FROM A READING FOR FEB. 7, FIFTH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
'I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!"' -- Isaiah 6:8

Sunday's I Corinthians (15:1-11) passage contains the earliest account of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances we possess, predating our earliest Gospel narratives by more than 10 years.

Though scholars constantly study and comment on it, most Christians have little familiarity with it. Usually we combine the different (often contradictory) apparition passages and create a unified account of our own making, leaving out whatever doesn't fit into our personal narrative.

But if we zero in just on Sunday's reading, we surface some interesting traditions. Though later Gospel accounts refer to the risen Jesus "appearing to Cephas, then to the Twelve," this is the only place which speaks about Him "appearing to more than 500 brothers at once," and also mentions a unique appearance to James.

It's clear that when we join these first verses of I Corinthians 15 with the last chapter(s) of the four Gospels, we have at least a half-dozen different versions of what happened at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning and during the next few days (or weeks). If our faith in the risen Jesus is rooted only in these narratives, we're in trouble. They'd never stand up in a court of law.

Personal experience
That's why Paul's reference to his own encounter with this "new creation" is the most important part of the passage. "Last of all," he writes, "as to one born abnormally, He appeared to me." If He hadn't personally appeared to the Apostle, the other apparitions Paul lists wouldn't have been significant.

It's essential to our faith to have had some personal experience of the risen Jesus. Though, as we know from Paul's letters and the Gospels, the early Christian community was convinced the "normal" way to achieve that experience was by participating in the Eucharist, followers of Jesus also discovered they could encounter the Christ in quite unexpected situations.

Paul's experience on the road to Damascus provides a classic example of such an encounter. Narrated three times in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul's meeting with the risen Jesus not only was unexpected, it ran completely counter to "form."

The Apostle wasn't travelling to the Syrian capital to shop or visit friends; he was going there to persecute followers of Jesus. When the Jesus of faith appeared to Paul, he was an active enemy of that faith! Obviously, the condition of one's soul or mind is never a prerequisite for encountering the risen Jesus.

But I'm sinful
The prophet Isaiah discovers this in Sunday's first reading (Is 6:1-2a,3-8). In this well-known call narrative, the prophet tries to sidestep Yahweh's call by pointing out, "I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips."

In other words, the young man wonders: "How can I be Your mouthpiece, proclaiming Your holy oracles, when unholy words usually come from my mouth?" To Isaiah's surprise, Yahweh not only calls, but also makes carrying out that call a possibility.

It's important to note that many Lucan scholars regard Sunday's Gospel passage (Luke 5:1-11) as a post-resurrection event which the evangelist -- for theological reasons -- has read back into Jesus' historical ministry. (We probably see the chronologically-correct narrative in John 21.)

If that's correct, then Simon is relating to the risen Jesus, not the historical Jesus -- and it's in encountering the risen Jesus that this frustrated fisherman is led to say, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." Yet that declaration of sinfulness doesn't stop Jesus from calling Simon "to catch people" instead of fish.

Sunday's readings fly in the face of our belief that we have a better chance of surfacing the risen Jesus after we come out of the confessional than before.