Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity
1 Peter 3:8-15 + Luke 5:1-11
What on earth are you doing here? Don’t you know that the souls of men are dying out there? And here you sit, comfortable and safe in a church. You’ve been saved by God’s grace, by the blood of Christ, by the Gospel and Holy Baptism, by faith in the Son of God. But what good are you doing anyone else, sitting here in church? Shouldn’t you be out there pounding the pavement, knocking on doors, luring people into “trying out” our church, spreading the Christian message into the political realm, seeking to change the cultures of the world, spending every spare moment fishing for the souls of men? Isn’t that what the Christian life is all about?
No. That’s not the way it works in Christ’s Church. But it’s the way a lot of people think that it works, and the devil is more than happy to foster that kind of thinking. As a Christian, you’re made to feel insignificant all the time, like you’re not doing enough, not having enough impact on the world around you, especially as members of a small church like ours within a small diocese like ours. So you’re tempted in three different ways. You’re either tempted to blame someone—to blame “your church” for not doing enough. Or you’re tempted to despair of doing any good and to just turn your whole Christian life into going to church on Sunday mornings (if that!), or you’re tempted to “do something new,” to build the Church in your own way, as if the kingdom of God were built on the hard work and the brilliant ideas of Christians.
What we learn from Jesus in today’s Gospel is that He and He alone has the power to build His kingdom, and that He wishes to do it, not through the great and mighty works of His people, but through the simple vocational activities of His Christians, as He sees to it that His Word is proclaimed in ways we could have never imagined. One of those vocations is the Office of the Holy Ministry, to which Jesus did call Peter at the end of the Gospel. But every God-pleasing vocation can provide an opportunity for the net of the Gospel to be cast into the world, to bring God’s children in and save them from being condemned together with the world.
Let’s review the Gospel. Jesus had been preaching and performing miracles in Galilee for some time already by the time He stepped into Simon Peter’s boat. He had already spent time with Peter, James and John, and taught them about the kingdom of God, but He hadn’t yet called them to be His apostles or to follow Him full-time. They still had their vocation as humble fishermen.
So Jesus steps into Simon’s boat and simply asks Simon to put out from the shore a little bit, which he does. That’s it. That’s all he does. Jesus does the preaching and teaching to the multitudes along the shoreline. Jesus teaches the people about their sin, about the judgment that is coming on the world, about God’s love for sinners and faith in Him as the One would save them from the coming wrath they had earned for themselves by their sins. Simon’s contribution to all this? Simply being a fisherman who has a boat handy, and the willingness to let it be used by Jesus for His purposes.
Then Jesus asks Simon to take the boat out into the deep waters for a catch. Peter explains that he and his companions had worked hard all night, which is the best time for fishing, exploring this part and then that part of the lake, dropping the nets and then hauling them in over and over again, and had caught nothing. What he didn’t know was that God had a purpose behind his bad night of fishing, a lesson which Jesus would soon reveal. It was to teach him—and us! —that his hard work, the Christian’s hard work, would never bring a single soul into God’s kingdom.
Peter obediently agrees to take the boat out one more time, expecting to catch nothing, but at the same time, honoring the word of Christ. He goes where Jesus told him to go. He lets down the nets, as Jesus, told him to do. And the nets immediately fill up with more fish than the nets could hold—more fish than two fishing boats could hold, as they both began to sink. Suddenly, they were buried in fish.
And they did nothing special, nothing spectacular, nothing new. They lowered their nets at Jesus’ word, and the word and power of Jesus did all the catching, confirming Him as the Son of God, confirming the divine truth of the sermon He had just preached to the multitudes, and confirming the way in which people would forever be brought into God’s kingdom: with His word and His power, as He accompanies His Church throughout the world through His Spirit and uses the simple vocational activities of His people to get His Word preached and to get men into His kingdom.
Peter’s reaction to this great miracle was two-thirds really good, and one-third really bad. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” It was really good that Peter recognized Jesus as the Lord through this miracle, and it was really good that Peter recognized that he, a sinner, didn’t deserve to be in the presence of the holy Lord God. The really bad part, though, was that Jesus’ entire preaching, His whole message to mankind was that Jesus the Lord had come, not to save the righteous and deserving, but precisely to save sinful and undeserving men. Sinful men are fools to ask Jesus to depart from them. He came to save them. He wants to save them, not because they deserve saving, but because He is good and gracious.
And He shows that goodness and grace to Peter in His response. Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men. Jesus takes sinners into His kingdom—penitent sinners who mourn over their sins and flee to Christ for refuge. He comforts them, forgives them, and then begins a new life in them—a life of freedom, a life of hope, a life of service.
In Peter’s case, and in the case of James and John, who were with him, Jesus told them what that life of service would look like. Jesus called those men into the office of the Holy Ministry, to “catch men,” that is to be preachers of the Gospel who, by throwing out the net of the Gospel, would bring many people into Christ’s kingdom. They wouldn’t do it by their own hard work and effort, although they certainly would work hard. The catch would always and only come by the Word and power of Christ, and it would be miraculously huge.
That doesn’t mean that every time they preached, many people would believe. Many times when the apostles preached—many times when Jesus preached—very few believed. The great number of believers who end up in the kingdom of God is the sum total result of all the preaching of all the preachers who have been sent by Christ over past two millennia. A few here, a few there, a thousand here, twenty there. They all add up to that great multitude which no one can number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They have all been caught in only one way: through the preaching of the Gospel, which is God’s only method of bringing people to faith. As we confess in the 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. He works faith, when and where it pleases God, 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.
That’s why you support this preaching ministry here in our midst, by coming to church and Bible class, by listening, concentrating, by praying for me and other preachers, by your offerings and by your obedience to the Word. This is the vocation through which Christ has chosen to have His Gospel proclaimed in the world, and He has told us what a life of service in this office will look like.
But He has also told all Christians in general what a life of service will look like in many vocations. Husbands and wives, parents and children, workers and employers, young and old, citizens and rulers. God gives direction to all of them in His Word, and will use those vocations in the service of His kingdom.
You heard some marching orders from St. Peter today in the Epistle: All of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this. Living as Christians, as sons of God, in your vocations—that’s what God has called you to, with love and kindness. And He is able to use your Christian life to open up opportunities for His Gospel to be preached. As Jesus said to His disciples, Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
What else does Peter say to all Christians? Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear. Ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you. There’s your direction from the Lord Jesus. Not to go around knocking on doors or serving on committees. Not to force your beliefs onto others. But to carry out your vocations in such a way that the people around you can see, what?, that you have hope in God—hope that is based on absolute truth, hope for the forgiveness of sins, hope for an eternal future in heaven, hope for God’s care and providence even in the midst of suffering and hardship and pain. And then be ready to give them the reason why: Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. Christ and His goodness and mercy to you and to all men. Christ and His Word. Christ and His Sacraments. Christ and His Gospel, which is purely taught in your church, by the grace of God, which is why your friends and family and neighbors and coworkers should come here, with you, so that they can hear the voice of Jesus clearly and be caught by Him, not for punishment, but for salvation.
That’s how it works in Christ’s Church. And we have the promise of Jesus that our labor is not in vain in the Lord. Amen.