✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Today’s Gospel is about fishing–catching fish, catching people. But there’s a fundamental mistake we still often make with this image. We tend to think of fishing the way we we’re used to doing it on a Wisconsin lake: bait your hook, throw in a line, and if it’s a good day, reel in your catch. And so we apply this imagery to how people should be drawn in to the church. First, the thinking goes, we need to come up with some bait, something to excite people so that we can hook them and yank them into the church. What will attract the youth or young families or this or that group of people? We need talented performers and a whole menu of programs to meet people’s felt needs. We need to make that Gospel hook seem nice and comfortable and enticing so that our intended quarry will take a big bite and get good and snagged.
But there are two problems with that image. First of all, bait is all about fooling the fish as to your true intentions, right? You offer it the lure of food only to make it food for you. It’s about trickery and manipulation. And that is not the way of our God. His is the way of truth. His is the way of saying what we need to hear, not what we want to hear, so that we may be saved. The holy church of Christ can never be in the bait and switch business. We’re not here to fake people into becoming Christian. What sort of disciples would that really produce, anyway? Jesus, rather, was always rather blunt and right out front, as He is in Luke 14, “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.”
We need to remember that in today’s Gospel it’s not a rod and reel and bait that are being used but a net. And that’s a whole different kind of fishing. The net is cast, which is to say, the Word of God is proclaimed. And through Christ’s Word, fish are drawn in to the boat of the Church as together many hear and believe His preaching.
That’s what was going on at the beginning of the Gospel. Many were pressing in around Jesus to hear Him speak the words of God. Because of the crowds, Jesus gets into a boat and asks Simon to put out a little from shore. The reflection of the sound off of the water enables a larger number of people to hear. Our Lord uses the boat as a pulpit to preach His Word of salvation to the people. Christ is in the boat drawing the people to Himself. Like a fisherman, He casts the net of the Gospel to draw the fish into the boat.
So it is still today. The place where you are sitting is called the “nave” of the church, Latin for “ship.” The people of God even now press in around Jesus to hear His Word, because Christ is here in the boat. You fish, who swim in the waters of baptism, are drawn in by His teaching. The Word of God still reflects off of the baptismal water, calling you to repentance and to faith in Jesus, bringing you everlasting life.
Our Lord then proceeds to perform a miracle which illustrates the miracle of salvation which He was accomplishing through His preaching. Jesus says to Simon Peter, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Now Simon knows that no good fisherman goes to the deep for a catch. And no good fisherman fishes in the heat of the day but when the sun is lower in the sky. What our Lord commands Simon to do here makes no sense. But this is the way it’s done with the Lord. He goes to the deep, to the very depths of sin and death to pull up His catch of sinful men by water and the Word and to create in us new life.
“Launch out into the deep” our Lord still says. Not only in the safe suburbs, but in the cities, in sparsely populated rural areas, not only to people who seem open to Christian spirituality but also to the “unspiritual,” to people of every age and color and nationality and marital status. The church is given to proclaim the Gospel wherever Christ gives us opportunity–me by preaching in this place and in my visits; and you by confessing your faith in your daily callings out there as family members and workers and citizens and neighbors, so that others might be drawn in to get caught in the net of Christ’s teaching and thereby enter His boat. Remember what the Epistle reading said, “Always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you.” That means hearing Christ’s preaching and studying His Word regularly so that you're ready to answer their questions.
Peter responded to Jesus’ command, “Master, we toiled all night and caught nothing.” In the darkness, our own efforts produce nothing. However, in the Light of Christ Peter goes on to say, “At Your Word I will let down the nets.” Purely by faith Simon surrenders all that he knows and all that he has experienced and lets down the nets. So it is to be in the Church. Not our word but Jesus’ Word is our life and salvation. What counts is not what seems reasonable and practical to us, but what is good and right in the sight of the Lord. The still, small voice of the Gospel of Christ crucified, which is foolishness to the world, is the power of God to us. His truth orders our lives.
Simon does what our Lord commands, and the nets fill up. In fact, they are beginning to break and some fish are escaping, just as when the net of the Gospel is cast, not all believe what is preached; not all are drawn in to the boat. Sadly there have been several people in this place whom I have drawn in with the net of the Gospel in preaching and adult instruction but who have since slipped away, out of the nets back into the depths of this world and its ways.
Peter’s reaction to this miracle seems a bit surprising. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” This mighty work of Jesus causes Peter to see that he was in the presence of the holy God. And so the unbelief that remains in Peter rises up and begins to overwhelm him. “God is holy. God hates sin. I am a sinner. I am lost.” But that is the preaching of the devil. The devil is good at preaching only half of the truth. Peter is indeed a sinner, as are you. God does indeed hate sin, with a passion. Sinners do die.
However, the One who stands before Simon Peter, and before you this day, Jesus the Son of God, did not come into this world to condemn the world but to save the world–to rescue Peter, and to rescue you. Just as Simon Peter trusted in the Lord when he went out to catch fish in the deep, so now you are to trust in the Lord as He speaks His incredible mercy to you. To the sinner who in shame says, “Depart from me, Lord” Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” Notice our Lord doesn’t say, “Oh, that’s okay, it’s not really that bad.” No, our Lord says, “Do not be afraid.” “You are forgiven. I have taken on your very flesh and blood to sanctify you and make you holy. Your sins have been paid for by my cross, so that now you can stand before a holy God and live. Do not be afraid.”
And finally, our Lord does one more amazing thing. He says to Peter, “From now on you will catch men.” In other words He makes this sinner into an apostle and a preacher of the Gospel, so that more fish, more slippery characters might be drawn into the boat. Let us remember, then, not to glorify the preachers Christ calls and ordains–they are sinners like anyone else. Let us rather glorify Christ who goes so far as to use fallen men to speak His Word and minister His Sacraments, that you fish might continually be drawn into the church.
Even today, our Lord feeds His fish with the riches of His Altar. He draws you to Himself, that through His true and literal body and blood, He may dwell in you and you in Him forever. He partook of you by becoming human. And now you partake of Him in the Supper, that you may share in His divine glory. Just as the great fish swallowed up Jonah to save him from death, so also Jesus took you into Himself, swallowing up your sin and death on the cross, and raising you up to a new life on the third day in His bodily resurrection.
So let it not be said among you, “Lord, depart from me. I must stay away from you. You couldn’t possibly save a sinner like me.” Instead, God grant you to say, “At Your Word, Lord, I forsake all my plans, all my ways of thinking and doing things to follow you. At your Word, Lord, I let down my defenses and trust in Your loving kindness. For You are my light and my salvation.”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠