- Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13) & Psalm 138
- 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
- Luke 5:1-11
This week's lectionary texts include a rare combination: a passage where Paul makes explicit reference to traditions about Jesus' life (in this case his death and resurrection) as well as an episode from the Jesus tradition that is attested in both the Synoptic Gospels and in the Gospel of John. Within the context of the Epiphany season this week's readings invite us to be alert for the unexpected turn of events that may offer us an epiphany:
- The call of Isaiah in the OT reading is such an event. While going about his routine religious duties in the Temple, Isaiah sees a vision of God's glory and experiences a call to serve as a prophet to his people. The end result of that epiphany moment would be the great Scroll of Isaiah, gathering up insights from Isaiah and his successors over more than 200 years. This would become one of the most quoted OT books in the NT as it provided key ideas that helped the early Christians make sense of their experience of Jesus. Be careful next time your mind wanders in church!
- The passage from Galatians includes Paul's brief and under-stated account of his encounter with the risen Christ. Like Isaiah, Paul was going about his everyday business. In this case his occupation is not defined, but as a Pharisee and passionate opponent of Christianity, he was immersed in the Scriptures and devoted to shaping a holy life. When least expected, Paul discovers that Jesus is not "dead and buried" but rather "dead and raised" -- alive with God in a whole new way. While not strictly a conversion experience, it was certainly a time of repentance; turning around and heading in the opposite direction.
- In the Gospel passage we find the fishermen who will soon be disciples going about their trade. Not very successfully that evening, but they certainly don't need the unsolicited advice of that "carpenter" from Nazareth. Not really a carpenter, move of a handyman really. In any case, against their best instincts they follow his instructions and discover that he has landed them. From now on they will be fishing for people.
Paul and the Jesus Tradition
Paul's letters are our earliest surviving Christian texts, and also the oldest texts to mention Jesus.
There is no reason to doubt that Paul understood Jesus to have been an historical figure (not that he would have used such terminology) who had lived and died just a few years before his own conversion. While Paul himself had no personal contact with Jesus during his life time, he certainly had direct contact with key Christian leaders such as James (the brother of Jesus), Simon Peter, and John. Paul knew them well enough to refer to them as the supposedly acknowledged pillars of the movement:
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin;12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased16 to reveal his Son to me,5 so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being,17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days;19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother.20 In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia,22and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ;23 they only heard it said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy."24 And they glorified God because of me.
Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me.2 I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.3 But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.4 But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us--5 we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you.6 And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)--those leaders contributed nothing to me.7 On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised8 (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles),9 and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.10 They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.
11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned;12 for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction.13 And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.14 But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?" [Gal 1:11-2:14]
From a historian's perspective, this excerpt from Galatians is a priceless treasure. It is a passionate description of the internal conflict within the Jesus movement during the 40s as the leaders sought to come to terms with the inclusion of non-Jewish adfherents (Gentiles) in their communities.
As this passage indicates, Paul's faith was developed more as a response to personal revelations, than to traditions about Jesus handed down by others. Paul is adamant that he gets his gospel directly from the risen Jesus and not from those who were apostles before him. His letters, not surprisingly, show little awareness of the traditions of Jesus' actions and sayings that we know so well from the Gospels.
The list of resurrection appearances in 1Cor 15 is another of the historical treasures from Paul's writings. It is a snapshot into the way that Christian leaders handled the Easter tradition before the Gospel narratives had taken shape and so powerfully shaped the Christian imagination.
According to Stephen J. Patterson [Forum 10,3-4 (1994) =The God of Jesus (1998) ch. 7] the earliest expression of Christian 'easter faith' was the traditional Jewish affirmation that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Stories of appearances by the risen Jesus were used to authenticate claims to authority in the church, rather than to prove the resurrection. The legends of an empty tomb constitute a third stream that gave narrative expression to the early Christians’ belief that Jesus had not been left to rot in the grave (cf. Acts 2:31 using Ps 16:10).
A list of appearances by the risen Jesus, such as we have in 1Cor 15:4-7, preserves the collective memory of which persons and groups within the early Christian movement enjoyed the status that flowed from having "seen the Lord." Interestingly, Mary Magdalene has already dropped from the list. Did Paul consider himself free to amend the list, for example by omitting Mary and including himself?
While these questions must remain unresolved, they remind us that the authentic letters of Paul (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon) preserve firsthand insights into the Jesus movement during the 40s and 50s of the 1C.
The Miraculous Catch of Fish
The story of the miraculous catch of fish is known in two forms: the tradition in Luke 5, and the seaside resurrection appearance found in John 21.
John P. Meier considers this miracle story as part of his extensive discussion of Jesus' miracles in volume two of A Marginal Jew. Meier notes the following features that suggest the same story underlies the two accounts:
- A group of fisherman, among whom Peter is the chief actor, has spent the night fishing but has caught nothing (Luke 5:2-5; John 21:2-5). Now daylight has come, and Jesus is on the scene.
- With apparently supernatural knowledge, Jesus directs Peter and his colleagues to cast their nets into the water once again, with the explicit (John) or implicit (Luke) promise that now they will have success ...
- Peter and his colleagues trust and obey Jesus' command, with the result that many fish are caught ...
- The effect of the large number of fish on the nets is mentioned ...in spite of the extraordinary number of fish, and contrary to what one might expect, the nets are not torn ...
- Peter is the only named disciple who reacts in a dramatic fashion to the miraculous event ...
- In the third-person narrative in which the author directly speaks to his audience, Jesus (even the risen Jesus of John's narrative) is referred to simply as "Jesus"; Peter and Peter alone addresses Jesus as "Lord" ...
- The other fishermen share in the action of catching the fish ... but neither on sea nor on land do they (apart from the beloved disciple in John 21:15-17) say anything once the miracle begins.
- At the end of each story, Jesus directly or indirectly issues a summons to Peter to follow him ...
- The abundant catch of fish symbolizes in each story the future misionary work and the resultant success of Peter and the other disciples. A further idea symbolized in each story is that the disciples, left to themselves in the night of this world, are doomed to failure. With Jesus' help and direction, they are granted startling success.
- The same Greek words are used for many verbs and nouns in the two stories ... since both stories are concerned with fishing, some of the agreements may be coincidental.
- In both stories, at the moment when he reacts to the miraculous catch, Peter is referred to as "Simon Peter" ... This point is especially remarkable because this is the only time in the Third Gospel that Luke uses the double name, while it is the regular way in which the redactor refers to Peter in John 21:1-14.
If in fact we have two versions of the same story, which Gospel is closest to the original form?
Meier concludes that John's setting of the story as a post-Easter resurrection appearance to Simon Peter is the earlier form of the story, and that Luke reflects the well-attested phenomenon of stories/sayings moving from a post-Easter setting to one during the lifetime of Jesus.
The following comments from Meier suggest another level of connection between this Sunday's readings from Luke 5 and 1 Cor 15:
... behind Luke 5;1-11 || John 21:1-17 we may have some remnants of a primitive tradition narrating the initial resurrection appearance of Jesus, i.e., the appearance granted to Peter. The appearance to Peter is highlighted in one of the earliest Christian creeds we posses (1 Cor 15:3-5) and is also mentioned in Luke 24:34. Yet, while we have stories of appearances of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and to the group of eleven disciples (the Twelve minus Judas), we have no full story of what 1 Cor 15:5 claims was the first of all appearances, the appearance to "Cephas" (= Peter).
Miraculous Catch of Fish and Called to be Fishers of Humans
Paul's Resurrection List
- 003 Bread and Fish
- 005 Crucifixion of Jesus
- 017 Resurrection of Jesus
- 018 Revealed to Disciples
- 030 Revealed to James
- 070 Burial of Jesus
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt's web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor's Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.