning sacrifice wafted
through the temple, Isaiah saw a vision and heard an angelic voice praising
the holiness of God.  He then realized his own and his fellow Israelites'
unworthiness before God. 

One of the angelic beings touched his lips with a live coal, thus cleansing
him to speak.  Isaiah heard the voice of God calling for a messenger and he
responded.  But the message God gave him to deliver was one of unmitigated
judgment. 


PSALM 138                  Unlike most of the psalms, this hymn of
thanksgiving by an individual is thought to be from a small  "Davidic
collection." (Psalms 138-145.)  This meant that it was ascribed to King
David rather than being composed by him.  It expresses gratitude for God's
blessing as well as trust in God's love and purpose.


1 CORINTHIANS 15:1-11 Paul states as simply as possible what he had
learned from the apostles whom he met in Jerusalem when he returned there
some time after his conversion.  This may well be an early Christian creed.
It summarizes what the apostles were teaching in the first years after the
resurrection of Jesus.  Note too that Paul adds himself as "the least of
the apostles" and reiterates his dependence on God's grace for that. 


LUKE 5:1-11           Behind the gospels as we now have them, there was
a long tradition of stories about Jesus' teaching and miracles repeated by
word of mouth before being put into written form.  Luke connects this story
of a miraculous catch of fish with the calling of the first disciples. 
John tells it as one of Jesus' resurrection appearances (John 21).  It
represents a promise of the ultimate success of the apostolic mission.

************

ISAIAH 6:1-13   Here we have another classic example of a prophet called to
a special ministry.  My OT professor, the late Rev. Dr. R.B.Y Scott, made
this passage the starting point for his lectures on prophecy.  He had
written a highly regarded book, *The Relevance of the Prophets,* and at the
time he was lecturing to us at McGill in 1948, he was writing the
introduction and exegesis of Isaiah 1-39 for *The Interpreter's Bible, vol.
5.*  His analysis of this passage in this latter volume is a valuable
contribution to the understanding of prophetic visions and oracles. 

The ancient temple in Jerusalem faced east.  The daily sacrifice was
offered as the sun rose over the horizon formed by the Mount of Olives.
Rays from the rising sun flooded into the temple through its great doors
causing its burnished gold and copper accouterments to shine gloriously. 
As the smoke of the morning sacrifice wafted through the temple, Isaiah,
saw a vision and heard angelic voices praising the holiness of God. 

Isaiah was possibly a cousin and certainly a courtier of King Uzziah, who
had just died.  He was in mourning and went into the temple, as was his
wont, to offer a lament.  As he worshiped in the familiar surroundings, he
sensed the divine presence in a dramatic new way.  God, of course, is
invisible; yet Isaiah did have such a vision.  Or was it just the hem of
God's robe and the attending seraphim which represented the divine presence
to him?  Quickly afterward, Isaiah recognized his own unworthiness before
God and that of his fellow Israelites.  The experience overwhelmed him.
That he should become the prophet to proclaim God's judgment on his
nation's moral and spiritual decay was furthest from his imagination. 
Great revelations come to faithful men and women in the midst of the
mundane experiences of life.

During Isaiah's vision, one of the angelic beings touched his lips with a
live coal from the altar, thus cleansing him to speak for God.  He heard
the voice of God calling for a messenger and he responded, "Here am I, send
me."  But the message God gave him to deliver was one of unmitigated
judgment.  It must have been a fear-filled experience.  To be called to
speak God's judgment against his own people would have frightened the most
courageous of men or women in that day of woeful events as is in ours.  One
only has to hear or see to the attack ads created for contemporary
political campaigns to realize how much the prophet exposes him or herself
to community ridicule. 

Yet there are men and women willing to present the divine alternatives to
our petty human machinations of history.  The people are the ground-
breakers for new advances in faith and witness to the purposes of God in
the world.  It was so for Isaiah, who with Amos and Micah in the late 8th
century BCE set forth a vision of divine justice and righteousness which
remains as convincing for us as it was for them.  But these elements of
Israelite prophecy had close affinity to the actual events of that time
when great empires were in conflict and Israel itself was constantly
threatened with invasion and the imposition of foreign religious practices.


PSALM 138   Unlike most of the psalms, this hymn of thanksgiving by an
individual is thought to be from a small "Davidic collection." (Psalms 138-
145.)  This meant that it was ascribed to King David rather than being
composed by him. 

There are some twenty such hymns of thanksgiving by individuals preserved
in the religious literature of Israel.  Isaiah 38:10-20 and Jonah 2:2-9 are
examples found in the OT.  The apocryphal books of Ecclessiasticus
(Sirach), the Psalms of Solomon and the Odes of Solomon contain others. 

Like most others, this psalm is from a postexilic date.  The absence of any
thanksgiving sacrifice points to an unusual level of spiritual development
rarely found except in some of the prophetic literature which eschewed the
temple sacrifices.  Or it may date from a time before the reconstruction of
the temple when the normal sacrifices could not be celebrated.  It also
reflects a universalism echoing that of Second Isaiah (vv. 4-6) for earthly
kings are said to worship God as do the humble; and God does not despise
their praise.  The psalm ends with an declaration of trust in God's love
and purpose. Vs. 8 certainly provides a preachable text.


1 CORINTHIANS 15:1-11   Paul states as simply as possible what he had
learned from the apostles whom he met in Jerusalem when he returned there
some time after his conversion.  This probably occurred less than two
decades after the resurrection.  So this may well be an early Christian
creed.  It summarizes what the apostles were teaching in those first years
after that momentous event when the apostolic church was feeling the full
flush of its new faith.

One point stands out in Paul's repetition of this faith.  To him, the
resurrection was something experienced by those few who had seen and spoken
with the risen Christ.  It was also Paul's firm conviction that the same
risen Lord had appeared to him on the Damascus Road.  The ambiguity between
faith and fact remains with the Christian community to this day.  Faith
does not attempt to be factual.  Rather it expresses a spiritual
interpretation of deep and often inexplicable psychic experiences.  It uses
the language of image, symbol and metaphor to describe what a person or
persons of faith have experienced amid the ebb and flow of ordinary events
which a reporter or historian might well record differently as observed
facts.  The resurrection experience symbolized for Paul and the other
apostles that Jesus Christ, who had been executed as a criminal, was very
much alive.  Death had not conquered him; he had conquered death and was
now with them in spirit.  There were still many living in Paul's time who
could testify to this experience.  The reference to the risen Christ's
appearance to five hundred people may be an alternate reminiscence of
Pentecost as that event had been told to Paul by the apostolic community.

Quite possibly Paul was the first to connect the death of Christ to the
ancient Israelite tradition that sin could be forgiven by the shedding of
blood.  This belief had its roots in the ancient practices of offering
sacrifices to the deity common to all ancient religious traditions.  In
some traditions human sacrifice had also been quite commonly practiced.
Even in Israel as late as the 7th century BCE reign of Manasseh (ca.687-642
BCE) there had been evidence of this.  Among the Jews, animal sacrifice in
lieu of human sacrifice was related closely to the celebration of the both
Passover and Yom Kippur.  In this context Paul interpreted the crucifixion
of Jesus as a self-offering which had a similar effect of dealing with the
human problem of sin and alienation from God. 

Note too that Paul adds himself as "the least of the apostles".  One view
of the narrative in Acts presents Paul and Peter as rivals for leadership
of the Gentile mission.  In Galatians and here, Paul gives some basis for
this hypothesis.  He numbers himself among the apostles, though with a
self-deprecating diminution.  He goes on to reiterate his total dependence
on God's grace for his status and gives his fellow apostles credit where
credit is due.  They all share the resurrection faith which is the heart of
the gospel for us as well.


LUKE 5:1-11   Luke tells this story of a miraculous catch of fish in
connection with the calling of the first disciples.  John tells it as one
of Jesus' resurrection appearances (John 21).  Behind the gospels as we now
have them, there was a long tradition of stories about Jesus' teaching and
miracles repeated by word of mouth before being put into written form.
Assuming that both referred to the same event, which some commentators
doubt, both versions speak to the future mission of the apostolic church.
It appears to be a promise of ultimate success though not without long and
difficult toil on the part of the disciple community.

At first, the *ekklesia* (i.e. the apostolic church) meant simply a group
of Jews of humble origins, many of them unlettered and poverty stricken,
who had responded to the preaching of the gospel.  Then as now, fishing was
not always a lucrative occupation, but one which required much skill and
patience, hard work and long hours.  These men were partners in a small
business in which they had invested their whole lives.  Catching and
marketing of fresh fish, a major food in Galilee at the time, was not
always a profitable trade.  In that climate, the fish would have to be
caught during the night and sold in the marketplace within a few hours.
Often the results were disappointing.  However, this story is told for its
metaphorical significance rather than as a factual vignette of the harsh
life of the Galilean fisherman. 

Luke has a way of weaving the whole tradition into his story as he tells
it.  His audience was a generation or more removed from the events he
narrates and unfamiliar with the places in which those events occurred.  So
he did not have to be concerned about chronological order.  His intent was
primarily evangelical.  For instance, he has Peter call Jesus first
"Master," then "Lord."  Those are titles which Luke reserves for disciples.
Non-disciples used the term, "Teacher."  The title "Lord" appears in Luke
twenty-one times; twelve of them in pericopes peculiar to Luke.  It can be
argued that here Luke was thinking in post-resurrection terms when the
apostles had fully realized that Jesus was the Messiah for whom such a
title was appropriate.  It has been pointed out many times that the
original creed of the apostolic church was the simple statement, "Jesus is
Lord."
   
So also is Peter's confession of sinfulness in his plea that Jesus depart
from him appropriate to a post-resurrection attitude.  It reiterates the
gospel call to repentance as the antecedent to Christian discipleship. 
Luke had emphasized this as the message John the Baptist had preached (3:1-
20) and which Peter had also proclaimed in his Pentecost sermon in Acts
2:38.  It may also have some reference to Peter's denial of Jesus in the
court of the house of Caiaphas (22:54-60). 

In his Pelican NT Commentary on Luke, the late Professor  G.B. Caird
pointed to Jesus' choice of these hard-working but intensely loyal men,
ever aware of their own shortcomings, as those whom Jesus needed to carry 
the gospel into the world.  Does not the present evangelistic environment
call for a disciple community of similarly dedicated, loyal and hard-
working persons, but certainly not those who may lay claim to moral
perfection or spiritual greatness?  Caird's analysis of this passage in
this latter volume is a valuable contribution to the understanding of
prophetic visions and oracles. 

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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