6 January 2013
Let me remind you that the book of Isaiah combines three parts. “First Isaiah,” as he is called today, was a brilliant court prophet who wrote before the Babylonian Exile (Chaps 1-39). “Second Isaiah” was one of the captives at Babylon, but knowing that his people would soon be released, he sang joyfully of their return, and in his allegory of the “suffering servant,” paid honor to those who had remained faithful during their enslavement (Chaps 40-55). By convention, scholars call the remainder (Chaps 56-66) “Third Isaiah,” though probably it is a collection of pieces by various poets. Today’s lesson is from Second Isaiah. It may have been addressed to the returning Jews, deeply discouraged by the ruin they discover where once their great city stood. The poet prophesizes that God will come like a rising sun to bring a new glory to them: their scattered people will be gathered, and the wealth of nations and of Arab tribes will be theirs.
The mystery that Paul says was revealed to him is hardly a mystery at all: it is that Gentiles and Jews both share in God’s grace. But Paul means more. He means that the original Church is being transformed into a multi-ethnic institution.
Christianity had begun as a movement within Judaism. Paul never thought of himself as anything but a Jew, and a great many of his sermons and appeals were spoken in synagogues. But Christianity got beyond that; it became the Universal Church, an independent institution, not attached to or bound by any nation, state, or ethnic group.
I do not always love Paul, but I admire the man who visualized and then labored to bring into being the universal Church, not only converting people of differing ethnic groups, but bringing them together, organizing them, and guiding them as Christian communities. He didn’t do it alone. There were a number of itinerate preachers working with Paul. Peter, whom Jesus said would found his church, set out on a mission like Paul’s. He made Rome his base of operations, and the evidence indicates he had a great success. But Peter himself vanishes from the record. We have a better record of the long, admirable ministry of Paul in which he suffered imprisonment, indignity, and pain. Tradition says that both men worked together in Rome for the short time Paul was there as a prisoner. They both died in the Neronian persecutions, the two great founders of the Church Universal.