Lectionary Commentaries for February 7, 2010
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 5:1-11

Arland J. Hultgren

Prior to the reading of the Gospel for the Day — the call of the first disciples in Luke 5:1-11 — the congregation will have heard two other texts which relate quite directly to it.

The First Lesson is the majestic text from Isaiah 6:1-8, the call of the prophet Isaiah. The Second Lesson is from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in which he alludes to his own call as an apostle (1 Corinthians 15:8). He speaks more fully of that in Galatians 1:15-16.

The call of the first disciples appears, naturally, early on in the ministry of Jesus. Up to this point, the main events have been Jesus’ baptism (3:21-22), his temptation in the wilderness (4:1-13), his inaugural sermon and rejection at Nazareth (4:16-30), and a series of healings (4:31-41). More immediately, there is a series of events that includes his going to a deserted place to be alone, his being sought out by crowds of people, and his teaching in synagogues (4:42-44).

The story opens with Jesus beside Lake Gennesaret, which is another name for the Sea of Galilee. He borrows a boat on the lakeshore that belongs to a fisherman named Simon. From there he teaches crowds of people. They will not leave him alone, for they want to hear “the word of God.” As the story unfolds, Jesus asks Simon to go out to the deep water and to put down the nets for a catch. Simon does so; there is a great catch of fish; the catch is so great that others have to help bring the nets ashore; and the story ends with Jesus’ recruiting Simon and the others as disciples.

The names of those on the scene are provided. Simon is mentioned by name five times over (5:3, 4, 5, 8, 10), and on one of those occasions he is called Simon Peter (5:8). The use of the name Peter is a bit early here, for according to Luke himself, Jesus gave him that name at a later time (6:14). Nevertheless, it makes sense that it appears here, so that the reader of the gospel knows who Simon is. Missing from the account of those present is Andrew, the brother of Peter, who is called at the same time in the other two Synoptic Gospels (Mark 1:16//Matthew 4:18). In the Gospel of John he is actually called earlier than Peter (1:40-42). Other persons on the scene are James and John, sons of Zebedee, who are “partners with Simon.”

Clearly the main figure on the scene, apart from Jesus himself, is Simon Peter. It is his boat that Jesus uses. It is he to whom Jesus speaks first, asking him to go into the deep water. Conversely, Simon Peter is the only person who speaks to Jesus. He addresses him as “master” (Greek: epistat ēs, a term used for tutors and teachers) at 5:5. But after the miraculous catch, he addresses him as “Lord” (kyrios) at 5:8. Likewise, Simon Peter is the only one whom Jesus addresses directly, both when he tells him to go into the deep water (5:4). And, interestingly, even at the end of the story when he says “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (5:10), for in Greek the verbs are second person singular.

Incidentally, the “fish for people” (or “fishers of men” in the KJV, RSV, and NIV) metaphor does not appear in Luke, but only in the parallel accounts (Matthew 4:19//Mark 1:17). Luke’s verb is zōgreō (simply “to catch”), while in the other accounts a noun is used, alieis (“fishermen,” plural), addressed to both Peter and Andrew. The status of Peter is obviously important in Luke’s account, and that is not surprising. Not only was Peter prominent in the traditions that Luke received concerning the earthly Jesus and his companions, but Luke knew that Peter was an important leader in the early church, as he narrates in Acts 1-11.

There are features to this story that resonate with other significant biblical motifs. One is that, when Simon is called, he resists, as do Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, to name but three (Exodus 3:11; Isaiah 6:1-11; Jeremiah 1:6). Simon objects to Jesus’ command to go out to the deep water, but then he does as he was told to do (5:5).

Another is the exclamation of Simon, saying that the “Lord” should depart from him because of his being a sinful man (5:8). It is a common biblical motif for a person to feel unworthy in the presence of the divine (Exodus 3:6; 33:20; Judges 6:22; 13:22; Isaiah 6:5; Luke 18:13).

Finally, the miracle of the great catch is, like others in the gospels, more than one should expect. The exceeding of expectations appear in other miracle stories too, as in the Healing of the Paralytic (Luke 5:17-26), the Feeding of the Multitudes (Luke 9:12-17), and the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11).

The story of the call of Jesus’ first disciples is fitting for the Epiphany Season, a time in which the church celebrates the gift of Jesus Christ as a “manifestation” (epiphania) of God, and gives thoughtful consideration to his mission to the world.

Jesus has come into the world to reveal God and to redeem the cosmos. But he is known to us only through the witness of his apostles. The call of the first disciples marks the beginning of a movement that culminates in the founding of the church. The church did not come into existence through a group of persons who wanted to start a good, even benevolent, organization. From the gospels, we learn that it had its beginning with Jesus, who called certain persons to follow him. He created a community of disciples who heard him preach and teach, heal, and finally suffer, die, and rise from death on the first Easter.

The story of the church is reflected to some degree in this story itself. When Jesus calls, Peter is hesitant and thinks that what Jesus asks of him is both unnecessary and too demanding. Nevertheless, Peter responds, and he discovers that life has a surprise in store for him. By doing what Jesus asks him to do, he experiences an epiphany of God.

God often becomes manifest in the ordinary, even seemingly unnecessary events of a person’s life — events which nevertheless are in accord with some purpose that is or is not known. Throughout history the church has continued to exist and carry on its ministry in spite of the tenuous responses of its members. The ancient image of the church as a fisherman’s boat tossed about on the sea, but sustained by the presence of the living Lord, is appropriate in every age.

The commissioning of Peter is of particular importance. He became a leader among the Twelve during the earthly ministry of Jesus (as at Luke 9:20, 33; 12:41; 18:28) and also as a powerful preacher and leader in the early church. Although he alone is addressed in this particular story, both he and the other disciples are commissioned by the risen Lord to carry on the mission of Jesus (see Luke 24:48-49; Acts 1:6-11). Finally, the witness of the disciples to Jesus, his words, and his deeds is to extend “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), and that commission is being realized in the present


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8 [9-13]

Beth L. Tanner

For most of the country, this Fifth Sunday of Epiphany falls about the time when winter is at its worst.

The Christmas lights are long gone, and there seems no end to the cold days and dark nights. This sense of never-ending gloom is the way the people of Israel were feeling during the time of Isaiah in Jerusalem, for they are quickly falling under the shadow of Assyrian domination. It is a time of fear and uncertainty for the people and the leadership. God’s promises of a peaceful, secure place to dwell are difficult to believe in the face of a massive army moving south and claiming everything in its path.

Enter the prophet, Isaiah, who tells of God as being exalted, powerful, and the ruler of the universe. In the chapters that follow this reading, Isaiah will reassure King Ahaz to place his trust in this great God, not in humans (7:1-23). Scholars believe this is why the call of Isaiah is placed immediately before this act of reassurance. The job of Isaiah in those darkening days was a difficult one; to assure the people and to call them into account for their actions and lack of faith.

The text itself is magnificent, especially against this dark backdrop. It is set in the place where earth and heaven meet, the holy of holies. Here, the prophet can see into God’s celestial throne room. Here, the LORD is so magnificent that “the hem of God’s robe fills the temple (verse 1).”  This is certainly a place of awe, where the scale alone dwarfs the prophet.

A preacher would be well suited to help set the stage. God’s hem fills the biggest building humans could construct at the time. Cathedrals like St. John the Divine in New York or Notre Dame in Paris create the same scale and often have this image or its counterpart from Revelation 4 painted on a ceiling that towers above tiny human visitors. In addition, God is attended by fierce creatures. These are not the chubby baby angels that appear on Christmas cards, but scary flying snakes, probably the size of sea serpents that are singing with loud, almost ear piercing, voices constantly proclaiming God’s holiness and glory.

It is no wonder in this context Isaiah feels unclean and unworthy and is afraid that this very sight will cause instant death! The prophet’s words, however, can be difficult to decipher. Is he lost (New Revised Standard Version) or ruined (New International Version) in verse 5? The Hebrew root has three meanings, and it is not clear which one is correct here. The word can mean “to be destroyed,” or “be brought to silence,” or “made in the likeness of God” as in Isaiah 40:18. All are possible and offer preaching possibilities.

It is also possible that all three are meant because each tells a truth about humans and God. God can destroy us; an encounter could stun us into silence; and even when unclean we are still made in God’s image. It is interesting that the word for “unclean” here is not implying sin, but it is a ritual word indicating the prophet did not properly prepare for this encounter. This happening seems to have occurred without warning. This is also a preaching point: God does not wait for us to “get clean” before appearing. This is a good intersection with the New Testament text for this week.

The next scene continues the mythical character of the text. The prophet’s lips are touched with a burning stone or coal brought by one of the creatures from the altar. This is a metaphor of the forgiveness that is granted at this very throne each and every time we come before the Lord. We tend over time to take this act for granted, but forgiveness is something that only the great God and Creator and Controller of the Universe can grant!

It seems so ordinary, but this text reminds us that forgiveness is anything but ordinary. Like Isaiah, we stand small and human before God, dependent on a gracious act for our restoration. Modern English translations imply that it is only “then” that the prophet can hear God, but the Hebrew text is not as clear here, using only the simple conjunction waw. God asks a question that under the circumstances has no answer except the one given. Those that have been called by God to a task know very well that there is usually only one answer — whether that call is to pastor a congregation or parent a child.

The call was, as we see from Jeremiah, decided in our very creation. We can resist but will not be whole until we answer God and become what we are created to be and do. It is no surprise that the hymn based on this verse “Here I am, Lord” appears in the liturgy of so many ordination and commissioning services.

This text, as noted, gives several avenues for preaching. Yet there is also a decision to be made. The reading for this day ends at verse 9 and as an Old Testament scholar, I have a problem with using all of the positive images of calling here without telling the rest of the story, continuing to verse 13, which speaks of the difficulty of prophetic truth-telling. But as a preacher, I can see that continuing the text depends on the central message of the sermon itself. However, we as preachers have a responsibility to tell of the difficulty of following God’s call for the decision of the newly-minted disciples in the Luke text will not bring an easy life either. There is a price to be paid for singing “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty” in the face of an oppressive force that thinks otherwise. If this additional section is not included on this day, it should be part of the regular proclamation of the Word.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 138

James Limburg

The word “extreme” seems to be especially popular in the language of our day.

One hears of extreme sports, extreme programming, and there is a band with the name “Extreme.”  Whatever the word means in each of these connections, “extreme” refers to something that is not bland or middle-of-the-road, but rather pushing to the limits, situated on the edges.

The Bible speaks of God in terms of extremes.

For example: God is “high above all nations” and yet is concerned about an individual poor man and childless woman (Psalm 113). God is enthroned in heaven and yet looks down on the earth’s inhabitants (Psalm 33:13). God is “high and lifted up” and yet reaches down to forgive a sinner (Isaiah 6, one of the lectionary texts for this day). God says “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit” (Isaiah 57:15). God is “Our Father who in heaven” who is concerned about our daily needs (Matthew 6:9-13).

To put it another way: according to the Bible, God is both transcendent (far away) and immanent (near at hand). This view of God in terms of extremes is expressed at the center of this psalm: “For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly…” (verse 6) and also in the final two sections of the psalm that speak of God’s might (4-6a) and also his being with the individual (6b-8).

Location, Structure and Genre
Psalm 138 is the first in the final collection of eight psalms identified as “of David” in the Psalter (138-145). Psalms of thanks (138) and praise (145) frame a group of individual laments (139-144). At the heart of the Song of Thanksgiving is an account of God’s deliverance (see 30:2, 8-12; 34:4,6; 40:1-2, etc.). The account of deliverance is very short in this psalm: “On the day I called, you answered me…” (138:3). The psalm may be divided as follows: I thank you, God (1-3), This is our God (4-6), You Are With Me (7-8).

Reading the Psalm

Thank you, Lord, from the bottom of my heart! (1-3)
The psalm gets right to the point. The first word in the Hebrew text is “I thank you.” The perspective of the psalm goes to the extremes. This is no perfunctory, “Thanks, God,” but a deep “thank you from the bottom of my heart” as we might put it. And this is not a solitary word of thanks to God; the psalmist wants “all the kings of the earth” to join in with him in praising God (verse 4). What is the reason for this heartfelt thanks to God? The psalm says it very simply:

On the day I called, you answered me, you increased the strength of my soul. (3)

Songs of thanksgiving such as this one typically refer to a specific action of God for which the psalmist is thankful (see Psalm 30:6-12). But here the psalmist’s language is comprehensive, strong and simple: “I prayed, you answered” (verse 3).

This is our God (4-6)
Verse 6 gives succinct expression to the “extreme theology” that informs this psalm. The Lord is high, as high as one can imagine, even above the heavens (Psalm 113:4). The capitalized LORD indicates that the Hebrew is using the name Yahweh for God; notice that it comes up four times in this God-centered short section.

But this God is also concerned with the lowly. Again, the theologian behind this psalm thinks of God in “extreme” categories. For another example of this thinking in extreme terms, notice Psalm 22, where the psalmist speak of God as “holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel” (verse 3) and himself as “a worm, and not human.” (verse 6).

You are with me (7-8)
The picture of life as a “walk” reminds one of Psalm 23. Psalm 138:7 says: “Though I walk in the midst of trouble” and Psalm 23 reads: “Even though I walk [same verb form in Hebrew] through the darkest valley” (Psalm 23:4). The psalm comes to a conclusion as it began, with a reference to the LORD’s amazing grace or “steadfast love” (verses 8,2)

Toward a Sermon on this Psalm
The notion of God’s immanence and transcendence runs through the Bible and through both Jewish and Christian theology. The important point is that the Bible and biblical theology speak of God in terms of both immanence and transcendence. If only the immanence is stressed, one ends up with pantheism (everything is God). If transcendence is over emphasized, one can slip into deism (God is very far away and not involved in things on the earth).

One can line up lists of texts that speak of God’s might and power. At the other extreme is the Bible’s central assertion of God’s concern for humans, the earth and its creatures, in the Incarnation, God taking human form in the person of Jesus the Christ.

The challenge for the preacher/teacher is always to find fresh and effective ways of expressing immanence/transcendence. I’m suggesting that the notion of “extremes” might be helpful at this point. A sermon could run as follows:

I. Introduction: Extreme language in our day.
Here would be some examples from current vocabulary..

II. The Story in this Psalm

Wholehearted thanks (1-3)
Comment on Psalm 138 as a Song of Thanksgiving and compare with a few of these, such as Psalms 30, 34, 40, 66. Focus here on the strong and clear statement in verse 3.

This is Our God (4-6)
Develop the immanence/transcendence themes expressed in verse 6 without using that language!

You Are With Me (7-8)
Expand on the immanence theme, such as expressed in Psalm 23. Develop the theme of life as a walk, a journey, and the promise that God will be there at times of trouble, even in the valley of the shadow of death.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Karl Jacobson

In recent years, a lot of noise has been made about the Gnostic versions of the gospel; from the Gospel according to Mary, to those of Peter, Philip, Thomas, and most recently even the gospel according to Judas.

These “other” gospels, unearthed (or un-sanded) largely near Nag Hammadi, Egypt (or in the case of the Gospel of Judas most recently in a New York safe deposit box), are big business these days, and have been for some time.1 

One thing that, to my knowledge, has not been dug up is a narrative gospel according to Paul. Why? Because, of course, the Gospel According to Paul is already in the Bible. While the Apostle Paul does not get his version of the Good News under the traditional Gospel title “according to” (kata in Greek), it may be helpful to remember that Paul’s presentation of the gospel predates the four biblical Gospels (not to mention the other gospels that followed well after, and which Paul would surely have judged as being “no gospel”–copyright Galatians 1), and though it does not match the gospel form or genre, it is most certainly “gospel” that he preaches and presents in his letters.

In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, there are three elements worthy of note and perhaps some attention from the pulpit as well. First, is this “Gospel According to Paul,” which is both the good news in a nutshell, and a creedal formula of sorts. Second is Paul’s claim that the gospel he proclaims falls out in a particular way–i.e. in accordance with the scriptures. And third is Paul’s self-designation as “least of the apostles.”

1. The Gospel According to Paul

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is, at its core, the proclamation of the gospel. In all of Paul’s writing this is, for my money, the most complete, concise expression of the Good News. And this is it:

I. Christ died for our sins (3)
II. was buried (4)
III. was raised on the third day (4)
IV. and that he appeared to his disciples (5)

With the exception of the appearance to his disciples, this gospel shorthand hits the same basic highpoints of the life, death, and life of Jesus that is professed in the great creeds of the Christian tradition. From time to time, readers of Paul’s credo make note (and sometimes even a big deal) of differences in his account when compared to the Gospel versions. Chief among these differences is the fact that Paul makes no mention of the empty tomb. It is, of course, entirely possible that there is something important going on in this. But to me it’s a little bit like Groucho Marx’s famous trick question, “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” Perhaps for Paul, mention of the empty tomb is unnecessary, considering his risen-ness.

Paul’s gospel shorthand here in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 resonates with other creedal elements in Paul. Compare Romans 1:1-4, “the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord;” 2 Timothy 2:8, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David – that is my gospel;” and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Notice also that what Paul characterizes here as “of first importance,” is something that was first given to Paul and in turn handed on. Paul uses this kind of language in just one other place, in 1 Corinthians 11:23 quoted above. In both cases Paul is handing on (read: proclaiming the message of) the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 11:23ff the gospel is presented in terms of the Lord’s Supper, ritual recitation which re-presents the life death and new life of Jesus; in 1 Corinthians 15 the message itself is reiterated (“Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters”), re-proclaimed, and re-confessed by Paul. This is my body that is for you. Christ died for our sins. This is of first importance. And this is the Gospel according to Paul.

2. “According to the Scriptures” (kata tas graphas)

Twice in these few verses of Paul’s version of the gospel, the details which he presents as of first importance are “in accordance with the scriptures.” Variations on this particular phrase occur in several places in the New Testament–several times in Paul’s letters, and a couple of times in Acts. Acts portrays Paul’s missionary work in Thessalonica, his proclamation and his evangelical persuading, as “from the scriptures” (apo tōn graphōn; Acts 17:1-4). Paul introduces himself to the Romans as “an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures” (en graphais hagiais; Romans 1:1-3). And in 2 Corinthians 4:13 Paul speaks of faith and the resurrection of the dead as “in accordance with the scriptures” (kata to gegrammenon). In all of these instances, by stating that his gospel is “in accordance with the scriptures,” Paul makes a claim on the authority, centrality, and (again) the “first importance” of what is being proclaimed.

Paul may not have intentionally been writing material that would come to be regarded as scripture, but he certainly was writing and preaching in a manner in keeping with–flowing between the same banks as–the traditional stream of the Old Testament. Paul’s proclamation of the gospel is, in this sense, very much scriptural, very much gospel. The preacher may do very well, and certainly no worse, than to follow Paul’s lead in preaching the formula that he presents here in this scripture.

3. Least of the Apostles

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 ends with three verses of Paul’s self-reflection on his calling and role as apostle. Having rehearsed his unique confessional detail–Jesus appearing first to Peter and the twelve, then to another five hundred believers, then to James and the apostles–Paul gets to himself: “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.”

When I first read this passage I was tempted to highlight the connection that might be made to we who are preachers; we who, in many and various ways, persecute the church by our preaching. My temptation was (and in some ways still is) to stress the need to preach the confessional, creedal form of the Gospel according to Paul that we find here in 1 Corinthians 15–forget the cute stories, the themes or issues that we value week to week, the stewardship needs, the social subject of the moment, etc. But there is another element in these last verses that strikes me as more important.

Paul calls himself the least of the apostles. This ought to beg the question of us. If Paul considers himself “least,” what connection do we make not only to our own work as apostles–those sent to remind this world of the good news–but to the lives of our parishioners as well? In what ways are we who are least, the most effective and most important agent of God’s gospel? How might God use the least of us, be we preacher, pew-sitter, pencil-pusher or planter, to proclaim this good news? This, it seems to me, is a potential life-changing way into (and out of) this text, and a question more than worthy of our attention from the pulpit.

Whether then it is we or they (and may God make it both), so let us proclaim, that the world might come to believe; that Christ Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised again.


1June 2009 saw the publication of a comprehensive collection, The Gnostic Bible: Gnostic Texts of Mystical Wisdom from the Ancient and Medieval Worlds, if you are interested in that kind of thing.