July 1, 2018
They had toiled all night and caught nothing. Jesus was well aware of this. Yet, still he tells Peter to push out into the deep and let down the nets. Although this seems to Peter to be a futile task, he replies to Jesus, “But at your word I will let down the nets.” And behold, they caught so many fish that their nets began to tear and they filled two boats with the great catch.
Here Peter gives us a good example of faith. Peter is an experienced fisherman. They had already failed to catch fish all night. He knew that it was unlikely to catch any fish now in the middle of the day. That's why they already washed their nets and put them away. Yet, Peter submits his reason and experience to Jesus’ word. And as a result, he caught more fish than he had ever seen at once. Jesus’ word trumps Peter’s reason. And so, should his word overrule our wisdom and experience.
Yet, this is much easier said than done. Setting our reason and experience aside can be an impossible task. “Baptism can’t save! How can water do anything but wet the skin?” Yet, Jesus says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” (Mark 16:16) So, we believe the plain words of our Lord. Likewise, most reject the idea that Jesus’ actual body, which was pierced on the cross and blood, which flowed from his wounds is present in the Lord’s Supper. It looks and tastes like ordinary bread and wine. Yet faith clings to the words of Christ, “This is my body, given for you. This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26) Ordinary men can’t forgive sins. Only God can forgive sins. So, it is a great offense to many that in our church pastors forgive the sins of the people. Yet, our Lord Jesus clearly says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:23)
Being a Christian means submitting your reason and experience to Jesus’ clear words. If we let our reason judge whether what Jesus says is true or not, we would constantly doubt our salvation. “How can Jesus say that my sins are forgiven? Doesn’t he know what I’ve done? Doesn’t he know that I keep repeating the sins for which I ask forgiveness? Doesn’t he know the wicked thoughts I’ve had, the hatred, the lust, the anger? How can I go to heaven simply by faith. Surely, I must do my part!” But Jesus knows your sins better than you do. Yet, the truth remains, Christ’s blood makes propitiation for all your sins. True saving faith is to trust in Jesus’ words over your experience. Your reason will say, water is just water, bread and wine are just bread and wine, and God can’t punish Jesus for your sins. Yet, faith says with Peter, “Yet at your word I believe.”
At Jesus’ word, Peter and his fellow fishermen caught a tremendous amount of fish. Yet this biblical account is not really about fish. Also, at Jesus’ word many people pressed up to Jesus, so that he had to take refuge in a boat off the shore. It is Jesus’ word that is the heart beat of the Christian Church. Without the words of Jesus, there is no Church. And so, it is of the utmost importance that we remain faithful to the Word of God. Just as Jesus’ Word caused fish to swarm into Peter’s nets, God’s Word brings people from all nations into his Church.
When Peter saw the great catch of fish he fell down at Jesus’ knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Here, Peter gives us a good example of unbelief. And so, it is important for us to learn what Word of God creates faith, forgives sins, and brings people into Christ’s Church. We rightly divide God’s Word into two: The Law and the Gospel. The law is what God commands of us. God commands that we love the Lord God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves. God’s law threatens eternal punishment to all who fail to love perfectly. To an extent, people can know God’s law even apart from God’s word, because the law is written on our hearts (Romans 2:15). Even non-Christians know what is right and wrong. The law offers no comfort. It only threatens. And when one is confronted with the great power of God, fear overtakes the heart. This is why Peter tells Jesus to go away from him. He has come face to face with the almighty and holy God! God’s power and might are not comforting to you if you are not aware of the Gospel. Instead, God’s might terrifies burdened consciences.
Peter spoke the truth when he called himself a sinful man. Yet, he demonstrated his lack of faith when he told Jesus to depart from him. Yet, Peter didn’t need to cease to be a sinful man before he could ask Jesus to stay with him. Rather, Peter needed to have faith. The law and God’s power cause a sinner to ask Jesus to depart from him. The Gospel, which reveals God’s grace and forgiveness for Christ’s sake causes a sinner to say to Jesus, “Abide with me, for night is day when you are near.”
This is not to say that the law is not necessary! Jesus himself preached the law clearly and boldly. He preached against divorce, fornication, lust, covetousness, hatred, theft, gossip. But the law isn’t the net that brings people into Christ’s Church. Because without the Gospel, the law causes us to say to Jesus, “Depart from me for I am a sinner.” It is the Gospel that causes the sinful man to cling to Jesus and not let him go. Because the Gospel reveals that Jesus died, so that sinners might live and that he forgives sins willingly.
Yet, it is the Gospel that is impossible for reason to accept. Your reason and experience can accept the law. The law makes sense. If you do wrong, you should be punished. If you want to be rewarded, you need to do good. There’s no arguing with that! But your reason will argue against the cross of Christ. How can a man make propitiation for the sins of the whole world? How can God credit Christ’s righteousness to sinners and our sins against the righteous Jesus? That’s not fair! That’s not just! Our reason wants to cling to the law and say, “No, I must do something to earn my salvation. I have to make amends myself.” But you can’t. Your sins are a greater debt than you can possibly repay. If you could see the true ugliness of your transgressions, you would say with Peter, “Depart from my, Jesus for I am full of sin.” And this is where the law is very useful. It will beat you down until your reason gives up and says, “I can’t. As much as I try, I can’t earn my salvation. I must throw myself at the mercy of God.”
The law can never assure you of God’s love. It can never give you confidence that you are saved. It simply tells you what is right and that you are not. The Gospel alone creates saving faith and forgives sins. Only Jesus’ death and resurrection can save you. And so, it is only the preaching of the tender mercy of God shown through Jesus’ suffering and death that can grow the church. Baptism, which reason cannot understand, but which connects you to Christ’s death and resurrection grows the church. The Lord’s Supper, which no sane person could actually believe to be Jesus’ true body and blood keeps the church strong. God’s grace, which must be believed against common sense is the net, which catches men.
Jesus tells St. Peter that from now on he will be catching men. Here Jesus is instituting the office of the ministry of the word. Peter and all ministers of the word will catch people, not with nets, not with eloquent wisdom, not with gimmicks, but with Jesus’ words. Ministers use Jesus’ word as their tool to effectively catch men and women and bring them into Christ’s fold. It is the only tool that works.
Jesus calls sinful men to be pastors. This is as remarkable as the fact that Jesus calls sinners to be his saints and live with him forever. But just as Jesus forgives all of you your many sins with his priceless and inexhaustible blood, he also forgives his pastors. And he calls them not to represent their sinful selves, but to represent Christ Jesus. Jesus says to his ministers, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16) As well as, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things I command them. And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) Pastors do not work with their own power, but with the power and resources of Christ, which are given to them through Jesus’ word, as St. Paul writes, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” (1 Corinthians 4:1)
And because pastors do not work according to their own power, wisdom, or talents, but they simply do and speak according to God’s word, they cannot claim success for the growth of a church. Rather, as Peter recognized that the cause of the great catch of fish was not his ability to cast a net, but rather Jesus’ word, so also pastors must recognize that the faith and love, which is produced in their people is a result of Jesus and his word. As St. Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)
This is a difficult thing to accept, because sometimes God does not grant the growth we want. How many Lutheran congregations are stagnant or dying? And it is a strong temptation to change the word, which we preach. Pastors and congregations are tempted to take out some of the words of Jesus, which might sound a bit offensive. And while it’s easy to point the finger at liberal church bodies like the ELCA or United Methodists, who do not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, we should examine ourselves first. Do we water down the Gospel, so that it can reach more people? Do I do this? Is this what Jesus did or what he commands us to do?
No. The Church grows by Jesus’ word and no one else's. We can’t trick people into believing. If they are offended, they are offended. We must trust in God to produce the growth, just as Peter trusted in Jesus as he cast the nets.
Jesus did institute the Office of the Ministry and his pastors are indeed charged with keeping his word and preaching and teaching according to it. But the words of Jesus are not the exclusive property of the pastor. No, all who have been brought into the boat by the words of Christ now own those words. Jesus’ words are your property to console your conscience when it gets burned and to comfort your loved ones and children, to teach in your home and always carry on your heart. It is also your responsibility as a Christian to judge your pastor according to Jesus’ word. This means that you actually need to learn what Jesus says, read your Catechism and Scripture, listen to sermons, attend Bible studies, and devote yourself to God’s Word.
Jesus’ Word is the most important thing in your life, not just the most important thing in the life of the pastor. The disciples left everything to follow Jesus, but this is not because they were called into the ministry of the word. It is because they were called to be members of Christ’s Church. And Christ’s Church is not filled by nets, but by the calling of the Gospel, which says to all sinners, come, cling to Christ. Christ calls you to follow him, to hear his word and trust above all things. Let us all follow Jesus and trust in his word. Amen.