The Gospel is preached, the catch continues

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Sermon for Trinity 5

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

It’s a memorable scene that we have before us today in the Gospel: Jesus, standing in Peter’s boat, pushed out a little way from the lake shore, preaching the Word of God to the multitude who were gathered there on the beach. Then Peter and his companions go out into deep water, with Jesus, at Jesus’ command, let down their nets, and catch so many fish that the nets begin to tear, and two boats working together can hardly haul them into shore.

What does that catch of fish teach us? What does it represent? It represents the catch of men into the kingdom of God, even as Jesus tells Peter at the end of the Gospel, From now on you will catch men. It’s the same theme and the same picture-language you heard the Lord use through the prophet Jeremiah in today’s first Lesson. The people of Israel were about to be scattered away from Jerusalem at the time of Jeremiah, into exile in Babylon. But God promised to bring them back. Not only to bring Israel back from captivity into the land of Judah, but spiritually to bring lost sinners throughout the world to the spiritual Jerusalem, to the Christian Church, to the kingdom of heaven where the Messiah reigns. “I will send for many fishermen,” says the LORD, “and they shall fish them; and afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.”

This drawing of people into the Kingdom of heaven is always and only done by Jesus. Apart from Jesus’ presence and power, no one is brought into the kingdom of God, and no one remains in the kingdom of God except by the power of His Holy Spirit, working through the Word. There are people today who think of themselves as Christians, but who don’t want to hear what Jesus actually says. Or they want to hear some things that Jesus says while rejecting other things that He says, or things that His chosen prophets or apostles have said. No, only those who hear the Word of God as it has been inspired by the Holy Spirit in the Holy Scriptures enter the kingdom of heaven. Those who don’t want to hear the whole counsel of God have no part in His kingdom.

It’s Jesus who draws men to Himself through preaching. But His plan was never to remain on earth preaching for very long as He did on the shores of Lake Gennesaret.  His plan, as revealed in the Old Testament Lesson, His plan as revealed in the Gospel, has always been to draw people into His kingdom through the preaching of sinful men, like Peter—sinful men whom He would call to preach in His name and whom He Himself would personally accompany as they preach.

You can picture Jesus sitting in Peter’s boat just off the lakeshore. There Peter sits next to Him watching, listening, learning.  After teaching the multitudes for awhile from Peter’s boat, Jesus asks Peter to set out for the deep waters and to let down the net for a catch. The request seems strange to Peter, almost pointless, because, as he informs Jesus, we worked hard all night and caught nothing. Well, God had a reason for them coming up empty the night before. It was part of the lesson God wanted them to learn, and that He wants you to learn this morning. When it comes to drawing people into God’s kingdom, you can work as hard as you can, with all your might. You can be the nicest person in the world. You can cater to people. You can bribe people. You can schmooze people. You can reason with people and have the best arguments in the world for why they should come into Christ’s kingdom, into His Church. But nothing you do will bring in a single soul. Nothing you do can bring a sinner from unbelief to faith, from spiritual death to spiritual life. Only God can do it. Only the Father can draw men to Himself in the Person of Jesus, by the power of His Spirit. The Holy Trinity is responsible for any and every catch of men into the boat of His kingdom.

How He does it, how He draws them in and catches them, is by means of the net being let down into the water. That’s nothing else than the preaching of the Word of God. The same kind of preaching that Jesus Himself was doing on the lakeshore He now calls upon sinful men to do. He says here, “Let down your nets for a catch.” That’s the picture Jesus uses for what the disciples would eventually be doing. Later, Jesus would speak plainly to His disciples in Mark 16: Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. Or again in Matthew 28: All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. There it is in both passages. What does it mean to let down the nets for a catch? Preach the Gospel. Baptize those who believe the Gospel. Teach them to observe, not some things, but all things that I have commanded you. Whenever and wherever you do these things, from now until the end of the age, I am with you, says Jesus, just as I was with Peter in the boat that day on the Sea of Galilee.

And what is the Christian Gospel by which the Holy Spirit draws men into Messiah’s kingdom? It’s worth spelling it out, every Sunday. Because the people of the world hear the word “Gospel” and imagine one of two things. Some think the Christian Gospel is, obey the 10 Commandments and don’t sin. Become do-gooders. Run a food bank. Give to charity. Make the world a better place. Others think the Christian Gospel is, “love” all people. And when they think of “love,” what they really mean is, be so super nice and cuddly toward all people that you would never dare to tell them they’re wrong about anything. Accept people’s vilest behavior and be sure to tell them God accepts them, too, “just as they are,” all in the name of “love.” That’s what Jesus did, isn’t it?!?

Wrong on both counts. These twisted versions of the Gospel are lies that the devil tells. He’ll do everything he can to keep the true Gospel hidden from people so that they never hear it. And if they do hear it, he’ll do everything he can to convince them it isn’t true.

The true Gospel is pictured for us, first, as Peter falls down in fear and terror at Jesus’ knees and confesses, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord! The Gospel doesn’t deny our sinfulness; it declares it. Peter was no murderer, no adulterer. But he was still sinful. Sinful from birth and sinful in his thoughts and words and deeds, just like all people everywhere. The proper reaction to that sin is not to deny it, or to defend it, or to excuse it, but to own it, to sorrow over it, and to confess it—to confess it, not just to anyone, but to Christ the Lord. Then, the Gospel is summarized in the words of Jesus to penitent Peter, “Do not be afraid.” That’s the Christian Gospel, Christ proclaiming to the penitent sinner, “Do not be afraid.” Why not be afraid? Because Christ came to save sinners. Christ came to bear the punishment for all sins. He shed His blood and died, leaving behind this “pool of blood,” as it were, in which sinners may wash their filthy robes and make them white. The Gospel proclaims that this blood has been provided so that all sinners might be cleansed by it and forgiven by it so that you don’t have to be afraid anymore because of your sinfulness. You don’t have to worry or wonder if you’re good enough to avoid hell or to gain heaven. Christ has gained heaven for you. Trust in Him, and heaven is yours as a gift.

Only then does the Gospel go on to proclaim to those who have been brought to faith in Christ and washed clean in Holy Baptism: Do good. Keep the commandments. Love God. Love your neighbor. Spend your days on earth fighting against the sin that so easily ensnares you. Do good, in all the ways Peter urges us to do good in the Epistle you heard today, and even be willing to suffer as Christians for doing good. After Jesus told Peter not to be afraid, He gave Him work to do in His kingdom. “From now on you will catch men.” So, too, you who have been drawn into God’s kingdom through the Gospel and Holy Baptism have been given work to do: To lead godly lives among the ungodly so that they may see your behavior and know that you have hope in Christ. And, as Peter also admonishes in the Epistle, 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. Not with pride or condescension, but “with meekness and fear,” because you know that you, too, once lived in darkness, outside of the kingdom of Christ. But His Gospel reached your ears. His net enclosed around you and drew you away from judgment, into the safety of His Church. The Gospel was preached, and you were caught up in the net for your eternal salvation. The catch continues, every time the Gospel is preached, and the Lord has given us a small part in it, here in Las Cruces, as God’s people gather weekly around Word and Sacrament, as God’s people support the preaching of the Gospel with offerings and prayers and participation, and as God’s people walk out of these church doors to behave as Christians in the world. May the Lord Christ accompany us as we go out for a catch, in His name. Amen.

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