Sunday, February 6, 2022

When The Kingdom Comes For You


February 6, 2022 – Epiphany 5C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio for the sermon can be heard here. Video for the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 20:30.

Have you ever been fishing with someone who doesn’t belong in a boat? Someone who won’t touch the bait or recoils in horror when they actually catch a fish? Someone who doesn’t realize that sudden lateral movements aren’t a good idea when someone else is already leaning over the side? Someone who never stops talking and still can’t figure out why they haven’t caught anything?

I love fishing, but chatty preachers like me rarely get an invitation. Jesus liked quiet time a lot more than I do, but, in today’s reading from Luke, he didn’t get into Simon’s boat because he wanted to go fishing. He wanted to get enough space from the crowd that was pressing in to hear his message and use the natural amphitheater that the harbor would provide. We don’t hear much about his sermon that day, but it was probably similar to the message he had been preaching throughout that region—something like, “The kingdom of God is imminent, and it becomes manifest not among the holy and powerful but in the lives of outcasts and sinners.”

After he was done preaching, Jesus told Simon to take the boat out into deep water and put down his nets for a catch. That was a little bit like me delivering a sermon in a mechanic’s garage and then telling the owner how to rebuild a transmission. Jesus wasn’t a fisherman. He didn’t grow up on the water. Before he became an itinerant preacher, he was a carpenter, like his father. Simon and his companions had worked all night, and they had caught nothing. Plus, their nets, scholars tell us, were probably trammel nets, which were made of linen and only used at night, when the fish couldn’t see them.  Jesus telling Simon to put down those nets in the middle of the day, when the professionals couldn’t find any the night before, didn’t make any sense. But, then again, neither did the resulting catch.

They shouldn’t have caught anything, but, when they did what Jesus asked, their nets became so full that they had to call their partners over to help out, and still both boats were in danger of being swamped. When he saw what happened, Simon threw himself down at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Simon’s reaction was almost as astounding as the catch of fish. 

This is the first time that Luke uses the word sinner in his telling of the gospel, yet Simon Peter invokes that label for himself in a way that doesn’t fit with all the other times that Luke uses it. Every other time, Luke uses sinner as a singularly defining label for someone obviously beyond the bounds of polite, religious society. Jesus eats with “tax collectors and sinners.” A notorious sinner comes and anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. Jesus predicts that he will be handed over to sinners and be crucified before being raised on the third day. Usually, the gospel presents sinners not as ordinary but imperfect people like you and me but as the kind of ungodly human beings who deserve to be on a wanted poster or, worse, the target of our hypocritical gossip.

Peter wasn’t a sinner in that sense. He wasn’t a tax collector or a prostitute. He wasn’t poor or diseased or disabled, which in that time would have signified someone whom God had rejected. Peter wasn’t a rich man—not rich enough to stay ashore while hired hands went out in the boat—but he was successful enough that everyone would have assumed that he was just fine in God’s eyes. And yet, when he saw that overwhelming catch of fish, Simon Peter was cut to his core, and he threw himself down in a gesture of complete unworthiness and begged Jesus to depart from him.

There was something about what Jesus did in that boat, by showing the professional fishermen a measure of fruitfulness and success that they could not otherwise fathom, that called Simon up short in the most profound way. I don’t want to suggest that, in order to understand Peter’s reaction, we need to read back upon this gospel lesson the kind of Pauline understanding of sinfulness that we get in Romans 3, where Paul writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But I do believe that, when the fullness of God’s kingdom came that close to Peter and touched upon his vocational life in a way that he found deeply personal, he recognized in one huge, overwhelming moment that his life was woefully inadequate for what God was doing in and through Jesus Christ.

When the power of God’s reign comes that close to us, we don’t need to be a notorious sinner in order to feel like we don’t belong, like we don’t measure up. We can listen to sermons and read the lessons and sing the hymns each week and not worry about our place in the kingdom of God, but, when God’s holy power hits us square between the eyes and comes up next to us in our own particular circumstance, our reaction is the same as Peter’s: “Not me, Lord. You don’t mean me. You can’t mean me. I’m not good enough. You must mean someone else. Someone in that pew over there.”

This wasn’t the first time that Simon had met Jesus. Simon had heard Jesus preach in the synagogue at Capernaum. Afterward, he had invited the rabbi to come back to his house for a meal. There, Jesus had healed his mother-in-law and, after sunset, had stood at the door, casting out demons and healing a multitude of sick people. At least a twice, Simon had already heard Jesus’ message that the kingdom of God had come near and that God’s vindication would be found in the lifting up of the downtrodden, the release of the prisoner, and the consolation of the poor. He had sat in the boat that day and listened to Jesus tell the crowd standing on the shore about the transforming power of God’s love. But it wasn’t until he put out into deep water and let down his nets for a catch that Simon Peter discovered that the kingdom of God had come to find him. 

We don’t belong in that fishing boat with Jesus either. We don’t deserve to inherit the magnificence of God’s reign. We can’t imagine our place in something that perfect and wonderful. We aren’t good enough, talented enough, or holy enough to be the ones God welcomes into God’s kingdom. And yet that kingdom comes to find us. And it asks us to devote our lives and labor to the building up of God’s reign in the world. We are the ones to whom Jesus says, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 

We know that God’s love belongs to all people. We’ve heard Jesus say it before. But have we heard him say it to us? It’s easier to believe that God loves notorious sinners and outcasts than it is to believe that God loves us like that. That’s because God’s love is easier to understand in the abstract—when it’s given as a platitude instead of a prescription. But Jesus came to bring God’s love to sinners like you and me—real and imperfect people who need to be loved just like that. There is no one on this earth who belongs in that kingdom any more than you do. So put out into deep water and let down your nets for a catch. Allow the magnitude of God’s reign to come right up next to you in your own particular circumstances. And be astounded that the power of God’s love has come to find you—even you.

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