Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"What If We Were Convinced?"

Text: Luke 5:1-11

Zechariah 8:20-23

 

The story seems straightforward enough.  Leading up to this morning’s episode, Jesus has begun to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to the people of Capernaum.  He’s defined the liberating character of the Kingdom by exorcising a demon from a man and by healing Peter’s mother-in-law from the ravages of a high fever. 

The people are excited by Jesus’ message, and even more so by Jesus’ miraculous signs – not much different than today when folk seem more interested in Jesus’ miraculous powers than Jesus’ divine teaching.  I picture Jesus now standing along the lake shore trying to preach, yet being forced to back up a step at a time as the masses press in upon Him until He eventually finds Himself wading into the water.  He spies two boats docked on the shore, having just been brought in by men who had fished all night with no success.  He steps into one of the boats, the one owned by Simon Peter, and resumes preaching.  After concluding His sermon, Jesus says to Peter, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

            Have you ever tried to tell a strong blue-collar type how to do what he does best?  Peter reacts as we would expect:  “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”  Between the lines:  “Who are you, sir, to tell me my business.”  I remember when I was young, I would do a lot of back pedaling with my father.  He would tell me, not ask me, to do something.  My initial objection would be met with a certain fire in his eyes, which was all I needed to convince me that I’d better do what he said.  Between the first and second sentences of verse 5, Jesus must have given Peter one of those certain looks, and Peter began to back pedal:  “Yet if you say so……  Peter and his cohorts let down the nets and immediately catch so many fish thatthe nets begin to tear and the boats begin to sink.

            Peter’s reaction is priceless.  He falls to his knees in astonishment and fear crying out:  “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  This may strike us as odd.  If Peter is simply in awe of this worker of miracles, why is he not recorded as reacting in similar fashion when Jesus made his sick mother-in-law well?  Could be that Peter was more excited about the great catch of fish than seeing his mother-in-law healed.  Even so, we scratch our heads at Peter’s expression of fear and confession of sin before this itinerant preacher.  So while the story line is straightforward, the story is strange.  We might expect Peter and those with him to say, “Hey Jesus, you want a job?  We can use a man like you.”  But that’s not how it went.  Instead, as Simon is upon his knees, and James and John are standing there with their mouths open, Jesus says to them:  “Do not be afraid;  from now on you will be catching people.”  More astonishing still, these fisherman immediately leave theirbusiness, their boats, their nets, “everything and followed him.”  That’s the story.  How do we make sense of it?

            First, let’s try to understand how these ancient people may have interpreted Jesus’ statement “from now on you will be catching people?”  [In due respect to gender inclusive language, I still like the old language:  “I will make you fishers of men”]  This abrupt statement was loaded with meaning for ancient Jews who were looking for and expecting the Kingdom of God.  Many of the more liberally-minded Jews believed that as the end of time approached, people of many nations would be gathered together by God and brought into the Kingdom.  They imagined Jews and Gentiles alike participating cooperatively in God’s plan.  Scholar Paula Fredricksen wrote in her book From Jesus to Christ“The community of the redeemed…..would have a mixed population; Gentiles too would have a place in the world to come.”  The Jews would lead the way, but others would follow.  We see this view expressed in Old Testament writings such as the passage we read earlier from the prophet Zechariah:  “In those days {referring to the days of the end-time} ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’”  Many Jews believed that a clear sign of the end times would be God’s gathering of Gentiles and Jews together for the Kingdom.

            Let’s keep this Jewish worldview in mind as we consider the strange story of that massive haul of fish, followed by Jesus’ announcement to the fishermen that they would be “catching people.”  This great gathering of fish would have been viewed by alert Jews as a divinely-inspired sign of the gathering of Jews and Gentiles into the Kingdom of God – into a common net --and as a sign that the end-time was near.  With this understanding in mind, we can appreciate why Peter falls to the ground before Jesus saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  Peter senses that God is near, that the end of time is approaching, and that the Kingdom is at hand.  For Jesus, in this miraculous act, is announcing that people are going to be gathered in huge numbers as the fish just gathered into the nets. As with all of Jesus’ miracles, what the miracle points to or signifies transcends the miracle itself.

 

            Since we’re not ancient Jews, and as the end of time has not yet come, how does this story have bearing on us?  What do we do when we believe that we’re living on the edge of time, anticipating the breaking in of God’s Kingdom, not measuring time by minutes, hours or days, but by events, many of which Christians believe are pointing to Christ’s imminent return?  We know what these Jewish fishermen did when they believed they were living on the edge of time, anticipating the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom.  They left “everything” to follow Jesus; a full commitment.  But the question for us is not what did they do?  The question is how does this episode say anything to us who hold a view of time that is entirely foreign to the view of time held by those ancient Jews?  Most of us don’t believe that the end of time is at hand.  Those who do may be standing on city streets with signs in their hands.  Let’s imagine though, for just a few moments, that we believed we were standing at the edge of time.  Would that belief compel us to change our ways?  Would we start doing things or stop doing things if we believed that at any moment, God would appear to say, “The old has passed, the new has come; enter the Kingdom.”  Perhaps the lesson this story has for Christians today is that we are to be always living in anticipation of God’s coming, living as if we are convinced that at any moment, God will arrive.  I don’t know what that conviction would mean for you, and I don’t know how that belief would influence your behavior, but you know.  What would  you do if God was standing right here?  I think the first thing I would do would be to shut my mouth and ask God if I have even come close to the mark in speaking on God’s behalf, or if I have missed it altogether.  What would you and I be like  -- what would we become – if we were convinced we were living on the edge of time, and that everything we said and did carried eternal weight?  Would we be different spouses?  Different parents? Different children? Different students? Different employees?  Different bosses? Different neighbors? Different disciples of Christ and servants of Christ’s church?  Peter and his fishermen buddies were convinced, and their lives forever changed.  If we are convinced of God’s presence, the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom, and our calling to “catch people” for God’s Kingdom, how are our lives forever changed?  I leave that in your boat.