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