February 7 2016 (C) Fifth Sunday of Year
A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
B. Reflection & Dialogue: (a) Belief in Bodily Resurrection; (b) The call to bear witness to the Gospel
A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
Introduction to the Readings. The first reading and the Gospel reading today are about a calling by God to a special mission, with an experience of the divine presence and the divine holiness. The proper reaction of a mere mortal, with some degree of sinfulness, to such an experience is an acute awareness of sin, followed by divine assurance of forgiveness and divine support,
First Reading (Isaiah 6:1-8). Here I am, send me. This reading recounts the calling of Isaiah to his mission as a prophet of the Lord. Divine revelation through the prophets was not something abstract. The prophets worked in place and time. Isaiah was celled “in the year of King Uzziah’s death”, that is 742 B.C. The setting is in the Temple of Jerusalem, but contact was with the Almighty in heaven. Isaiah had seen the Lord, but knew that the Lord himself had said (Exodus34:17-20): “No one can see my face and live”. Isaiah becomes aware of his sinful mortal state and shows fear, but is reassured. In response to the Lord’s invitation to become a prophet on his behalf, to be God’s messenger to Israel, he very willingly accepts.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 137). Before the angels I will bless you, O Lord.
Second Reading (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). I preach what they preach, and this is what you all believed. The resurrection of Christ was central to Christian belief and hope. The doctrine of bodily resurrection, however, posed problems, especially for the Greek mentality shared by the Corinthians to whom Paul was writing. As a doctrine within Judaism itself, this belief emerged and became accepted by one section of the Jewish (principally the Pharisees) relatively shortly before New Testament times, from about 165 B.C. onwards. Judaism itself was divided on the issue in Christ’s day, the doctrine being denied by the Sadducees, and eternal life without bodily resurrection probably being the belief of the Essenes. With the bodily resurrection of Christ, for Christians there could be no doubting on this issue. But acute questions arising from this belief remained, particularly among the Greek-thinking Corinthians, given the material nature of the human body. Paul knew of their questioning and responds to it in the lengthy chapter 15, most of which will be read between this Sunday and the eighth Sunday of the year.
Paul is prepared to discuss issues arising from belief in the bodily resurrection with the Corinthians, but insists that there are central truths that must be believed. The Church is not a literary and debating society. What these central truths are must be clearly expressed. Paul believed that he had done this in his preaching to his community. He then moves on to the central doctrine on the resurrection, and gives what appears to be a very early Church creed on the death, bodily resurrection and post-resurrection appearance of Christ. Paul says he has handed on this as he has been taught himself, or as he has received it. He probably had received this block of doctrine soon after his conversion, from the Christian community in Jerusalem, or possibly somewhat later at Antioch. (He has given a similar early creed on the Eucharist in this same epistle, 1 Corinthians 10:23-26.) Paul gives a list of the first appearances of the risen Christ to the attested witnesses, beginning with Peter (Cephas), including James, the brother of the Lord, head of the Jerusalem Christian community, not himself one of the Twelve apostles. The appearance of the risen Christ to Paul, possibly three years after the resurrection, is seen by him as on the same level as that to the Twelve, constituting him an apostle on the same level as these. Paul ends the passage by stressing again the unity of faith in the preaching of the different apostles: “What matters is that I preach what they preach, and this is what you all believed”.
The Gospel (Luke 5:1-11). They left everything and followed him. In this beautiful Gospel reading Luke highlights the special role of Peter in the early Church, and indeed in the Christian community. Luke has chosen this episode to narrate the calling of the Christ’s first followers. It is set in the context of Jesus’ consciousness of his mission to preach the good news of salvation. In the text immediately preceding, when people wanted Jesus to stay with them in one place and not leave them, he declined with the words: “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). Jesus is now about to begin this mission in new way by choosing a core group, beginning with Simon (also known as Peter, or in its original Aramaic form Cephas). This work will begin with a very symbolic marvellous catch of fish. Jesus chooses the boat he will use for the marvel – it is that of Simon. When invited by Jesus to go out fishing, Simon gives a calculated human reply: they have already been fishing and caught nothing. Jesus’ thoughts are different, not those of human calculations. They netted a huge number of fish, and they had to call on their companions, James and John sons of Zebedee. Simon Peter fell in awe at the feet of Jesus at the manifestation of divine power. Like Isaiah at his vocation (in today’s first reading) he makes profession of his sinfulness. While three persons are mentioned, Jesus addresses Simon Peter alone: He is not to be afraid, and will have the great mission of a larger catch of humans, not fish. This is in keeping with other texts in Luke on Peter’s special role. At the Last Supper Jesus tells him that Satan wishes to sift them (the apostles) like wheat, destroy them, but Christ has prayed for Simon so that, even though Peter fail, on conversion he may strengthen his brethren (Luke 22:31-32). After the resurrection Christ appears first to Peter/Cephas (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5; second reading today). When Peter was imprisoned and in danger of execution the Church prayed fervently for him and he was miraculously saved (Acts 12:1-19). Peter strengthened the faith of the early Church and worked to keep it united in its expansion beyond Judaism to the Gentile world (Acts 10-11; 15:6-11). . He saw this expansion as the work of God.
When we read about Peter and his divine mission in the Gospel, we think of his successor, the Holy Father, bishop of Rome, and pray that his faith may be strong, confirming his brothers and sisters in the faith, and working for Christian unity.
B. Reflection & Dialogue: (a) Belief in Bodily Resurrection; (b) The call to holiness and to bear witness to the Gospel
In the new evangelization, indeed even outside of this, it is the desire of the Church that the chief doctrines of the faith be explained in conjunction with the Sunday liturgy and the Sunday Scripture readings. These readings provide an opportunity for presenting the doctrines of the faith in connection with present-day questioning or denials, and also with the age-long presentation of the doctrines. Today’s readings present an opportunity of dwelling on the role of Peter’s successor, the bishop of Rome, today in strengthening the faith and promoting Church unity in conjunction with today’s Gospel reading. However, it seems better to concentrate on the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, given the discussion of the matter by Paul, one to be continued in the Sundays ahead.
- a)Belief in Bodily Resurrection. We live in an age and country in which there is open denial of any other world, of God, of an afterlife, not to mind any bodily resurrection. There is such open denial by humanists (neo-atheists), poets, literary writers, artists and other well-known persons. Religion can be referred to as “codology”, its cherished doctrines as fairy tales, death as extinction.
In such a context it is good to recall a little of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the afterlife and bodily resurrection. Early Jewish Old Testament thought had a keen perception of the presence of God in his Temple and in everyday trials, troubles and joys. The Psalms are witness to this. And yet these believers had no concept of any meaningful after-death existence. All that remained was a shade in Sheol, the abode of the dead, where shades of the good and the wicked were together. This meant that divine reward and punishment had to take place in this life – something contradicted by experience. Belief in a happy (or painful) afterlife only emerged about 200 B.C. More has been said on this above in the notes to the notes to today’s second reading.
The resurrection of the body has been enshrined in the Christian Creeds (Apostles and Nicene). It is an affirmation of the dignity of the human body, created in the image of God, and in the goodness of the material world. Bodily resurrection, and eternal life with a body, has been rejected by non-Christian down the ages, and needs explanation to believers. In the fourth century St Augustine (commenting of Psalm 88) could write: “In no other matter does the Christian faith encounter such vehement, pertinacious, steadfast and contentious opposition than regarding the resurrection of the body. Many pagan philosophers, indeed, have discussed the immortality of the soul and in many books they have left written testimony that the soul is immortal; but when it comes to the resurrection of the body they do not hesitate, but openly contradict, and their contradiction is such that they say that it is not possible that this human flesh (body) can ascend into heaven”.
In Christian belief resurrection of the body is connected with eternal life in heaven. It asserts the sanctity of the human body
(b) The call to holiness and to bear witness to the Gospel. Today’s first and Gospel readings are about mission and vocations, and the holiness that should accompany these. In the Gospel we have an example of the revelation of the holiness of God. The mission confided to Peter and the apostles is continued in and by the Church, in her teaching and in her holiness, and a life permeated by the spirit of the Beatitudes. The world of our day needs this witness. We should pray for Peter’s successor, the Pope, that the Lord may make him strong in faith with the mission of confirming his brother bishops and the sons and daughters of the Church.