What does it mean to be ‘called’ by God? How have people responded when this happens to them? Two of the readings today give us examples. Not all ‘callings’ are so dramatic as these two, but to be a disciple is to respond to Jesus, when in our hearts we hear, ‘Come, follow me.”
Although this section represents the call and beginning of Isaiah’s prophetic mission, it is not the opening in the book as we have it which collects a number of ‘oracles’ or prophecies spoken on various occasions by Isaiah of Jerusalem. The year of his call is dated by kingship, as was common in the ancient world. In our calendar, it is 742 BCE, a time when an era of prosperity and security was coming to an end and turmoil and even captivity were ahead.
Isaiah describes a vision of God as if the ‘heavenly throne and court’ of angelic spirits had come into the Temple, and it may have features drawn from the temple liturgy. From this we can gather the prophet had been a priest who served in the inner sanctuary. The three-fold ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ is likely based on the idea that the number 3 means completeness, or wholeness. It may be heard by Christians as foreshadowing the Holy Trinity. The words of the seraphim have been taken into our Mass. ‘Seraph’ means ‘burning’ and possibly the attendants were seen as bright and shining. Winged creatures as attendants on gods were used in the art of countries known to Israel; there are examples in the British Museum. Some descriptions, however, are not meant to be visualised but may have more of a symbolic meaning. ‘Smoke’ was a sign of God’s glory, perhaps because incense was burned in the temple, or as a reminder of Moses’ experience in Sinai. Food offerings were set alight on the altar, from where, in this vision, the live coal is taken.
The prophet’s first reaction is fear and dismay, for he knew the words in Exodus 33:20 that ‘No one can see the face of God and live’. A deep ‘fear’ or ‘awe’ is common in the Bible for those who have some powerful experience of God’s presence. Those who have such an experience often feel an overwhelming sense of human weakness and sinfulness in face of God’s power and goodness. Here, as in most such passages, reassurance is given.
‘Unclean’ is a word from ritual purity, but here may imply some moral issues as well. ‘Lips’ are the only part of the body mentioned as cleansed, probably because Isaiah is to speak God’s word.
When Isaiah hears the question of ‘Who…?’ he responds immediately with the offer of ‘Send me’, which gives us a clue to his character and his dedication to his mission. This vision of God in all his holiness and God as king of all the earth was behind much that Isaiah would have to say. His favourite title for God was ‘The Holy One of Israel’. He would have to speak many words of warning, but also has many messages of consolation and of God’s presence in times to come.
A call, unworthiness and instant response will be in the gospel today.
Psalm 137/138:1-5, 7-8
This psalm has a number of echoes of the previous reading: angels, glory, words of my mouth.
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
The occasion for this section of the long letter is St Paul’s knowledge that some at Corinth were denying the resurrection of the body. ‘This denial, it seems, was due to their concept of the body as a hindrance to the soul’s activity – a characteristic Greek and Platonic concept.’ (Richard Kugelman, C.P.) Paul stresses how the essential ‘handing on’ of Christian faith was based on the saving death and bodily resurrection of Christ and that this is what he had taught them in Corinth. He reminds them of the significant witnesses to this, starting with ‘Cephas’ which is the Aramaic form of ‘Peter’. The appearance to 500 disciples is not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, which reminds us that there was more about Jesus than was written down. Paul associates himself with the witnesses, as one ‘born out of time’, that is, after the first appearances to those who knew Jesus in his lifetime. (Paul’s conversion story is told in Acts 9 may also be seen as the ‘call’ he received as an Apostle.) To further convince the Corinthians of his authority, he tells him he has worked harder than the others, in his missionary travels. But his basic point, again, is that all preach the same gospel.
Since Luke is the longest of the gospels, the mass selections will leave much out. If you want to have the full story, you can ‘catch up’ by reading the passages between the Sundays. Between this and the gospel selection we heard last week, Luke has told of Jesus in Capernaum teaching and healing Simon’s mother-in-law. So he is not a stranger to Peter when he makes use of his boat as a preaching platform. ‘Lake of Gennesaret’ – although Mark and Matthew call it ‘the Sea of Galilee’, Luke has a wider geographic perspective.
Luke does not tell us what Simon was thinking as he listened, but we may guess he was impressed enough to obey, though he frankly suggests how unlikely it is there will be any fish to catch. ‘Master’ – this title for Jesus in Luke is used by disciples and ‘Teacher’ by those not yet committed to Jesus. In the Greek world, master could be used in wide various positions of overseeing and commanding, so by speaking to Jesus this way, the disciples are showing themselves as accepting his authority.
When Simon sees the amazing catch, he recognizes something special – may be something ‘numinous’ or Godlike in Jesus that goes beyond what he had learned from his teaching. Like Isaiah he becomes aware of his unworthiness as one who has no place before holiness. The title ‘Lord’ was normally reserved for Jesus after his resurrection, but the Greek word ‘kyrios’ could also be used at that time as a polite form of address especially to one thought of as a superior – rather like English ‘sir’ and is sometimes translated as that when it does not seem to mean ‘God’. Here it is not emphasized in the grammar so that something more like ‘sir’ could be meant, but the reaction of Peter suggests something more profound. Luke mentions the awe of the others but his focus is on especially on Peter, and that will also be seen at the beginning of his sequel, Acts of the Apostles.
Is there a touch of wit as well as depth in Jesus telling them they will ‘capture people alive’ rather than fish destined for food? (Luke emphasizes ‘alive’ noticing the difference in that people are not sought as food. Mark and Matthew use the simpler expression ‘fishers of people’.) All of the first three gospels highlight the fishers leaving their occupation then and there to follow Christ.
I like the meditation of G. B. Caird: ‘The point of this story is Jesus’ miraculous influence with dispirited men, wearied by a night of profitless toil. These were the men he needed for his disciples, disciplined by labour and hardship, but with the impetuous loyalty to say, “If you give the order, I will do it”’
As well as the words of the seraphim, our Mass has preserved the sense of ‘unworthiness’ to be in God’s presence, and these words are repeated as we see Jesus’ presence offered to us as bread and wine. Their use today is a reminder to me to take the responses we make seriously: God is present in the Bread and Body and I should feel the awe of that.