A Lesson from the Lord of the Catch for Catchers (and the rest of the Caught)

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Sermon for Trinity 5

Jeremiah 16:14-21  +  1 Peter 3:8-15  +  Luke 5:1-11

The Holy Spirit has something to teach us today about fishing, not fishing for fish, but fishing for men, for people—catching people, by means of the net of the Gospel, by means of Baptism and teaching, and bringing them into the Holy Christian Church as Christians. Some of those caught Christians are chosen by Christ also to be catchers. You can’t take this analogy too far, because, obviously, fish do not turn into fishermen in real life. But in Jesus’ boat, in Jesus’ Church, the very simple truth is that Jesus sends out His Word, catches sinners by bringing them to faith, and then calls some of them to be preachers, through whom more men will be caught, and then some of those will be called to be preachers, etc. This process of catching men out of the ocean of death and destruction and bringing them into the life of Christ, the life of the Church, will go on and on until the Last Day when Christ returns.

So the Gospel today applies both to preachers of the Gospel as well as to hearers of the Gospel.

First, let’s review Luke’s account from chapter 5. Right away, we see Jesus doing the preaching, doing the catching, and large crowds crowding around Him to hear the Word of God from His lips. But He only planned to do that catching here on earth, visibly, in person, for a few years, because His earthly ministry was to end in crucifixion and resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God. The building of the Church, the filling of the net with fish for the next two thousand years or more—that Christ would accomplish through the preaching ministry that He would give to the men He would choose.

In order to teach us a few things about that preaching ministry, Jesus used this occasion of the fishing boat. He got into Simon Peter’s boat and asked him to put out from the shore just far enough that the people could hear Him. The people on the shore received their lesson from Jesus. Then it was time for a special lesson for the men who would be chosen as catchers of men. Jesus tells Peter to put out into the deep water and “let down your nets for a catch.” As we see at the end of the story, Jesus wasn’t at all interested on this occasion about the fish themselves or about supporting the fishing business of these fishermen; He’s concerned about the lesson they—and we! — will learn about the catching of men into the Church.

There are at least four lessons for us to learn from this account. The first lesson to be learned by Peter was trust—trust in the Word and power of Christ. As he tells Jesus, Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing.  Human reason told Peter that it was foolish to cast the net during the day when proper fishermen go out at night. Experience told Peter that fish are only caught by hard work, and even then, they often come up empty, as they had the night before. All Peter had to go on here was Jesus’ word. Jesus was calling on him to set aside human reason, experience and effort and to rely solely on Jesus and His power for the outcome. And Peter did: Nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.

That was the second lesson. First, trust. Then, obey. Do what He says. Follow His instructions. No more, and no less. In this case, simply, let down the net. Right here, where Jesus tells you. Add no bait to make it attractive. Don’t wiggle it around; don’t mess with it. Just put it out there, and wait, and then pull it in with whatever is in it.

The third lesson: Jesus provides the catch, and it will be a big one—so big, that one man cannot pull it in. It requires the help of your companions. So James and John had to help drag the net to shore.

Peter was so amazed at Jesus’ power that he realized he was in the presence of the holy God. He also realized, very correctly, that he was a sinner who didn’t deserve to be in Jesus’ presence, much less to serve in Jesus’ service. So he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Then he learned the fourth lesson from Jesus: Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” Jesus offers pure grace and comfort to Peter. He didn’t tell Peter, “Aw, you’re not such a bad sinner!” He simply told him not to be afraid, even though he was a sinful man. That’s the whole point of this catch. Jesus came to catch—to save—sinners, like Peter. And then God has ordained that the preaching ministry by which sinners are caught and saved should be carried out, not by sinless men, but by sinful men. And every single person whom Peter would catch would be a sinner, just like Peter. The Gospel itself is the message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins to sinners through faith in Christ Jesus, who paid the price for sin on the cross so that the sinner who trusts in Jesus has no wrath or punishment or death to fear.

Now, we apply these words first to those who are pastors, teachers, preachers, like Peter, James and John became. And the four things Peter learned must also be learned by those who occupy the preaching office.

First, that, in this ministry of catching men, we must trust only and alone in Christ’s Word and power. Human reason tells us that preaching and teaching the Word and administering the Sacraments will not be enough, that we have to have the right personality, the right methods; that we have to work hard at making the Word effective for our hearers. But Christ has commanded us simply to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins, to go and make disciples by baptizing and teaching. So we must trust His Holy Spirit to do what He wants through our preaching and leave all the results up to Him. He will produce the catch He wants. How does He do it? I don’t know. He’s God. He does as He pleases. He is the Lord of the Catch.

Then, we are to obey, to follow Christ’s instructions for the catch, which means teaching “all things that I have commanded you,” as He says in Matthew 28. We are to preach the Word, to be ready in season and out of season, to convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching, as Paul says to Pastor Timothy. We are, as the Apostle Peter would later write to other elders (that is, pastors), to shepherd the flock of God which is among us, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to us, but being examples to the flock. We are not to be greedy, nor peddle the Word of God for personal gain. We are not to corrupt the heavenly doctrine, or add to it or subtract from it, but teach it faithfully and purely, whether or not our hearers receive it or us.

Thirdly, we are to remember that Christ is in charge of the catch and will miraculously bring an enormous number of men into His net through us. But there is only one net, and we see only tiny bits of it in any one place. We have to rely on our companions throughout the world to bring it all in, on our brothers in the ministry who labor in the same waters, even though we may be separated by several states or several continents. And through all of Christ’s chosen ministers, the great catch of fish will be brought in.

And finally, we are not to be afraid, even though we are sinful men, sinful men who do not deserve this ministry, who do not deserve to be called sons of God, much less servants or ministers of Christ. But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” We are unworthy of this ministry. But Christ’s forgiveness makes us worthy to stand before God, and Christ’s call is what makes us worthy to stand before His people in this office.

So much for preachers, the catchers. What about the hearers? What about the caught? The same lessons apply to the hearers of the Word, to the fish that have been caught or that are yet to be caught in the net.

Trust in Christ’s Word and power as He catches men for eternal life. Human reason, our flesh tells us that His Word isn’t enough. That we must be doing something wrong if the Gospel is preached among us and the attendance doesn’t go up, or does go down. That’s God, exercising your faith, telling you to simply trust the Word of Christ and the will of Christ, to stop relying on human reason, to stop making visible results the object of your faith.

First, trust. Then, obey; do what Jesus says. He doesn’t say to all Christians, “Go preach the Gospel.” In Peter’s epistle, of which you heard a portion today, he doesn’t once command all of his hearers or readers to go and preach the Gospel as if you were pastors or apostles. What he says is that you are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean becoming neighborhood preachers. It does mean that all of your service in your own vocations is pleasing to God, an acceptable sacrifice to Him through Jesus Christ. It means that everything you do in faith toward God and in love toward your neighbor is a spiritual sacrifice, which includes coming to church, supporting the ministry here, and declaring God’s praises to those around you. But it also includes working hard at your job, without grumbling or complaining; serving your family joyfully in your home, and helping your neighbor selflessly wherever you find him. It means, as church members, living a righteous life according to the Commandments and giving the Church such a good reputation among men that they can’t find fault with it. That’s what Christ has given you to do to further His kingdom and support His catching of men.

Trust. Obey. And remember that you are not alone in this net, for as lonely as it may look around you. The net of the Church fills the world and includes all the souls that have gone before you in this Christian Church. You need to be drawn into the boat by the net. You can’t hop in on your own. Christ has sent a catcher to catch you, to keep you. So don’t refuse his ministry.

Finally, do not be afraid. You are sinful men, too, like Peter was, like all Church members have ever been. But Christ has borne your sin and made atonement for it. He has washed you clean by His blood in Holy Baptism. And now Christ will make you into just the right kind of servant, the right kind of hearer, so that He accomplishes what He wants in your life and furthers the catch through you, even if you yourself aren’t a fisherman. You are precious to Him. Nothing in all the world matters to Him more than the Catch of men of which God, by grace, has made you a part. Amen.

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