Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 4, 2007)
“Caught in the Net of Jesus” (Luke 5:1-11)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus called his disciples to be fishers of men. His Church continues that task as we proclaim what the apostles of Jesus saw and heard...that Jesus Christ, True God and True Man, died and rose again for the salvation of all people.
When you go out in your boat to go fishing, you bring along a rod and a reel. On the end of the line is a big hook on which you place some tasty morsel that the fish will bite into. You feel a tug on the end of your line and set the hook in the fish’s mouth by quickly pulling it toward you. Now the fight begins. It’s just you and that 40-pound King Salmon as he tries to swim away and you try to reel him in. Once you pull him into the boat, you bop him on the head to keep him from flopping around and jumping back into the water. Back at the dock, you clean him up, ready to be taken home and put on the grill with some butter and lemon...or maybe like the way I cook it, with some butter, brown sugar, and lemon pepper.
So maybe it strikes you as a little odd when you hear Jesus telling his disciples that they will be fishers of men. Are we supposed to have some kind of hook with which to reel people into the church? Are we supposed to put out some bait that might attract people? I can think of all kinds of things that would draw people here. But would that bait keep people here? How long would they stay? Once they tire of the bait we are offering, they might very well look for other interesting and exciting and tasty bait somewhere else on the other side of the lake. And is the bait we offer truly spiritually nourishing? After all, what do you do with fish when they are hooked? You kill them and eat them. Sometimes, as churches try to draw people in, the bait offered to them is not neutral...it could be spiritually deadly.
Caught in the Net of Sin
But fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, or the lake of Genessaret as St. Luke calls it, didn’t use rods and reels and hooks and bait. They used nets, just as they do there to this day. There was no bait involved. The nets were simply cast out into the water, enveloped the fish that were there, and drawn into the boat.
In our Gospel lesson today, Simon Peter and his business partners had worked all night long and hadn’t caught a single fish. The fish just weren’t in the places where the crews were dropping their nets. So after an unfruitful night, they headed back to the shore to clean their nets and get ready for their next outing.
With the crowd pressing around Jesus, he got into Simon Peter’s boat and asked him to put out a little from the land so he could preach from the boat. After his sermon was over, Jesus told Peter to take his boat out into the deep water and put his nets down for a catch.
Now, before I presume to know what exactly was going on his Peter’s head, let me say that I feel bad that Peter so often is our favorite whipping boy. We have a tendency to bad mouth him and presume to know what he was thinking. And here’s another case of this. If I am wrong about this, then I will be the first to greet him at the pearly gates and say, “St. Peter, remember that sermon I preached on the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany 2007? Was I right about you? If not, please forgive me, would you?”
Now back to our story. Peter replied to Jesus in a tone of half-belief. “Master,” he called Jesus, “we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” Do you suppose Peter was thinking, “Master, you’re a carpenter. You make tables and chairs. Stick to that, would you. I’ve been fishing all my life out here. I’m a professional. Please don’t tell me how to do my job.” Nevertheless, Peter and the others let down the nets. Did they do it just to humor Jesus? Or was there a part of them that heard the implied promise in Christ’s words, “Let down your nets for a catch”... “Really. I mean it, guys. The fish are there. I put them there.” Sure enough, they pulled in such a catch that it took two boats to hold all the fish...and even then they began to sink.
But half-belief is really unbelief. Peter recognized this and fell down at Jesus’ feet. He confessed that he himself was caught in a net...the net of sin. Notice how his address of Jesus changed...from Master to Lord. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” He now knew he was in the presence of God and didn’t deserve to be there. What will it take for us to know this and respond like Peter? Instead, we often come to church so nonchalantly, not really taking into account that we do not deserve to be in God’s presence because of the sinful net in which we are entangled.
Likewise, in his vision in the temple, Isaiah also was in the presence of God. In fact, it was the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the same person before whom Peter knelt in the boat. St. John makes that clear in chapter 12 verse 41 of his Gospel: “He [Isaiah] saw Jesus’ glory and spoke of him.” What will it take for us to reply like Isaiah, “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” We are in the presence of God in Word and Sacrament, yet we often confess our sins half-heartedly. We repeat the words of confession in our liturgy but don’t stop to think about what we are saying. We don’t honestly believe that the things we do or think or say are very serious.
What will it take for us to realize that our boat is sinking, and we have no life preservers on board? The author of Ecclesiastes said, “Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.” No one knows the hour of their death, and apart from turning to Christ in repentant trust, the net of sin will drag us down to eternal death.
Caught in the Net of Forgiveness and Love
But the Creator of all that swims in the sea is a better fisherman than Peter realizes. The net that Jesus casts out is different. Normally, fish are caught in nets to be killed and eaten. But the net that Jesus uses catches people and delivers them from fear and unbelief to a life of faith and trust and hope. With Peter kneeling before him in the boat, crying out “Depart from me...O Lord,” and with the water splashing over the sides of the boat because of the large catch of fish, Jesus’ one concern was not the sinking boat. It was absolving Peter. And he did so with these words, “Do not be afraid”... “Don’t be afraid, Peter. You are indeed in the very presence of the Holy God. And I am not about to depart from you. I am going to stay right with you.” And when we confess our sins before the Lord, he says a similar thing to us, “Don’t be afraid. You are indeed in the very presence of the Holy God. But I am not about to depart from you. In fact, I have gone to the cross for you, where I paid the price for your unbelief, for your doubts, for the ways in which you don’t take your sins seriously. The debt you owe to God is paid in full with the price of my shed blood. You are forgiven. And now, you are no longer caught in the net of sin. You are caught in the net of my love. And in this net, I envelop you with grace and mercy and pull you out of the depths of your sin into a new life of faith and trust and hope in me.”
“Do not be afraid,” Jesus said. “From now on you will be catching men.” From that point on, Simon Peter, James, and John “left everything and followed him.” The forgiving Word of Jesus creates faith and gives a new initiative and a changed perspective. It gives a new initiative to leave everything behind and follow Jesus. It gives a changed perspective on the things of this life. Family, work, and material goods are all good things and are gifts from God. But everything must take second place to Jesus. Not everyone is called to literally leave everything behind. But in our hearts, everything else must fade in comparison to the importance of being a follower of Jesus...and following Jesus begins right here, where we hear his Word and eat and drink his body and blood for strength for our journey.
The forgiving Word of Jesus also gives us a new vocation. “From now on you will be catching men.” It seems that up to this point, the disciples had an occasional acquaintance with Jesus. They had heard him teach from time to time. But now, they were called into a different kind of relationship with him. Their “seminary training” had begun in earnest. Following Jesus became a full-time vocation, listening to him, learning from him, and preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God. When you are baptized, you enter into that full-time vocation of being one of Jesus’ full-time followers, no matter what your station in life. He washes you clean of all your sin. His Word of Life gives you a new initiative and a changed perspective. Caught in the net of Jesus’ love, His Church goes out into the world to catch people in that same net by casting out the Good News of Jesus and drawing people into a new life...a life of faith and trust, a life free from guilt, a life free from the fear of death, a life full of the promise of eternity.
Casting out the net of the Gospel, we don’t always get a big catch, do we? Sometimes the net is empty. Sometimes there’s only one or two fish. But that doesn’t mean we pull our boats into shore. With faith in the power of Christ’s Word, we keep on shoving off into the deep water and responding to our Lord, “At your word I will let down the net.”