July 21, 2019
After Peter and his crew failed by their own efforts to catch any fish all night long, Jesus with his word caused them to catch more fish than either their net or two boats could hold. And so, Jesus teaches his new disciples that it is the Lord, who provides for all that we need to support this body and life. God told Adam that by the sweat of his brow he would eat bread, but he never told him to trust in his own sweat. Rather, God provides for all people purely out of his own fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in us. Here Jesus shows us the power and mercy of the Father, who cares for us every day, granting us success, as the Psalmist says, “Unless the Lord build the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” (Psalm 127:1)
You don’t just leave God in church when you go home or on the side table with your Bible when you head off to work. God goes with you to protect you from all danger, to support you in your work, and provide you success. This is how we are able to eat, be clothed, and sleep in peace: by the providence of God. But this is not the main lesson of this story. Rather, the great catch of fish is a lesson concerning a much greater work that God will do through his servant Peter and all who come after him. Peter will catch men for the kingdom of God. This is a much greater task, as Jesus elsewhere says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.
Jesus tells Peter that from now on he will be catching men, that is, human beings to be citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom. Through Peter God will bring people into his holy Christian Church. But who is Peter? What does he say of himself? “I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Peter is a sinner. Nevertheless, Jesus calls him to be a fisher of men, to be his tool to save sinners.
In fact, all of Jesus’ ministers are sinful men. St. Paul called himself the chief of sinners! (1 Timothy 1:15) Every pastor, who has ever preached the good word has been a sinner. I am a sinner. Yet, Jesus calls sinful men to bring sinners to repentance and to preach the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins. He calls sinful men to forgive the sins of sinners. Well, how can this be? It is because the sinful men do not go out to represent themselves, but Jesus. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” (John 13:20) Again, Jesus says to his disciples, “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)
Jesus’ ministers are not sent out to represent themselves, but to represent Jesus. And they are not sent to speak their own words, but to speak Jesus’ words. Jesus’ words are the words of God. There is no greater force in this universe than God’s word, for by it the heavens and the earth were made, and by it sinners dead in their trespasses are rescued from the clutches of hell and brought safely into the holy ark of the Church. The Lord God did not meet Elijah in the great wind or in the earthquake or fire. He met Elijah in a low whisper. God comes to us in his word. When the minister of God speaks God’s word to you, however unimpressive he might seem, that word has the power and authority of God.
Peter was an expert fisherman. He had a good crew and good partners. They spent their lives on the lake of Gennesaret, also called Galilee. Yet, it wasn’t Peter’s expertise that brought in the great hull of fish. Nor was it the experience of his crew, nor the sleepless hours through the night, nor the sweat and strain on his body. It was the word of Christ. “But at your word I will let down the nets,” Peter says. And through faith in Jesus’ word, Peter succeeded in catching fish.
What will grant success to the church? How will we catch people as Jesus tells Peter he will do? Many run to the experts, who have years of experience getting people to come through doors and spend money. So, they use business models designed for gathering customers to gather sheep into Jesus’ fold. If we just give people what they want, then we can get them into the church to hear the Gospel. It’s called a bait and switch. It’s the way most of us fish. You put bait on a hook. The fish wants the bait. It doesn’t see the hook. But you want the fish to bite the hook. The fish goes for the bait and you pull it in on the hook. But that’s not how Jesus teaches us to fish for people. We can’t trick people into joining the church. We can’t trick them into becoming Christians. They must be caught by the net. And the net is God’s word. They must hear the word of God and believe it for what it is.
In the book of Acts, when the author Luke wants to say that the number of disciples increased, he writes that the word of God increased (Acts 6:7; 12:24). It is through the preaching of the Gospel and only through the preaching of the Gospel that sinners, men, women, and children are gathered into salvation. They can’t be tricked. They can’t be searching for something else. It must be the word of forgiveness and acceptance from God for the sake of Jesus Christ that brings poor sinners in.
This is not to say that this does not involve work. This involves a lot of work, sweat, blood, anxiety, sleepless nights, study, and prayer. Jesus spoke to his servant Ananias concerning St. Paul, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:16). No, the work of ministry is a lot of work. Yet, what does St. Paul say? “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) It is God, who grants his church growth, who gathers Christians into his fold even as he brought the great catch of fish into Peter’s nets, and he does this through his word. It is the Lord who kept his 7,000 from worshiping the false god Baal, and so we trust that God will cause growth to his church today through the same means of his word.
This is why our Lutheran Confessions are just as relevant today when they say in Augsburg Confession Article V, “So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given [John 20:22]. He works faith, when and where it pleases God [John 3:8], in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake.”
So, Jesus calls this sinful man Peter, the first in a long line of sinful men, to preach the Gospel, so that God might work through his preaching to bring sinners to salvation. Yet, why does Jesus say, “Do not be afraid.”? Did you catch that? Peter, when he sees Jesus’ tremendous power says in fear, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” And Jesus responds, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Why is it that Jesus links telling Peter to not be afraid with his call to catch men? You’d think that that would be more reason to fear! Peter must give up all that he has in order to catch men. He will lose his livelihood preaching the Gospel. Peter will be persecuted by his own people and finally be crucified by the Romans, because of this call to fish for men. So, why does Jesus tell him to not be afraid?
Because the Gospel message Jesus is calling Peter to preach is for Peter as well. That which will gather countless numbers of people into Jesus’ church will also gather Peter. St. Paul writes so much to the young pastor Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16) Paul taught Timothy that what he would preach would save himself along with his hearers. St. Peter believed and practiced this as well. He preached of Christ in Acts 4, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
And so, it is important for preachers to take comfort in the Gospel they preach. Jesus forgives pastors. And he wants pastors to preach that forgiveness to his people. That which put away Peter’s fear, so that he clung to Christ instead of telling him to depart from him, was the forgiveness of sins. And it is the forgiveness of sins won by Christ that alone will draw people to Christ.
The word of God is rightly divided into two parts: the Law and the Gospel. The Law shows us our sin. The Gospel shows us our Savior. The Law points us inward to ourselves and shows us where we have fallen short of God’s glory. The Gospel points us outward, away from ourselves and to Christ Jesus, who has removed our sins and brought us up into God’s glory by grace. When Peter saw Jesus’ divine power, he heard the Law. He focused in on himself and on his own unworthiness. When Jesus told Peter not to fear, he preached the Gospel, which alone can draw one close to God.
A preacher must preach the law, so that sinners can realize their sin, repent and believe in the Gospel. But it is not the preaching of the law that catches people for Jesus. It is the preaching of the Gospel. The Gospel alone comforts by revealing to sorrowful sinners a gracious and forgiving God.
God calls ministers to preach the Gospel and Scripture teaches against people preaching without being called. Yet, that does not mean that the Gospel belongs to the ministers. The Gospel belongs to the Church. God has given it to her. Ministers are simply stewards of this mystery of God. But every believing Christian possesses the Gospel as his own inheritance. The Gospel is yours. The comfort it gives belongs to you. And you have the right and the duty as a child of God to share that Gospel. St. Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16) And we heard St. Peter himself say in our Epistle lesson, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)
The disciples left everything and followed Jesus. They didn’t do this because they were called to be ministers of the word. They did this, because they were called to be Christians, that is, disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus calls you to leave everything and follow him. Now this might seem impossible. How can you leave your job, your husband or wife, your children? Well, that’s not exactly what it means to leave everything and follow Jesus. Christians leave everything and follow Jesus, because only Jesus can comfort sinners. Only Jesus, through his perfect life, innocent death, and resurrection can forgive sins and give you certainty of eternal life. To leave everything means to trust in no one and nothing else than Jesus Christ, the crucified. To be caught by the net of the Gospel means that your entire life revolves around your trust in Jesus Christ. You do not know God apart from Jesus. You trust that God will give you all good things through Christ. Jesus is your source of comfort in every trial. In his word you trust. His word takes away your fear. His word of grace continues to draw you to him. Amen.