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Sermon and Reflections For The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany - Year C
Isaiah 6:1-8,(9-13), Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11
"Being Taken Alive"
Barry Robinson

From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada).   Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way".   Contact Barry at fernstone@fernstone.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
The Fifth Sunday AFter Epiphany
Isaiah 6:1-8,(9-13), Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11
"Being Taken Alive"

    But when Simon saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away 
    from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!?... Then Jesus said to him, "Do 
    not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people."

In C.S. Lewis' imaginary description of a traveler's visit to Hell, a guide is 
attempting to explain to a tourist why it is that so many souls find their way to 
Hell.

    There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of 
    their misery. There is always something they prefer to joy - that is, 
    to reality. Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would 
    sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends. 
    Ye call it the Sulks. But in adult life it has a hundred fine names - 
    Achilles' wrath and Coriolanus' grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and 
    Self-Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride.... But the time comes
    on when, though the pleasure becomes less and less and the craving fiercer 
    and fiercer, and though he knows that joy can never come that way, yet he
    prefers to joy the mere fondling of unappeasable lust and would not have 
    it taken from him. He'd fight to the death to keep it.  He'd like to be 
    able to scratch: but even when he can scratch no more he'd rather itch 
    than not.                              - C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

It is true, isn't it? It is easy to become so identified with a particular thing that 
you cannot be free. You either relinquish the thing itself, whatever it is, or you will 
simply never be free.

Dare I say the word - golf - for example? It becomes your passion, your joy, your 
raison d'être. But because you have also become obsessed about it, it has also become 
your curse.  Eating into your work. Souring your marriage. In short, ruining your 
life.  Still, the thought of excising the thing that has become so central to your 
existence is painful in the extreme.  It hurts like hell.

You know that your salvation has something to do with that awful word "surrender". 
Giving up the illusion, for once, that you are really in control of your life.  You 
know - and no three-point sermon from your pastor or subtle suggestions left by your
partner that you need to see a therapist are going to do anything to add to that 
realization - that you need to relinquish a certain control over your life and that 
that is the only thing that is going to make any real difference.  But, how to trust 
enough to be able to make that leap - ah, that is the question.

                                       +

Today is one of those rare days when all three readings seem to speak with a single 
voice.  Isaiah has a vision of God that strikes him with such a deep awareness of 
his own unworthiness that he responds with a cry of woe.  Paul sees the risen Lord 
and realizes that he is unfit to be called an apostle because of the way he has 
persecuted the church.  And in this week's gospel, Simon Peter gets a glimpse of 
the kind of power and grace that was embodied in Jesus and falls down on his knees 
before him in a profound grip of his own sinfulness.  What is it that all three 
readings are trying to tell us?

Let's take Peter as a case in point.  To understand the significance of this story 
of the miraculous catch of fish and the call of the first disciples, we need to 
understand that Jesus was not a fisherman.  He was someone who came from the hills 
up in Nazareth.  He might have known something about fishing; but Peter lived on 
the sea of Galilee.  In all likelihood, Peter was probably from a long line of 
fisherman.  He knew his trade and he knew the lake like the palm of his hand.  When 
a wandering rabbi from the sticks suggested a new fishing strategy to him, it must 
have seemed a bit like a little league pitcher giving tips to Roy Halladay.  Peter 
is the master fisherman here.  Jesus is nothing but a rank amateur.  Luke is setting 
us up, of course.  He is deliberately setting the stage for something big to happen. 
He has Peter patiently humoring Jesus to show the rabbi from Nazareth that while he 
might know something about preaching and teaching and storytelling, he knew 
absolutely nothing about catching fish.

Of course, the miraculous happens; and Peter is so awestruck by the huge catch of 
fish that he becomes terrified to the point of contrition.

    "Go away from me Lord,"

he says to Jesus,

    "for I am a sinful man!"

The question is: what was it about Jesus or about this experience that overwhelmed 
Peter and his companions?  While Luke is quite comfortable telling miracle stories 
about Jesus, we know that he also had a healthy skepticism about the place of 
miracles in the generation of faith (11.19, Acts 8.9-11).  A miraculous catch of 
fish would have impressed anyone, including Peter and his friends.  But Jesus was 
not primarily a wonder worker.  He did not try to force people's convictions and 
affections by overwhelming them with enormous marvels.  Rather, he was a teacher, 
a healer and a storyteller who came to tell people that God loved them with an 
absolutely overwhelming love.

Peter knew that the sea was a wondrous place and that fish were miraculous 
creatures.  He knew that the skills of a fisherman were the result of God-given 
insight and understanding.  He knew that everything in the world was a revelation 
of God's miraculous love.  He knew that dazzling events happen, that help often 
arrives when people most need it. He knew that the world is a mysterious place 
and that a miraculous catch of fish was simply another dramatic example of the 
mysterious work of God in the world.  At least, we must assume that he knew these 
things when we remember that he was a typical, God-fearing, first-century Jewish 
fisherman.

It was not, in other words, the power that Jesus possessed that had such a deep 
impression upon him but the love that was revealed in the relationship Jesus had 
with him. When Jesus spoke to him and said,

    "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people,"

Peter was staring not just at the miraculous power of God at work in the universe, 
he was staring at the creative power of God at work in his own life.  This beauty, 
power and majesty he already knew in the miracle of creation now wanted him, was 
concerned about him, was on his side and wanted his help.  The word translated as 
"catch", by the way, meant "to take alive" in the sense of rescuing from death. 
We can safely assume that Peter got Jesus' drift.  He knew as soon as he knelt at 
Jesus feet that he was kneeling before someone who would never abandon him and 
never let him go.  And in that moment, on the smelly deck of a fishing boat, he 
knew that it was OK being taken alive.

                                       +

There are times when "being taken alive" is a bad and dangerous idea.  It is 
self-destructive and ultimately selfish when we surrender to the immediate 
gratification of an affair that could fatally wound our marriage, to that drink
that would set off another cycle of addiction or to that desire for revenge that 
would indulge our worst instincts.  Similarly, there are people who want us to 
surrender to them, to capitulate to their power over us simply so that they can 
humiliate us and have control over us.  "Going with the flow" doesn't always mean
relaxing into the best of that which we are capable.  There are people and things 
out there that are intent on doing us arm when we surrender to cowardice and despair 
and helplessness.

But there is another kind of surrender that is not only good for us; it is the way 
out of hell.  I am talking about the kind of surrender we allow ourselves to 
experience when we learn to trust a love greater than our fears.  Those of you who 
are good lovers know what I am talking about; because to be a "good" lover, as 
opposed to a mediocre one, means being able to surrender rigid control over oneself.
When a husband and wife are holding back their bodies in the act of love, the 
result for both of them is unsatisfying and disappointing.  Ah, but when both of 
them permit themselves the luxury of absolute trust in each other, confident that 
they will always be respected, always be cherished, always be treated with the 
greatest tenderness - then being "taken alive" is sheer ecstasy and joy.

The kind of surrender we see being called forth and exemplified in this week's 
scriptures is the kind of trust that occurs when we realize that we have come face 
to face with a love far greater than ourselves.  Moreover, because we know that 
it is a love that means us well, we are not afraid of surrendering to it.  What 
happens as a result is a kind of electricity.  We are both more relaxed and more 
sensitive, more confident and more vulnerable, more creative and more reflective, 
more energetic and more casual, more excited and more serene.  We have entered into 
a different environment where the air we breathe is more pure, the sounds we hear 
are sharper, the colours we see more dramatic, and the ideas we think quicker and 
more insightful.  We are finally in a place where not only are we free to be 
ourselves but where we have no choice but to be ourselves.  Taken Alive.  And that 
is why Peter and his friends, when they had brought their boats ashore,

    ...left everything and followed him.

                                       +

Isaiah 6.1-8, (9-13) - By the harsh standards applied to rulers in those days, King 
Uzziah had been quite successful and Judah, even though under Assyrian hegemony, 
had enjoyed an era of relative independence.  Now that he was dead, the nation was 
in crisis.  In this political context, Isaiah has a vision of God in the temple, 
which leaves him speechless and awestruck.  It is to the words of God, " Whom shall 
I send, and who will go for us?", addressed to no one in particular, that Isaiah 
responds.  Proving that one should be careful about what one prays for, Isaiah ends 
up with far more than he bargained for.

1.   Is there anything in your experience or the experience of someone you know 
comparable to what Isaiah experienced?
2.   What evidence do you see in the text that this is a call story designed to 
answer challenges about Isaiah's prophetic authority?
3.   Describe in your own words the kind of message Isaiah is asked to deliver 
to his people.

1 Corinthians 15.1-11 - Although essentially an Easter text, we are reminded during 
Epiphany that the gospel is not something that we create.  Paul's salvation is one 
among many in a long line of witnesses.  The disciples' faith was not a matter of 
their own discovery but a divine revelation.  It came to them from without, not 
from within them.  That it extended through time into Paul's own time suggests that
it cannot be measured or contained by time and history in an ordinary sense.  When 
we acknowledge that the gospel is that in which our own identity is anchored, we 
are again acknowledging its prior claim upon us.

1.   How important is it that Christians testify to a faith that they have 
"received"? Why?
2.   What is the most compelling part of Paul's story for you? Why?

Luke 5.1-11 - The location of the story allows Luke to say two things about Jesus' 
call to his disciples.  First of all, happening later in his gospel, as compared 
with Matthew and Mark, after Jesus has already experienced considerable success 
and popularity, Luke makes the point that disciples are needed to help spread the 
word.  Secondly, Luke provides a more personal event for the disciples who are 
called, allowing him to establish a tradition of giving testimony that would 
become a norm in the church.
1.   What is your reaction to this week's interpretation of Peter's response 
to Jesus? Why?
2.   What examples of self-destructive or abusive surrender have you seen?
3.   When have you experienced a healthy or life-giving kind of self-surrender?


FOR FURTHER REFLECTION - Friendship is the breaking out of a prison, a prison in
which we feel very warm and comfortable because it is so familiar to us, a prison 
we hate to leave behind because we're not sure that we will find anything quite 
as good in the world outside.  But we encounter in friendship a different kind 
of trap, a trap that we have freely chosen, a trap that oddly enough liberates us 
more and more.  Friendship necessarily restricts our freedom.  Just as he who 
chooses to go north is no longer free to go south, he who chooses to make a 
commitment to a friend is now not free to withdraw the commitment. 
                                                              - Andrew M. Greeley


HYMN:  I, the Lord of Sea and Sky  (Voices United 509)
Keeping the Faith in Babylon:
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
A publication of FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
All rights reserved.
FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
R.R. 4, Lion's Head, Ontario Canada N0H 1W0
Phone/Fax: (519) 592-4551
E-mail: fernstone@fernstone.org

copyright - Barry Robinson 2004
            page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.


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