Sermon for Williamstown
10th of February, 2019
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Are Christians too casual about the ways in which we interact with God? Too familiar, perhaps, in our language? I have a Jewish friend with whom I chat online, and whenever she refers to God, about whom we talk surprisingly often, she spells the name ‘G’ hyphen ‘D’, in the respectful Jewish manner. This is based on the way in which God is described in Hebrew. Rather than spelling out the name of God the tetragrammaton (four letters) YHWH is written, and where we Christians blithely say that aloud as Yahweh, Jews are more likely when reading YHWH to say Adonai ‘my Lord’, or Elohim, ‘God’. It’s only we Christians who are so bold as to refer to God by name.
It’s not just in our language that we treat God as an equal. In many ways this is also the way in which we worship. My Professor of Worship talked to us about the ‘Uniting Church’ worship style. He said that when the Uniting Church was created we had had a choice about the way in which we would set this new church’s worshipping scene. Either people could enter the church silently and reverently, communing quietly with God while waiting for worship to start, or we could enter informally, as though we were entering a friend’s house, chatting with each other while waiting for the call to begin worshipping. The option that most Uniting churches have taken has been the second. That’s a fairly recent phenomenon. In my childhood people still wore special clothes when attending church – I remember wearing a good dress and the generations before me remember wearing hats and even gloves. Nowadays if I’m not actually leading the service the most I might do is find something clean. We feel comfortable and at home in church, or at least that’s the idea.
This familiarity with God is encouraged by the Incarnation. We’ve just spent a couple of months focusing on the miracle of God born as a human child. During the Christmas season we sing ‘Away in a manger’ that describes the little Lord Jesus laying down his sweet head, or ‘Once in royal David’s city’ which talks about Jesus as ‘little, weak, and helpless’. Then we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, reminding ourselves of the adult Jesus’ solidarity with us. We’re encouraged to see Jesus, God made flesh, as our brother and friend. And since through the wonder of the incarnation, this brother and friend is also our God, we feel that we can approach God with an ease that people of many other faiths would find bizarre.
I do think that treating Jesus as a familiar friend can do too far. Last year I read a book by a sociologist titled When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. American Evangelicalism is one of the most powerfully-promoted types of Christianity in the world today and I wanted to learn more about it. Some of the practices described I found insightful and challenging – I’m dreadful at setting aside specific times for prayer and the Christians described in the book were deeply committed to that. But the descriptions of other practices worried me. The Christians the sociologist studied were encouraged to treat God or Jesus as an ‘imaginary friend’. Some of them talked about having ‘date nights’ with God. The women (apparently men didn’t describe time with God as dates) ‘would set aside the night, and they imagined it romantically: it was a “date”. They might pick up dinner or set out a plate at the table, and they imagined their way through the evening talking to God, cuddling with God, and basking in God’s attention.’ The sociologist, like all good sociologists, didn’t judge this, but she did write of one person who got mad at God that her anger wasn’t ‘because [God] allowed genocide in Darfur, but because little things happened in her life that she did not like’. I read that comment as a somewhat snide remark on the practice! But imagining God as a cuddly boyfriend is on the same continuum as seeing Jesus as our close and personal friend. After all, our hymn ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ ends ‘Take it to the Lord in prayer; in his arms he’ll take and shield you, you will find a solace there.’ (TIS 590)
Yet God is still God, and we are not. That distinction is emphasized in the readings we’ve heard today. We are shown or told about three encounters between God and humanity: between the Lord and Isaiah; between Jesus and Peter; and between the Risen Christ and Paul, and in all three cases the encounter with the divine provokes fear and an awareness of unworthiness.
Isaiah had a vision of the Lord. He saw a Being high and lofty, so beyond human stature that the mere hem of his robe filled the temple, a Being worshipped by seraphim who sang words that the church continues to use today: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ And Isaiah’s response to this is terror at his own humanity. He has seen God and he is afraid that this means death: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
When the Risen Christ appears to Paul, Paul has a similar reaction; he becomes acutely aware of his own unworthiness before God. Paul tells the Corinthians: ‘Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God’. The translation doesn’t do justice to how unworthy Paul feels, because by describing himself as ‘one untimely born’ he’s describing himself as an aborted foetus or a miscarried baby. We might not have the same disrespect for an unborn baby, but we can understand that Paul is describing how very lowly he is in contrast to the magnificence of God.
Then we have today’s gospel reading, and Jesus’ call of Peter. It’s a miracle story, the story of the miraculous catch of fish. By this point in the gospel Jesus has already healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and he’s well-known enough to have a crowd around him, which might be why Peter is willing to let down the nets again. Simon tells Jesus: ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ Jesus is already someone to be addressed as ‘Master’ and someone whose commands are to be obeyed. But Simon Peter is apparently completely unprepared for what actually happens, for the overwhelming abundance of fish that begins to break the nets and fills two boats to sinking-point. He is aware of Jesus, the teacher and preacher and healer, in the same way that we are familiar with Jesus our friend and companion. But now in this miraculous catch Simon Peter encounters God, and his reaction is the same as Isaiah’s and Paul’s: a sense of his own sinfulness. He falls on his knees saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’
It’s not just a sense of their own inadequacy that sends Isaiah, Paul and Peter to their knees. The terrifying glory of God has been revealed and, like everyone to whom that happens, Isaiah, Paul and Peter need reassurance. We’ve just seen that theme through the Christmas story, as the first thing the angels say to Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds is ‘Do not be afraid’. Jesus tells Peter the same thing, ‘Do not be afraid’. But then he goes on to say something that I suspect might add to Peter’s terror – ‘from now on you will be catching people’.
These three stories of encounters with the absolute holiness of God, which all emphasise the feelings of unworthiness of the humans to whom they happen, end, somewhat paradoxically, with calls to mission and ministry. One of the seraphs touches Isaiah’s mouth with a live coal and tells him: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Immediately Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord asking, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And Isaiah answers: ‘Here am I; send me!’ The very reason that Paul is writing to the Corinthians, and is telling them of his encounter with Jesus, is that in that encounter he was called to be an apostle, and it was Paul who first proclaimed to the Corinthians the gospel of which he’s now reminding them. And Simon, of course, becomes Peter, the rock on whom the church is built.
It’s good to remember that God is the Holy One, to acknowledge the transcendence and absolute Otherness of God. But not if we get stuck saying: ‘Woe is me’ or ‘Go away from me, Lord’. That’s not where these stories end. They end with the answering of God’s call. The Uniting Church’s Basis of Union makes it clear that every Christian is called to ministry. When adults are baptised or confirmed in the Uniting Church we promise to continue in the community of faith, the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread and the prayers; to proclaim, by word and example, the good news of God in Christ; to seek Christ in all people, and love our neighbour as ourselves; and to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being. If you’d like to get that in an even more terrifying form, part of the service of Baptism in the Church of India is for the candidate to place his own hand on his head and say, ‘Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.’ We, like all Christians, are called to follow in the footsteps of Isaiah and Paul and Simon Peter, answering ‘Here am I; send me!’ when God is looking for someone to send. We are called not to be afraid, even when confronted by the absolute holiness of God. We can answer that call in confidence, because, as Paul says: ‘by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain.’ Amen.
 T. M. Luhrmann, New York: Vintage Books, 2012.
 p. 80.
 p. 81.