EPIPHANY 5, FEBRUARY 4, 2007
On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets. And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (English Standard Version)
DO NOT BE AFRAID!
In a recent Bible Class a woman told of a co-worker who seemed to be “perfect” in every way. She never complains about anything, never gossips, seems always cheerful and is ready to help where and when needed. In every way the woman is exemplary. And the woman telling about her said, “She scares me!”
Now isn’t that an interesting response to exemplary conduct?!?! Have you ever encountered someone of much the same sort? Most people in the class had – and they all knew what she was talking about.
We asked why or how she scared her (or us, as the conversation had now turned to us also). It was hard to put a finger on just what it is about such a person that makes us edgy. Is it that such a person challenges our own wish that we could be models of goodness and godliness? We know that we do not measure up to the standards we see in such a person.
Or is it that we suspect the person of hypocrisy? How can anyone truly be as good as such a person? Isn’t there something of a “scam” going on here? Isn’t there pretense . . . and we all hate pretense. But why would that scare us? That would cause us to judge her.
Is it, perhaps, just the reverse of establishing a cause for judging her . . . but rather that she seems to be judging us by her exemplary conduct? Whether she intends to judge us or not is not really the issue. But we surely feel judged by such a person, for that person seems head and shoulders above us in terms of conduct. Even if she is a hypocrite, she still stands in judgment over us, for we certainly do not measure up to the standard clearly being set for us. We do not like that, for it forces us to “look into” our own selves in ways that we would rather not do. It compels us to face up to the very thing we least want to face up to . . . that we are far from being what we would like to be . . . far, in fact, from being what we know that we ought to be. That is one reason why we quickly revert to speaking of that person as a “hypocrite,” for we cannot imagine anybody measuring up to such high standards. We certainly know we, ourselves, cannot – and we are quite sure nobody else can, either.
For whatever reason, the woman said that her reaction was to stay as far away as possible from the “model person,” to have as little to do with her as possible. And it was generally agreed that our common response is rather similar. We essentially are saying, “Depart from me.”
STANDING IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD IS A FEARFUL THING!
Do you hear echoes of the response of Peter (called Simon in today’s Gospel) to Jesus? This is by no means the first time Peter has encountered Jesus according to Luke. He has heard Jesus expounding the Scripture in the synagogue and at the service there he had seen Jesus throw a demon out of a man. The demon had tried to name Jesus, but Jesus forbade him to do so. He had invited Jesus to his own home after that service and Jesus had broken a high fever for Peter’s mother-in-law. Immediately thereafter we read that “all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. And demons also came out of many, crying, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.” (ch. 4:40, 41 ESV) He knew that people had begun to clamor after Jesus, pursuing him even into private and personal places, seeking his favor.
All of this lies behind the event recorded in today’s Gospel. So when Jesus asks Simon to use his boat as a pulpit, for he was apparently quite pressed against the waters as the people crowded around him, Simon gladly agreed. He must have listened intently again and recognized that in Jesus a most extraordinary person was in their midst. It would be most interesting to have access to Peter’s thoughts through all this. And perhaps he was deep in thought when Jesus said,
“Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Apparently that rather caught Simon off-guard, for he objected to the command. It surely was not an unwillingness for a catch that caused him to hesitate. It was the fisherman in him that burst forth out of his consideration of what Jesus had been saying. “Master . . . “ He recognized a certain authority in Jesus, but Jesus was not a fisherman. He was a carpenter. “We toiled all night and took nothing!” We know when and where and how to fish, and we have done everything that we could with no results. Now you ask us to do everything wrong!
Yet, out of respect for the one he called “Master” he agreed to do what Jesus said and was rewarded with a catch such as these fisherman had rarely seen. It was all they could do to haul the catch in.
Would you not have jumped up with joy and said, “How about joining us again tomorrow, Master? You’ve got a real knack for this sort of thing that none of us ever realized!”? Maybe we would have.
But, then again, maybe we would not have done so! Maybe we would have recognized, as Peter did, that he was in the presence of one far superior to himself. He now addresses him as “Lord.” Whether that meant he recognized any divinity in Jesus at this early moment is up for question, but he certainly recognized that more than a “Master” was here. Surely this man had access to something to which Peter did not have access! Jesus was to Peter what the woman of whom we spoke at the beginning of this sermon was to the Bible Class member . . . a “threat” of some kind! Wonderful though it was to have a great catch of fish, it was at the same time a sign that this man was nobody to fool around with. His power and his teaching had been exhibited earlier, and Peter had seen and heard it. But suddenly with this catch of fish everything came together for Peter and he “fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’”
He saw that he didn’t belong in the same company with Jesus, to be sure, but the addition of the phrase describing his unworthiness, “for I am a sinful man,” catches one a bit off-guard. After all, Jesus had not called Peter to task for a sinful life. He had not pretended to be a judge over Peter. He had done nothing but ask a favor of Peter and then give a simple command to Peter. But those things combined with what Peter knew from previous contacts with this man simply overwhelmed Simon. It was good to be with this man Jesus . . . but it seemed far better to be far away from this man for the one who was blessing was also a threat. One encountered something in this man that one rarely if ever encounters in ordinary life. It brings one to one’s knees. It terrifies one to think of what the consequences of a continuing presence like this might have on one’s life.
We see and hear the same thing in the First Lesson today when Isaiah finds himself in the throne room of God, confronting the divine presence. “Woe is me!” Isaiah cries out! Who can stand in a room where even the angelic beings hover over the throne with wings covering their eyes out of awe at the glory of this One whom they serve and who cover their feet in humility while in this holy presence . . . and yet hover there with wings prepared to do the bidding of this One who is so terrifying to any human? Even angels without sin are in amazed wonderment at the glory of him whom they serve! What would have happened to Isaiah were his lips not touched with the fire of God’s cleansing grace, sending him out on a most fearful mission?
Did Peter recognize the same fearfulness in the commission now given to him and his companions in the text: “From now on you will be catching men.” Perhaps they left with a bit more courage than Isaiah had, but they may not have had the same amount of courage had they known in this moment what was to be required of them in carrying out this commission. At any rate, “when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.” What a break with their former life to simply leave everything and follow him! Their lives would never again be the same. Not ever. For following Jesus takes a considerable act of courage. Perhaps they knew this. Perhaps they did not. It is true, nonetheless, that they did not know where he would take them. Little did they dream that he would take them to a cross! But that was far from their minds as they left all and followed him at this moment. The only thing they knew was that they were going to “catch men” like they had caught fish, whatever that meant to them. It perhaps sounded simple enough at first. But, oh, where it would take them!
THE WORD OF GRACE WASHES OVER THE TERROR OF LIFE
Because we have a hard time quite realizing this same fearfulness in the presence of God (even though we are regularly, every moment of our lives, constantly in this divine presence), it is difficult for us to quite catch the earth-shattering recognition of what such a confrontation brings to anyone who is faced, as Peter was, with this total “otherness” that he suddenly recognized in this Jesus of Nazareth. One does not stand in the presence of God with any degree of ease. His exclamation, “I am a sinful man, O Lord,” resonates with any person who has ever had the faintest sense of standing in the presence of God. It is very important to hear Peter’s cry . . . and to identify with it totally . . . if one is to catch even the faintest amazement at Jesus’ response.
“Do not be afraid!” What a marvelous phrase! Zechariah heard it at the announcement that he would have a son named John. Mary heard it when she was told that she would have a child to be named Jesus, Savior. The shepherds heard it when they watched their sheep by night. The women will hear it again when they come to the empty tomb after Jesus’ resurrection. It is coupled with “Peace be with you” at the resurrection, and surely the two come together! To “not be afraid” is “to have peace.”
Peter’s sinfulness was not to be a cause of separation from Jesus. Rather, Jesus’ receptive grace was to be the entry point of Peter into a life that was to separate him from all the fear that had filled him at this early encounter with this man. It was not an entry point into a life that would never know fear-filled moments, but it was an entry point into a life that needed not fear those moments for one whose very presence itself was larger than all the fears that the world could hurl at him. He would not only hear the words larger than his fear such as “Come to me all whose lives are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest,” but he would accompany the speaker of those words to the last and final word over all sinfulness – the cross itself. It was there where the last word over fear was pronounced and made visible. Is not the death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus the ultimate statement: Do not be afraid!?!?!?!?
Even there, though, in the shadows of the cross, Peter would still find that old sinfulness hiding within himself, betraying the “Master” who was his “Lord” three times over. He would be hiding, so far as we know, when the cross was finally raised, for only the disciple John, who is also one of those called in today’s text, would be there according to the Scripture. Peter’s sinfulness would haunt him all his days and he would still be remembering it when he wrote his letters years later. But overshadowing that continuing sense of sinfulness was the constant refrain, “Do not be afraid.” It is as if to say, “Your Lord is master of sin and death. Your Lord’s atonement for the sins of the world, raised on the third day as the sure sign that his sacrifice was not in vain, will be your constant companion.” As he is our constant companion also! After his resurrection Jesus asked Peter three times over whether he loved him and Peter affirmed three times over that he did, indeed, love Jesus. He seems to have been irritated at the third time the question was asked (an obvious counterpart to his threefold denial of Jesus at Jesus’ trial), but Jesus finalized that last question and answer by speaking of the path Peter was still to tread. “’Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” (John 21:18, 19 ESV)
“Follow me.” “Do not be afraid.” “I will make you a fisher of men.” He would carry the Gospel into fear-filled places and speak to people who would raise fear in the hearts of most people. But always shadowing over him from the moment of the event told us in our text would be the words, “Do not be afraid.” In prison, “Do not be afraid.” In crucifixion (for tradition has it that he, like Jesus, was crucified, although the same tradition says that he asked to be crucified with his head down since he was unworthy of dying in the same fashion as his Lord had died), “Do not be afraid.” In the midst of all that would terrify a person in all the phases of life, the word resounded: “Do not be afraid.”
THE MARVEL OF GOD’S GRACE IN OUR LIVES TODAY
What terrors threaten your life? There are greater terrors at some times and lesser ones at other times. There are personal terrors and social terrors, political terrors and economic terrors. Life is constantly haunted by terrors of one kind or another. Sometimes they are felt very keenly and at other times they hide in the shadowy corners where we are hardly aware of them. They appear in nightmares and in the daily paper, in suddenly erupting fears over unexpected circumstances that come upon us and in the newscasts on TV. They appear at the most inopportune times and assault us in ways that we can hardly anticipate. We are never really free of them. We are just more free of recognizing them at some times than we are at others. Security is never a sure word for us in this world on the terms the world establishes for us.
Peter, going off with Jesus in the seemingly secure environment of Jesus’ presence and with the promise that in Jesus “salvation” both from the terrors of God’s presence and the world’s pressures was at hand, serves as a sign that “security” is not synonymous with “salvation” even though they are closely related. Salvation is the constant awareness that the one who is Lord over all terrors accompanies us through the terrors while security, at least in earthly terms, suggests that nothing will go wrong at all and we can rest as though safe and sound.
It is of note that the salvation lying at the heart of these lessons comes to quite ordinary people. Peter had little in his resume to make one think he would one day become a fisher of men much less an extraordinarily important “cog” in the early development of the Christian faith. Isaiah was simply “the son of Amoz” when he was given the vision of God’s dealing with Israel. In their “growing up years” there was very likely little to set them apart as likely candidates for the work that God had in store for them. Neither volunteered for their vocation.
They became who they became by virtue of their call. God does not call qualified people to his service – he qualifies people who are called to his service. They performed that to which they were called simply by virtue of having been empowered by God through his Holy Spirit’s activity in and around them. Their “success” was hardly great by the world’s reckoning. By God’s reckoning, though, they were measured by their faithfulness to the call for which he equipped them, and that was enough.
They discovered a most amazing thing, though! Their salvation depended on their dying – not necessarily a physical dying, but a dying “to self.” Only in losing the lives that they, like all of us, cherished so much, did they find the life that really mattered. Peter would bear the cross of losing his self-hood in order to become the new self, the self whose heart was the very Christ he followed!
You may not be called to tasks that ring through history as having great and mighty import over the centuries, but you have been called in your baptism to follow the one who called Peter and his friends in today’s text. You have been given the Holy Spirit through the word and the water and you are fed today again on the body and blood of him whose death has redeemed us and who has, in turn, called us to follow him bearing our own cross. That cross is not simply a “cross” of such things as poor health, family disappointments, economic worry, or even depriving ourselves of the nicer things of life that we would like to have. It is, above all, the “cross” of following Jesus, which means the loss of our very “self,” buried with Christ by baptism, so that we can be raised to the same newness of life that emerged from Jesus’ tomb.
To lose our “self” is a death that, in many ways, seems terror-filled. It is most difficult to think about or understand that we must die to a comfortable old way of life in the world that surrounds us with such seductive promises. But if we go to that death to “self” hearing the voice of him who responds to our “depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” with the words “do not be afraid,” we will find a new and glorious life with him and in him. For the things that seem to be of vital importance to the world around us, without which those who depend on them for the life they cherish, shall surely prove to be futile. Those who hold such things close to their hearts live in terror that those things might be torn from their grasp. Those who hear the voice of Jesus and no longer consider those things to be the most essential things of life, however, know that they are not really of any ultimate concern any more. What counts above all is to follow the one we call Master and Lord, trusting that his word is sure: “Do not be afraid!”
Hubert Beck, Retired Lutheran Pastor