By Jacob Smith
Our reading opens with Jesus preaching to the crowds, and in this chapter Luke gives us the setting, because he wants us to focus on Jesus’ word: what his teaching creates and has created in us. Jesus is teaching near the lake of Gennesaret, another name for the Sea of Galilee, and there is this large crowd pushing in on Jesus. Luke tells us at the same time these fishermen are coming in from a bad night of fishing and Jesus knows one of these fishermen. It is Simon Peter. They probably met at one of Jesus’ earlier events, and I can imagine Simon Peter is wiped and wants to go home. Yet Jesus says, “Simon, I need your boat.” What would you do? Just imagine it! You’ve had a bad day at work and then all of a sudden someone asks you for something.
If you’re honest you usually say no. But if you’re more like Peter, you’re thinking no, you’re wishing you had said no, but instead you say, okay. Sure, it is totally fine. And so they push out and Jesus begins to teach. Finally, when Jesus finishes teaching, judging by Peter’s response, I am sure he just wanted to go home, but Jesus says, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Now, all the fishermen knew that it was easier to fish in the shallow waters at night, instead of deep in the middle of the day. Have you ever told a fisherman how to fish? It is not a good idea. I imagine that the fishermen kind of stopped, looked at each other, and muttered to themselves, “What does he know about fishing anyway? Isn’t this guy a carpenter turned rabbi?” This is implied by Simon’s answer: “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so.” A better transliteration is: “Yet at your word, I will let down the nets.” This is my first point: Jesus’ word, his promise, creates faith to trust in him at his word. Peter says, “At your word, I will let down the nets.”
Despite everything around Peter, all of his instincts, all of his training that said go home, get some rest, because you fish in shallow waters at nightfall, Jesus is teaching Peter and all of us to trust him at his word. It is no different today. All of your instincts, all of your upbringing, all of society, all of the church, may say this gospel — that you are justified before God, by grace through faith and not your works — is a fool’s promise. But hear me today, sisters and brothers, when God says you are forgiven, when God says you are clean, when God says you are righteous, when God says you are justified, you are, and this word creates faith in our hearts to believe God, sometimes despite all evidence to the contrary.
Now, nothing that happens at this moment catches Jesus off-guard, but it does the fishermen. The nets are bursting full of fish, they’re in the deep, and the boats are in danger of sinking. And guess what everyone is thinking? Dang, there are a lot of fish in this boat! Bring this carpenter along every time, because we’re gonna be rich! But Simon Peter sees all the fish flopping in the boat and in one of the most profound scenes in the Gospels, he falls to his knees in humility and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Peter now recognizes that he is in the presence of not just a great rabbi, but the Lord of creation, whom the wind, the waves, and even the fish obey.
At Jesus’ word, faith is created within us and the gift of faith not only enables us to trust Jesus at his word, the gift of faith also gives us an insight into who we actually are: sinful. Isaiah recognized this in the presence of God: “Woe unto me, for I am a man of unclean lips.”
Without faith in Jesus we are hopelessly deceived into believing that we are basically okay. We live with a sense of anthropological denial. It is interesting that it is currently being debated in AA circles because of the perceived negativity, but in most AA meetings before people can speak they introduce themselves as alcoholics. I once asked a sponsor why that was. It’s because the road to recovery always begins with an acknowledgment of who I actually am, not who I want or think I should be.
We may want to be, or think we should be, certain types of people; however, we are indeed people of unclean lips, and our lives, including your rector’s, are a string of broken commandments. There is evidence against us in what we have done and left undone, things known and unknown, and all we can do is confess it. Although maybe they haven’t touched a drink for 25 years, those who are in AA begin with “I am alcoholic.” Christians begin with “Depart from me, Lord, for I am sinful person.” Faith in Jesus does the hard work of pulling back our veneers of self-sufficiency, and like St. Peter, like Isaiah, leads us to fall on our knees and confess who we actually are, sinners, men and women of unclean lips. You may be thinking, gosh that’s just so negative. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. In actuality it is the beginning of real freedom.
This is my second point: In the flip-flop sense of the gospel, strength is always found in the admission of weakness. The alcoholic ultimately finds his strength in admission of his weakness to alcohol because he knows what is wrong with him. As Christians, we find our strength in the confession, like St. Peter, that we are sinful, because we know what is wrong with us. This confession, lifts our eyes up to where our hope, where our salvation, is ultimately found, and has already been given: the gospel, which also makes you a saint right now.
The gospel — in that word and that word alone can sinners not only stand in God’s presence, but share a boat with him, catch fish with him, and serve him in his kingdom. Peter in himself was completely unworthy to be in the same boat as Jesus. However, that same word, that same command that caused Peter to throw the nets over the side of the boat, declared him worthy to fish for people. God only calls sinners and God only uses sinners, and in that confession we hear the voice of Jesus give Peter and all of us our vocation: “Don’t be afraid: from now on you will be catching people.”
No longer would Peter be hunting down fish with nets. Now he would be netting people for the kingdom; in genuine compassion and concern for his neighbor he would cast out the net of Jesus’ death and resurrection far and wide, in likely places and in unlikely places, in the shallows but also in the deep. In Jerusalem, Samaria, to the ends of the earth, including here in New York City today.
This is my third point: In our day and age, when everything is permitted but nothing is forgiven, when people are running themselves ragged trying to find meaning and fulfillment, do not be afraid, for you are in the same boat with Jesus. This is precisely what Jesus did for us by becoming man and dying and rising. He got into the same boat with us. Our boat, to save us, and bring us into his boat, so that we might be kept safe in the ark of his salvation. And from that ark, the nave of this church, we follow him and cast forth that same net of the gospel. Good news shared and preached, water in baptism, and in a moment bread and wine, so that others may also come to know, sinners though they may be, by his atoning blood, they too like all of us have been made the righteousness of God.
The Rev. Jacob Smith is the rector of Calvary-St. George’s in Manhattan and is the co-host of Same Old Song, a lectionary preaching podcast.