Saturday, February 6, 2010

Bearing Witness To God's Power and Glory Reflected

As we celebrated the real culmination of the Christmas season on Tuesday with the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, Candlemas Day, I was struck more than usual with the reality of what happened to Simeon, that righteous old man who held the infant Jesus in his arms. Luke, the same writer of today’s Gospel, speaks of Simeon as “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel...the Holy Spirit [resting] on him.” Here was a man who knew what the word “waiting” was all about. We spend a lot of time waiting in grocery or department store or post office lines, often longer than we think we should. But Simeon apparently waited long years, with only a deep, yet vague, assurance that he’d live long enough to see the Messiah.

On the day Mary and Joseph bring Jesus into the Temple precincts Simeon feels himself physically moved by a kind of divine radar: “
Guided by the Spirit”, Luke says, “Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child...Simeon took him in his arms and praised God...: ‘Master, you are now dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation...’” And even the old 84-year-old widow who lived in the Temple, Anna, daughter of Phanuel, gets swept up in the emotion of the moment and begins to praise God and, Luke points out, “to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

What must that have felt like for Simeon? To hold that baby boy, knowing that this was “
the One who saves”, the One whom generations of his ancestors had longed to see? What was Anna thinking and feeling? And the people, passersby, in that busy Temple? What did they see beyond a group of four people and an infant?
It was literally a “divine” moment! A moment of manifestation, of revelation, of theophany: where the curtain was pulled back --
re + velare, a retracting of the veil -- and human beings experienced God Himself.

In our sacramental rites we celebrate such moments of enlightenment with or by holding candles: certainly in Baptism and Eucharist, sometimes in Marriage and Ordination, often at wakes and memorials for the dead. In the words of Lutheran Pastor Kim Beckmann: “
...candles point to our own bodies, our own lives lived in the world, as places where God may dwell and others may see God’s power and glory reflected.” And that’s what we’re about today in the Scriptures, as Isaiah, Paul, and Peter experience similar moments of revelation in which they, too, see “God’s power and glory reflected”.
Have you ever stood in wonder at the Sanctus, the Holy, holy, holy of the Eucharist, on Sunday morning in what Pastor Kim calls “awareness and jaw-dropping awe of God’s glory”?! In the time since I was in the seminary, there’s been a lot of study and discussion about Isaiah’s vision in the temple, his call as a prophet (Isaiah 6:1-13). Many conjecture that he wasn’t a priest or part of the religious establishment, as previously thought, but perhaps just someone who came in off the streets. Which would then give Isaiah’s experience the perspective of someone looking into the temple from the outside. God’s greatness, majesty, glory and mind-blowing presence -- and God, according to the writer, filled the temple with only “the hem of God’s robe” -- was unimaginable, inexpressable! An inkling of God’s reality could only be hinted at by the vision of six seraphs, in wing-covered awe, attending to the throne, all the while chanting, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory”, so loudly and resoundingly that the very threshold posts through which Isaiah was witnessing all this shook violently! He groans audibly: “Woe is me! I am undone!” Any human being, that close to the mighty God’s presence, would immediately become acutely aware of human limitation, deficiency, uncleanness: nothingness, in comparison. His eyes probably blinking, Isaiah becomes aware of one of the seraphs holding a live coal from the altar in front of him, touching his lips with it! Improbable as it must have seemed to him, he hears the words: “Now...your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out...

Even more astounding: his ears tingle at God’s own voice: “
Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Before he can even think about it, Isaiah blurts out: “ me!” Almost as if nothing which Isaiah would’ve said would matter, God commissions him to go and speak God’s message to a completely deaf, uncomprehending, unseeing, unaccepting, arrogant, totally resistant populace in Jerusalem. Perhaps with a gulp Isaiah asks: “How long, O Lord?” Essentially, God intimates, until the land is totally devastated and everyone sent away into bondage and slavery, until it all looks like a complete failure, until there is no-thing human left: except for a stump, a “holy seed”, a remnant, from which the chosen people of God might start over in the future. See, we don’t mind committing to answering God’s call for a token “limited time only”. It’s the long-haul commitment that bothers us: the day-in, day-out routine, with people who give us a bad time because they don’t see it our way. Yet, the great and glorious God, for all God’s breathtaking mystery, and for all of our misgivings and lukewarm investment, is always leaving little doors and windows open for new life under Plan B.

There’s an important verse missing at the end of the second reading for today’s liturgy (1 Corinthians 15:1-11); important, because it probably names the real issue which moves Paul to write the first 11 verses. “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, [plus all that’s implied by what Paul spells out in vv. 13-26] how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” Many commentators suspect that some in the Corinthian church didn’t understand the end-times communal nature of the resurrection, and that “a for-this-life-only, privatized, nonembodied understanding could render Paul’s work, and their faith, in vain.” (Kim Beckmann) In a magnificent model of how the Christian faith, the “tradition” is received and handed down, Paul sets down “the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message...unless you have come to believe in vain...” The teaching is this:
- Jesus died for our sins in accord with the Scriptures;
- he was buried;
- he was raised up according to the Scriptures;
- he appeared to Peter, then to the twelve;
- he appeared to more than 500 others at one time (scholars think this could refer to Pentecost);
- he appeared to James, then to all the apostles;
- he appeared to Paul.

Paul compares Jesus‘ revelation to him as an “
untimely”, premature birth. Who could have expected that the Holy God would even think twice about sending a person like Paul out with the Good News: a persecutor of God’s church, one who stood by and held the cloaks of the people who stoned Deacon Stephen to death? But -- and this is the unimaginable wonder and glory of God’s mercy -- “by the grace of God I am what I am.” Even more remarkable is that Paul lay claim to this just to show that he’s an apostle. He tries even harder than the others, and realizes, every step of the way, that he’s not the one who’s accomplishing anything, but only “the grace [presence] of God” working through him among the Corinthians. And, he says, it doesn’t even matter whether it was him or the other apostles: “ we proclaim and so you have come to believe”.

The heart of the matter for Paul, and hopefully for us, is that the proclaiming, the receiving, and the spread of the Gospel is and must be a
networked, rather than a linear ministry. Paul mentions the other great apostolic leaders by name, but surely he would have thought, too, of those many unnamed disciples, e.g., the women at Jesus’ tomb, Mary Magdalene, etc., who were witnesses to the Resurrection [though please note, interestingly, that just 7 verses before this passage, Paul had ruled that “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches...”]! Nevertheless, Paul wants his hearers to catch a glimpse of what he and we don’t know yet: the glory of our life in Christ to come. He himself is striving mightily to embody it, and his message is to convince the Corinthians and us to open ourselves more and more to grace, which, according to Paul Sampley, is a code word for the “ongoing work of God” which renews our own selves even as we’re sharing that grace with our sisters and brothers.

Finally, there’s Peter, sitting by his boat on the shore of the harp-shaped lake of Gennesaret, cleaning his nets after a long night of fishing with friends in another boat and catching nothing (Luke 5:1-11). Jesus walks over and commandeers Peter’s boat; tells him to put out from the shore because people are crowding in on him, hungry to hear God’s Word explained. After his teaching session, Jesus surprises Peter by directing him to go out into the deep water and cast the nets for a catch. Although he was probably very tired, I can imagine him looking directly at Jesus, a coy smile beginning to form on his face as he inwardly thinks, “Right...!” Peter didn’t always manage things well as an apostle, but he darn well knew about fishing. Luke mentions that two boats had gone out together the night before. It’s entirely possible that Peter was a sort of manager of a cooperative effort in a barely more than subsistence venture with his fishing buddies. He’d worked hard the night before, and he knew there weren’t any fish out there.

But Peter patiently indulges Jesus, knowing that, after all, nature is unpredictable, and just maybe... He also knew that Jesus had done some pretty astounding things on their journeys together, one of them the healing of his own mother-in-law. So out they go into the deeps; they cast the nets, and as they begin to reel them in Peter becomes flabbergasted. Fish begin to literally leap into the nets, such that the amount hauled in begins to strain them to the breaking point. [Take a look sometime at Winslow Homer’s 19th century painting,
The Herring Net, for an idea of what they were coping with.] They quickly send an S.O.S. out to those in the other boat to come and help. And the boats are filled and close to sinking under the weight.

Peter, the humanly expert fisherman, is, in a flash -- like Isaiah, like Paul -- suddenly humbled before the mighty, glorious God revealed in Jesus. “
Lord,” he cries [that’s Luke’s equivalent for “God”], “go away from me for I am a sinful man...” No, Jesus says, not “sinful”, just “amazed”; maybe “afraid”?? “Don’t be afraid...from now on you’ll be catching people.” Peter now realizes that what Jesus had in mind wasn’t just a fishing trip, but an opportunity to get Peter to open himself to God’s unpredictable grace. God in Christ showed up in Peter’s bailiwick, the sea, and bids Peter to let grace, the “ongoing work of God”, reveal the glory of God to others in Peter. Luke’s story here makes it clear that everyone of us in the Church is a necessary partner in grace-giving. When the nets are full of “fish” [read “people”], when the harvest is ripe with “grain” [read “people”], Jesus lets us know that all of us have work to do.

Kim Beckmann writes: “
On the day of our baptism, new members of the priesthood of all believers are given a candle. In Christ, we are places where God dwells, revealing lights to the world. Where are our stories in the tradition of those called to bear witness to God’s glory? How is the meaning of our everyday life...transformed by the call to follow Jesus? How do we see ourselves networked in community...?

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