Our first scripture is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah is one of the grandest and lengthiest texts in the Bible, providing insights regarding some of the most momentous events in the history of the Israelites. These events might seem to us to be irrelevant to our experiences, little more than historical details from long ago, but we are mistaken if we think this way.
The events the Prophet Isaiah presents to us and interprets for us are relevant to us as wisdom, for we too face similar moral decisions. But more than this, they help us to understand the world, the time and place, in which God would reveal himself in Christ, and through understanding that world, that time and place, we come to better understand Christ.
Today’s excerpt from the Prophet Isaiah mentions of the kings of the Israelites, a man by the name of Uzziah, who reigned as king for over fifty years. He was, in terms of the expectations of the world, a success. The Israelites were viewed as powerful and prosperous and the things that the world values, wealth, pleasure, power and honors were readily available to the Israelites.
Yet, despite all the power and prosperity, the soul of the nation was rotting from within. Wealth, pleasure, power and honors had been elevated to a quasi-divine status and the Israelites pursued these with fanatical zeal.
Uzziah would become so full of himself that he would commit sacrilege by usurping the priests in the temple and offering sacrifice in the temple in defiance of the Mosaic Law. The Bible testifies that after this sacrilege Uzziah sickened and eventually died.
Thus one of the greatest of the Israelite kings, as a result of his own grandiosity and pride, is remembered in the Bible as one who brought disgrace to the Israelites, a leader who in a time of moral and spiritual crisis, did nothing but think about how we could amass more power, and in doing this, created a scandal.
In the midst of this cultural crisis, the prophet Isaiah receives his calling as a prophet. It will be his mission to speak the Lord’s word of truth to the Israelites, insisting they abandon of the idolatry that values wealth, pleasure, power and honors above anything else, and accept conversion, a renewal of their relationship with God. This conversion and renewal would be expressed in actions. Conversion and renewal would happen when the Israelites practiced the commandments of God, rather than just paying lip service to them.
The mission of a prophet is not easy. Telling people what they don’t want to hear is not without peril. Yet Isaiah wants this mission- he burns with zeal to speak the Lord’s truth.
Isaiah’s desire should be a desire that the Church prays for. The Church has been created by Christ as the means by which the Lord’s word of truth will continue to be spoken to the world. Isaiah’s mission is our mission. It is not an easy mission. It means sure and certain opposition. But to be witnesses to God’s truth is the mission of the Church.
The idolatry of wealth, pleasure, power and honors is as pervasive in our own culture as it was in Israelite culture centuries ago. The temptation that ultimately destroyed Uzziah, to set oneself above the commandments of God is as strong an influence today as it ever has been. Into this culture the Church is sent with the mission of a prophet and to this culture the Church must bear witness to the Lord’s truth and boldly practice the commandments of God. Christ makes Isaiah’s mission the mission of his Church.
What is the Gospel?
If you were pressed to answer this question what would say? How would you respond?
Today’s second reading, an excerpt from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians gives you an answer- the Gospel is not a collection of manuscripts, but it is the astounding revelation of Jesus Christ risen from the dead.
Now this might surprise some who might think of the Gospel as being ethical demands or moral prescriptions. In this construal the Gospel means something akin to social service or some standard of propriety, like being polite and kind. But St. Paul, when pressed, does not mention any of this, emphasizing not what we should do, but what God in Christ has done.
What we do as disciples comes from what we believe that God has revealed in Christ. Being a disciple of the Lord Jesus is not a self-improvement project, where we fulfill our personal goals and invent for ourselves an outlook on life, all based on our desires. Instead, being a disciple of Jesus Christ is to live differently and in accord with Christ’s desires, and to do this because of who Christ reveals himself to be- he is God.
God in Christ reveals himself to the world, and the world, filled with worldly people like ourselves, oppose him. Why? Because he threatens our pride, our grandiosity that insists that our lives are merely a project of our own making and this world and everything and everyone in it exists for us to use as a means to satisfy our own desires. The worldly, like ourselves, threatened by Christ, wield the greatest weapon against him- the power to torture, to maim, to kill, and in doing so hope that our power over this world is protected.
But God in Christ demonstrates he is more powerful than the death we impose on him. And that is the Gospel preached by Saint Paul.
That is St. Paul’s answer to the question- what is the Gospel. The Gospel is Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Anything that we Christians do, our ethics, our morality, starts there. Anything we do as Christians can only rightly begin, and only makes sense, when considered from the vantage point of what God in Christ has done (for us).
It is only when we understand and appreciate what God in Christ has done that we can understand and appreciate what the Gospel is.
Our Gospel for today recounts an astounding miracle. Christ who proves himself to be the master of the winds and the seas, now also demonstrates that he is the Lord of what dwells beneath the surface of the waters. He provides the fishermen who would become his disciples with an extraordinary catch of fish. For these men, whose whole livelihood depended on their success catching fish, what Christ accomplishes with the little effort of only a word is evidence to them of his divine power.
But this miracle is about more than a manifestation of Christ’s power over creation, but it is an image of the Church- the Church represented by the boat, the fishermen representing the disciples of the Lord Jesus, who, to fulfill the command of Christ, seek to draw all people, represented by the catch of fish, into the Church.
Christ wants all people to come into his Church. He designates his disciples as the means by which this will happen. If disciples are following the command Christ then the number of people who will be drawn into the Church will be absolutely astounding- a real miracle and manifestation of Christ’s power.
But what if the efforts of disciples are not manifesting Christ’s power? What if the efforts of disciples are not drawing people into the Church?
Then what is required of us is the disposition manifested by Simon Peter in the story- humility before Christ, a willingness to admit our own insufficiency, a surrender to his will and to the mission that he gives his Church.
Often times, in our hubris, in our pride and grandiosity we become blocks, rather than bridges, set up walls rather than creating routes of access into the Church. Rather than cooperating with the mission Christ gives the Church, we reject his mission in favor of our own. The Church becomes a clubhouse or platform for our interests.
The Church ceases to be what Christ wants, and in becoming contrary to Christ, loses his power to attract.
Rather than trusting in the power of Christ we try to make the Church more palatable to our tastes. Rather than offering an alternative to world, an attempt is made to make the Church worldly. Rather than presenting Christ to the world as he is, an attempt is made to present Christ as we would prefer him to be.
All this results in ever diminishing returns. As the efforts of disciples become more self-directed, self-interested, and to use Pope Francis’ term self-referential, people don’t come into the Church. They drift further and further into the depths and disappear, moving ever more out of the reach of our efforts, ever more out of the reach of our nets.
Rather than attracting, we repel. Rather than gathering, we scatter.
Rather than a miraculous catch of abundance, our nets, which represent our efforts to draw people into the Church, remain empty.
Christ indicates to us that it is his intention that his Church grow. The Church is the privileged route of access to Jesus Christ- relationship with Christ, salvation in Christ, always happens by means of the Church.
Are our efforts bridges or blocks? Do we reveal Christ or obscure him?
Are we our nets full or empty?