A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 10, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?
Each of the four Gospels has an account of Jesus calling his first disciples, and they aren’t the same. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is down by the Jordan River where John the Baptist is doing his work, and two of John’s disciples follow him home, then they invite others who Jesus invites to follow him. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee and invites first Peter and Andrew who were standing on the shore, throwing their net into the sea, and later James and John, who were mending nets in their father’s boat. In those cases, the disciples immediately follow Jesus. Today’s Gospel, from Luke, is a little bit different. Those differences are very human, and I think, pretty amusing.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had already been preaching and teaching for a while before he encountered the disciples. So when he was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he wasn’t just walking along the beach, noticing the fishermen working, he was surrounded by all sorts of people, wanting to hear what he had to teach, to be healed and so forth. So, in order to be able to teach the large crowd and not to be overrun, he sees a boat and climbs into it and asks Simon Peter to row out a little way from the shore so he could address the crowd. What exactly Jesus said isn’t recorded, but I’m sure that what Jesus taught was pretty similar to what he taught on other occasions: good news to the poor, repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand, perhaps some parables or parts of the Sermon on the Mount. At the end of his teaching, Jesus didn’t ask the fisherman to take him back to shore, but to row out in deep water and put out his nets. Peter resists, because he is exhausted. He’s been working all the night, and hasn’t caught any fish. A day of work and nothing to show for it, no pay, nothing to eat. Sometimes life can be difficult and discouraging. It wasn’t the end of life—he would survive to fish the next day—but life can be on the edge, even for a person who has a job.
Jesus insists, so the fishermen continue to row. All of a sudden, there’s a huge unexpected bounty of fish in their nets—more than they had ever caught at one time. What happens next is what I find funny—they go from being exhausted and depressed because of a lack of fish, to being panicked and afraid because of too many fish. They get help from the other boat, they fill both boats to the point that they nearly sank. As they get to shore, Simon Peter falls down on his knees in front of Jesus. He sees this as a miracle, this bringer of the Word of God has clearly done something from God and he’s very afraid. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Where have we heard that before? In our Old Testament Lesson, which is the account of the call of the prophet Isaiah, he says: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!”
Being aware of the presence of God is a frightening thing. It makes clear how people truly fall short of God’s goodness, how truly inadequate we are of embodying and teaching the truth. Even though it’s suddenly his best day of work ever, Peter is overwhelmed—how can this be? What is God doing with me?
It’s possible to get everything we imagine we want, and yet not have any idea of what it’s for, or what our next step is. And Jesus said to him, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be one who nets people.”
Peter, Andrew, James and John were thus called to follow Jesus as he traveled around Galilee, healing, preaching and teaching; and as he journeyed to Jerusalem and his crucifixion and resurrection. But God’s call is not limited to these disciples alone, or to prophets like Isaiah. Each of us is called out of our particular limitations: our fear, or our poverty; our anger or our disappointment; we are called out of having too much or struggling to have enough, to live lives worthy of the Gospel—to be Jesus’ witnesses and hands right here. It is fearful to be called by God, because when we hear that call—and know that it is God—we are aware of the perfect love of God and all too aware that our own love is far too imperfect. How can the perfect God make use of such imperfect and flawed creatures?
The answer is God’s mercy. That is both the simplest, most straightforward fact—and the deepest of all possible mysteries. In God’s compassion for all God’s children, God chose to call us, in all our sinfulness, to be the vessels of his compassion. That is the Gospel—the opportunity to live and deliver God’s mercy into this world.
The epistle lesson we heard today from First Corinthians is how Paul states this. In fact, it is the earliest account we have of the Gospel message that the early church proclaimed, because he is repeating what he had been taught from the beginning:
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received; that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (which is the Aramaic name that we know as Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred sisters and brothers…then to James, and all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called…”
Paul also was aware of his unworthiness. But he proclaimed the mercy of God—the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, so that we might have life—life as abundant as that great haul of fish and as joyful as the opportunity to share it with others in God’s love.
They will sing of the ways of the Lord, that great is the glory of the Lord.
Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly;
he perceives the haughty from afar.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe;
you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies;
your right hand shall save me.