We must have faith in God's guiding hand

  • January 29, 2010
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Feb. 7 (Isaiah 6:1-2, 3-8; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11)

What would it be like to find oneself standing in the heavenly court before the throne of God? The thought is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. In his interior vision, that is exactly where Isaiah finds himself. His reaction is similar to someone in shorts and a t-shirt who accidently wanders into a black-tie state dinner.

Isaiah is very conscious of his own imperfections and sinfulness and the limits of his own humanity. As with many ancient people he is convinced that he will not survive this encounter. Manifestations of the divine were always frightening and dangerous events and had to be managed with the utmost care. In many respects we approach God with the same sort of reluctance and fear. There can be a fear of being unmasked and exposed with all of our sins and weaknesses, as well as a dread of an expected judgment and punishment. But surprisingly, most of the biblical encounters with God — with a couple of notable exceptions — were unexpectedly positive and joyful. In so many places the angelic messenger — or Jesus Himself — begins the encounter with reassuring words: Do not be afraid!

Isaiah’s concern about his “unclean lips” (meaning one’s sinful attitudes, thoughts and moral state) is swept away by the action of the seraph. The symbolism of the burning coal touched to the prophet’s lips signifies the initiative of God in making us whole and washing away our sin. We should never shrink from God’s call or the responsibilities God places on us. We are never asked to shoulder more than we can bear. Our own humanity will become the channel and instrument of God’s power and grace.

The passage from Corinthians represents the oldest profession of faith or creed in the New Testament. The early Christian proclamation focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus and its significance for humanity. The Trinitarian definitions that we find in later creeds were still centuries in the future. Paul emphasizes the fact that Jesus actually died and was buried for many questioned this, both in Paul’s time and today. In addition to rising from the dead, Jesus appeared to many — the apostles and a huge number of witnesses who can corroborate the Christian proclamation. Being a witness to the risen Christ was an authentication as an apostle and Paul goes to great pains to place himself in that class. Some would question whether Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus was really an encounter with the risen Christ in the same manner experienced by the Twelve. But Paul was plagued by no such doubts. His own radically transformed life and the amount of zealous and faith-filled energy that he has given in service of his faith bear eloquent testimony to the authenticity of his encounter with the Lord.

The story of the miraculous catch makes two appearances in the New Testament — in this passage from Luke and in chapter 21 of John. In the latter instance it occurs after the resurrection on the Sea of Galilee. An independent tradition about Jesus was used by two of the evangelists in very different ways to impart theological truth to their audiences. In this story, Jesus commandeers Peter’s fishing boat so that He can continue to teach the crowds at some distance from the shore. As a sort of reward or rental fee He tells the crew to put down their nets and they will make an adequate catch. But they are a bit weary and skeptical. After all, they have been at it for hours — all night — and haven’t caught a thing. But when they follow His directions they make an enormous haul.

Peter even echoes some of Isaiah’s sentiments about unworthiness in the presence of the holy but Jesus brushes it away. He invites Peter to the biggest fishing expedition of all: bringing souls to God. And that will be through, not in spite of, Peter’s humanity. Our own efforts are often similar — we are discouraged because we have tried something many times. But when we try the well-trodden path once more — this time following the Lord’s directions and guidance — we can be successful beyond our expectations. We need to face the problems of our own age with more faith and with a willingness to be guided by the hand of God.