5th Sunday after Epiphany

February 4, 2001
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 6:1-8
Reading 2: 
Psalm 138
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Reading 4: 
Luke 5:1-11
By Bruce G. Epperly

Epiphany is the season of illumination. Traditionally, the season of Epiphany has highlighted God’s presence beyond the Jewish world and in the ordinary events of our lives. Today, of course, the season of Epiphany reminds us that the spirit of Christ is universal in scope, stretching far beyond Israel or the West. God’s revealing is not limited to the Christian church, its worship, sacraments, and scripture, but encompasses every quest for wholeness. With the Logos theologians of the early centuries of the church, we can affirm that wherever truth or healing is found, the one God is its source.

Epiphany profoundly reflects a process-relational vision of reality. All things reflect God’s care. All moments are icons of the Holy Adventure, revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. All persons reveal the divine aim at wholeness and beauty in some recognized or unrecognized way. God’s witness is ubiquitous and transformative.

The preaching and worship of Epiphany weave together body, mind, and spirit, and call the preacher as well as the congregation to discover God in the dramatic as well as undramatic moments of life. With Brother Lawrence, we can experience the fullness of God as easily amid the pots, and the demands of the kitchen as in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, if we have eyes to see. The spirit of Epiphany invites us to experience God in every setting of life: as we help our children with their homework, negotiate the delicate balance of marriage and vocation, explore the reality of aging, discover the face of God in a new friend, grieve at the graveside of a parent, or face the challenge of encountering a person from another faith. During Epiphany, we are called to remember the prophetic message, "arise, shine, your light has come," for the light of God shines where we least expect it. Accordingly, the season of Epiphany challenges us to integrate theology, spirituality, and service in the spirit of seeing God everywhere and bringing forth the divine in every encounter.

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Isaiah 6:1-8
Annie Dillard once suggested that we should put on crash helmets whenever we enter the sanctuaries of our churches. Sadly, few of us expect anything dramatic to occur during worship. One might suspect that had Isaiah known what was in store for him that day, he would stayed home in bed! To his shock, he discovers what he had always been looking for and had chanted day after day in worship – an encounter with the Holy Adventure. Theologian Robert McAfee Brown speaks of creative dislocation as a prelude to the surprises of grace. This passage is profoundly dislocating for both Isaiah and ourselves. In an age in which we routinely domesticate God and the angelic host, Isaiah’s encounter with the Holy One shatters his complacency. The divine intimacy, characteristic of process theology, is balanced by the reality of the divine infinitely, deeply embedded yet transcending any particular moment of space and time. The divine relativity, described by philosopher Charles Hartshorne, calls us to reflect on the awesome majesty of the Holy One who is God of every universe.

Although the divine confronts us in every moment, some moments are life-changing. In the midst of a routine day, we find ourselves on holy ground as we gaze at our first born child, caress the body and spirit of the one with whom we have committed to share a lifetime "for better or worse," or when finally "God" becomes more than a word for us. Such transformative moments become the windows through which we view our life and relationships from here on out. We are awed, broken, shaken, and sanctified: we become a new creation.

Some interpreters suggest that Isaiah’s encounter in the Temple is a paradigm for personal and congregational worship. The theophany begins with praise. "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts." All things praise the Lord. The heavens declare the glory of God and so do our intestines and cardiovascular system. God is incarnate in all things: all things reveal God’s wisdom but also, consciously or unconsciously, mediate the divine wisdom in praise and beauty. Though he was hardly a process thinker, Augustine rightly exclaims, against the Gnostics, that simply to be is good. Worship begins with the proclamation of original wholeness and blessing, with the beauty and wonder of life, as the artistry of God. Generous beyond measure, God parents forth beauty in all things and echoing the divine proclamation of goodness, all things – imperfectly and from their own vantage point – proclaim "we are good."

Yet, as C.S. Lewis notes in speaking of Aslan, the lion-Christ of the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan is not a tame lion! Nor is God a tame God. Presented with the wholeness and holiness of God, the intimate yet cosmic Adventurer, Isaiah is spiritually shattered. His smug spirituality is seen to be little more than filthy rags. His self-importance is decimated. "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people with unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!"

Confession is the second movement of worship. Sadly, some theologians understand confession in abstraction from the original wholeness of creation and each creature. Original sin has become the centerpiece of their theology of mistrust, control, and self-deprecation. Sin, whether seen as pride, passivity, or alienation, is real. The temptation to turn our backs on our commitment to God, our spouses, our friends, and our ideals is great. We cannot close our eyes to ethnic cleansing and racism in our hearts and in our world. But, this is not our primary identity. With Jesus at his baptism, we also hear the primordial voice, "you are beloved son in whom I am well pleased…you are my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased." Still, confession is essential to spiritual and relational healing. As a child I sang in our small town’s revival meetings, "just as I am, without one plea." Confession is placing our whole selves and our communities before God without pretence or disguise. It is honestly allowing ourselves to be known by God and, thus, discovering our full selves in all their grandeur and pettiness. Unique to Isaiah’s confession is the recognition of the brokenness of society. Righteousness and sin are social as well as individual. The wholeness of ourselves and our children depends on the love and protection not only of individuals but also institutions that seek justice and reconciliation.

In the wake of confession, out of the depths of self-awareness, arises the experience of forgiveness and new life, the absolution of sin. Regardless of the past, every moment is pregnant with creative transformation. The divine aim, "the best for the impasse," can bruise our moral righteousness and undermine our sense of security, it can expose our illusions, but it also calls us to embrace our role as healers of our relationships and our planet. Grace empowers us to begin again, and take our place as co-creators in the artistry of divine creativity.

At the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania, a bench is inscribed with the words, "picket and pray." The final movement of worship is the commitment to acts of healing and justice. The question Isaiah receives is profound, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" God needs us in all our finitude and imperfection to share in the work of social transformation. The quality of our lives and commitments shape the wider social environment and contribute to (or deter) God’s own work of creative transformation.

In that synchronicity of divine aim and human response, there is the possibility that we may align ourselves with God’s vision for our lives. Open to the divine, shattered of pretense and self-centeredness, Isaiah discovers his original connection with God and humankind (today, we would add the non-human world) and accepts the call God has placed before him. The divine call is always concrete. While it may come to us in many ways and through many faces, it always invites us to add to the beauty and joy of the world – to create communities of caring and reconciliation – in our families, churches, workplaces, schools, and political institutions. In that epiphanic moment, we may also cry out "here I am, send me" as we claim our partnership in the divine healing of our time.

I Corinthians 15:1-11
Although the celebration of Easter Sunday is a few months away, the resurrection is always at the heart of Christian faith. A process-relational understanding of the resurrection avoids two theological extremes: 1) the somatic and historical literalism of the fundamentalist and 2) the Enlightenment and theological positivism of recent commentators such as Spong and Crossan. Without the experience of the resurrection, our belief in Christ’s healing and saving presence, as Paul confesses, would be in "vain." While the resurrection always remains a mystery, it is grounded in the authentic historical experience of Jesus’ first followers. When we are tempted to define the resurrection as fabrication, superstition, hallucination, or remembered experience of Jesus’ first followers, we are challenged by the traditional definition of miracle as a reality that does not contradict the laws of nature but our finite understanding of these laws. With C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia, we would do well to admit that there are deeper laws than those we currently understand.

Quantum physics, for example, opens the possibility that Jesus’ resurrection body involved either a divine hologram or a higher vibrational frequency than our more stable physical bodies. In any event, the resurrection points to God’s ability to bring forth new life out of hopeless situations. Process-relational thinking challenges us to craft imaginative images of resurrection that will enable us to experience the "ordinary resurrections" (Jonathon Kozol) of everyday life.

The resurrection also proclaims that God’s salvation includes the totality of our lives – body, mind, spirit, and relationships. With W.H. Auden, we are called to "love God in the world of the flesh," precisely because the divine aim at wholeness weaves together flesh and spirit. The resurrected Christ is not a vacuous, disembodied Gnostic spirit or a new age channeled being. The risen Christ embraces all that is human, including the wounds of disability, mental illness, loneliness, and hopelessness. All these are taken up and transformed by a tender care that nothing be lost.

Finally, the mystery of resurrection manifests God’s unconditional grace "in which you stand." As we awaken to the divine aims guided each moment’s concrescence, we can claim with Paul that "by the grace of God, I am what I am. " But, this resurrection grace calls us to co-creativity. We are partners in the resurrection of our world, for as Paul once more confesses, "I worked harder than any one of them [those who initially experienced the Risen Christ]-–but it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me."

The preacher might invite his listeners, should he or she focus on this passage, to reflect on the deeper meaning of resurrection, that is, to go beyond the theological "culture wars" of liberalism and fundamentalism, and thereby experience their role as instruments in divine resurrection in the concrete world. Where are we called to become partners in "raising the dead" in our community?

Luke 5:1-11
The Gospel reading also invites us into a world of wonders. While we can marvel at Jesus’ miraculous power in guiding this school of fish to Peter’s boat or Jesus’ psychic connection that enabled him to locate the fish, we would also do well to explore the themes of perseverance and partnership that are revealed in Jesus’ encounter with Peter. Worn out from a night of unsuccessful fishing, Peter is ready to go home empty-handed. He is initially skeptical of Jesus’ suggestion that he try again.

But, in spite of his fatigue and skepticism, Peter makes one more attempt to fulfill his vocation. He is rewarded by a catch so great that he has to call on the assistance of the second boat.

This "miracle" has two essential components: Jesus’ challenge to Peter and Peter’s eventual response. Seen from perspective of everyday life, those moments that may appear to be most fruitless hide within them the greatest opportunities for personal transformation. God is constantly luring us forward "into the deep water," precisely at the times when we are ready to head toward the shallows. In each moment, we receive what John Cobb has described as "the call forward." Challenged to look at life anew and explore new possibilities, we have the freedom to say "yes" and enter into the holy adventure that lies beyond our current self-understanding.

As I write these words, I find myself identifying with Peter. After losing an executive position I held for nearly 20 years, I still find myself nearly two years later vacillating between swimming to shore and resting content with a familiar and safe future or launching out into deep waters and unfamiliar territory, where I will have strange adventures and discover new talents. The preacher is challenged to reflect with her or his congregation on those unfamiliar territories toward which God calls the church as well as individuals.

Peter’s initial exclamation is revealing. "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" Echoing Isaiah’s words of self-abnegation, Peter’s cry is filled with ambivalence. He sees his imperfection alongside Jesus’ holiness. He also wonders what will be demanded of him if he chooses to follow Jesus. Yet, with all his fear and doubt, he says "yes" to the Holy Adventure. "When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him."

Transformation requires letting go of the immediacy of the past and of structures that no longer nurture our spirits. Our readiness to let go of certain images may cause confusion and tension in our families, churches, communities, or inner lives. For awhile, we may feel rootless and torn between the familiar self and the new self that is being born. As companions on the way, we are called to support and protect those who going through moments of deep transformation, for these changes may be the gifts of God. There is always the reality of destruction in every act of creativity, but from this loss arises the abundant life for which we truly yearn.

Psalm 138
The German mystic Meister Eckhart proclaimed that if the only prayer you can make is "thank you," that will be enough. This Psalm gratefully affirms God’s steadfast love and protection in all things. As I read these words I am reminded of the spiritual, "We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in God’s holy word, he’s never failed us yet….Oh! can’t turn around, we’ve come this far by faith."

In midst of God’s call forward, there is divine protection. As we explore a new self, a new way of acting, a new vocation, God’s steadfast love is our companion, presenting us constantly with the gift of divine care through friends, spiritual guides, insights, and unexpected strength.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.