Thursday, April 15, 2010

Fishing for Faith

Coming this Sunday to a church that may or may not be near you: my first sermon in a good, healthy summer full of pulpit supply. The text is John 2:1-14.
After these things Jesus manifested Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and He manifested Himself in this way. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples. Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We will also come with you." They went out, and got into the boat; and that night they caught nothing. But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus therefore said to them, "Children, you do not have any fish, do you?" They answered Him, "No." And He said to them, "Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat, and you will find a catch." They cast therefore, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish. That disciple therefore whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord." And so when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea. But the other disciples came in the little boat, for they were not far from the land, but about one hundred yards away, dragging the net full of fish. And so when they got out upon the land, they saw a charcoal fire already laid, and fish placed on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish which you have now caught." Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." None of the disciples ventured to question Him, "Who are You?" knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread, and gave them, and the fish likewise. This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.
Let’s talk fish stories. Jesus performed not one but two fishing miracles—three if you count the coin in the fish’s mouth! The first great catch of fish came early in Jesus’ ministry, according to Luke chapter 5. Peter, James, and John were already acquainted with Jesus. He had recently cleansed Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever. But now He preached a sermon from their boat, now He told them to stand out into deeper water and let down their nets, and now they caught so many fish that their nets began to break. Only then did Peter recognize Jesus as the Lord. Peter fell down at Jesus’ feet and cried, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” That’s when Jesus’ reassured him, “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.” And so the fishermen left their boats and their nets, their business and their homes, and went off after Jesus. That miracle catch in Luke 5 was the beginning of their journey as Jesus’ disciples.

And now, some weeks after Jesus rose from the dead, He does another fishing miracle. Not too much later, He ascended into heaven. Their journey with the visible Lord Jesus was almost over. It’s almost the last lesson He would teach them face-to-face. And with a very similar miracle, He makes it a varied repeat of their first lesson. The symmetry of it is interesting. It’s like bookends! When a lesson is worth teaching, Jesus often repeats it. Twice He fed a crowd of thousands, and later He reminded His disciples of both miracles, feeding the four thousand and feeding the five thousand, in order to impress His point upon them. Twice He cleansed the temple in Jerusalem, so that no one could be mistaken about what He meant. And twice He tells His disciples to let down their nets, and at His word they land a great catch of fish. So their instruction begins, and so it ends.

But is Jesus teaching them the same lesson in both miracles? In the first miracle, the disciples are amazed. Peter is even afraid. Knowing he is in the presence of the Lord, he falls down in fear and trembling. He says, “Go away, Lord! I’m a sinner!” He cannot face the presence of the Righteous One who judges sins. He is all but screaming, “I can’t do what you demand of me! I can’t live up to your expectations! Leave me alone!” But Jesus says: “Don’t be afraid.” Which is to say, “Take courage, my son. Your sins are forgiven.” And then Jesus says, “From now on, you will be catching men.” Which is to say, “I have a job for you. Does this great catch of fish impress you? Soon you’re going to be hauling souls into the ship of faith. You’re going to drag the nets of God’s kingdom until they’re bursting-full.”

There are some differences between the two fishing miracles, though. In Luke 5, the nets started to break under the strain of all those fish. In the great catch of John 21, we are specifically told the nets were not torn. This is almost as miraculous as catching 153 large fish just by throwing the nets over the other side. In Luke 5, Jesus gets things happening by telling them to sail into deeper water and let down the nets; Peter agrees to do this even though they have been at it all night without catching anything. But in John 21, there’s no discussion, no sailing maneuvers, no time to prepare. The disciples, weary after a long night of catching nothing, have closed within a hundred yards of shore when this figure in the morning dimness shouts an absurd suggestion: throw the nets over the right side of the boat! In Luke 5 they know Jesus from hearing Him preach and seeing Him do miracles. But by John 21, they have already seen Jesus die and rise again. Yet even though they are close enough for John to recognize Him, they don’t know it’s Jesus until after the miracle.

Why is this? Why are these people so slow to get the point? How many times must Jesus show Himself to them before they believe He is risen? How many times must they hear His voice and see His face before they recognize Him? Has Jesus changed? Does He hide Himself from their eyes? Well, consider the two disciples from Emmaus. They walked and talked with Jesus for miles, but only recognized Him in the breaking of bread. It is the same with Peter, John, and the other five disciples. They have seen Him; they have heard His voice; they have already believed in His resurrection. Yet on this morning by the sea, it is not given them to know who He is until the miracle has taken place.

Notice this, and ponder it well. They did not find Jesus by searching for Him with a spyglass. They did not recognize him by the keenness of their eyes or the sharpness of their hearing. Neither the knowledge of their heads, nor the love in their hearts, nor their powers of reasoning and deduction revealed Him to them. It wasn’t that their senses were dull. It wasn’t that their memory was dim. It was simply that Christ in His glory cannot be known unless He reveals Himself in Word and Sign. We can look right at Him; we can hear the sound of His voice, we can even do what He tells us to do, but apart from His Word and Sign we cannot know Him or His truth.

In the Luke 5 catch of fish, Jesus assures the troubled Peter that he has nothing to fear, that he himself will catch men and bring them to faith. That’s a big promise for a blue-collar, second-career preacher. But in the great catch of John 21, we see a different ending. This catch of fish doesn’t symbolize people that Peter will catch for the kingdom. Instead, it is Peter who gets caught. Jesus hooks him and reels him in like an Atlantic cod. As soon as John gasps, “It’s the Lord!” Peter puts on his shirt, throws himself into the sea, and swims for the shore.

This impulsiveness is “all Peter,” and you have to love him for it. He couldn’t wait to get to Jesus, even the Jesus he had deserted and denied a couple weeks back. But this is a different Peter from the one we met in Luke 5. It isn’t a “Get away from me” Peter, who can’t bear to face God because of his sin. This is a joyful Peter who runs to Jesus, or rather swims to Him, because He can’t wait for the good things in store for him.

This is what Jesus’ Word and Sign did for Peter. A moment ago, he didn’t know who that figure on the shore was. But now that Jesus has made Himself known by Word and Sign, He draws Peter to Himself like a fisherman reeling in the catch. Peter is hooked. Jesus has caught Him. And by the time the rest of the disciples reach the shore, Jesus is ready to serve breakfast. Who provided the food? He asked them for some of the fish they had caught, but who had given them the catch?

At times, we think too much of what we bring to God. We think our reasoning can grasp Him, but His thoughts are so far above ours that He is constantly surprising us. We think we can reach Him with our feelings, senses, or experiences, but even in plain view, within shouting distance of the shore, His closest friends mistook Him for someone else. We may think our efforts to lead a holy life will bridge the distance that separates us from Him, but consider how little the disciples accomplished through a long night of toil. It is God who enables us to will and work for His good pleasure.

We may even think our faith is something we bring to the table—as if we can make a choice or decision that matters, or as if faith is an act of the will that qualifies us for God’s kingdom. But faith is the work of God, a seed that He plants and nurtures in our heart. When we have done all the thinking, feeling, working, and believing that lies in our power, we are no closer to knowing Christ or His blessings. But when He reveals Himself by Word and Sign, we instantly know Him and have all His grace and forgiveness, all His righteousness, all His life.

Jesus draws us to Himself through the waters of Baptism, just as He reeled Peter in through the waters of Lake Galilee. Jesus restores us with His Word of forgiveness, like He restored wayward Peter in the “Do you love me? Feed my sheep” speech that followed breakfast. Jesus shares a meal with us, just as He invited His disciples to breakfast on the beach. And though we may bring bread and wine to the table, He nourishes us with His own body and blood, just as the food the disciples brought to the fireside was not from them, but from Him. Both meals are miraculous. Both are times of fellowship when Jesus smiles fondly and speaks words of peace. But our meal is even more special than theirs. Instead of mere bread and fish, we get the body broken and the blood shed for our salvation.

At that beach breakfast, nobody asked Jesus, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Still, still, they do not seem quite able to match what their eyes see to what Jesus’ Word and Sign reveal to them. Yet they believe to a certainty that it is He. In the same way, we look at little flakes of crispy bread and a cupful of wine—and I don’t care what anyone says, these food items don’t resemble “body and blood” in the slightest! Yet in them, by the miracle-working power of Jesus’ Word, we recognize the body and blood of our crucified and risen Savior. And by this Word and Sign, Jesus kindles faith to receive His forgiveness.

We are not the ones fishing for Jesus. He is fishing for us. We bring Him nothing He has not first given to us. We understand nothing He has not first revealed—and more often, we believe even without fully understanding. We experience nothing with our senses and emotions but what His Gospel stirs up in us—and more often, we cling to faith even when our feelings betray us. We accomplish nothing but the works He created us to do when He caused us to be born again through water and the Word—and still we must repent of our sins daily. We achieve nothing but what He does in us and through us, including faith itself, which is His gift—and still we need His constant help through Word and Sign to keep that flame kindled. We cannot live without the spiritual food He gives us, food that sustains both our bodies and souls as we struggle with sin and the powers of evil. We cannot hope to rise from the dead without the power of His resurrection. We cannot reach the shore unless Jesus reels us in.

Thanks be to God, we have all these things right here. Thanks be to God, we hear His voice calling over the waters of Baptism, and we recognize Him as our Lord. Thanks be to Jesus, we recognize Him in the breaking of bread, as He invites us to eat and drink the New Testament in His body and blood. We thank Him for fishing for us. We thank Him for catching us. We thank Him for gathering us in and numbering us as His own. We thank Him for being present in such a down-to-earth way, as close and specifically real as the charcoal fire on the beach. We don’t have to search the outer limits of the cosmos or the inner limits of our soul. We can find Him the same way the disciples did: by Word and Sign, where He has promised to be. There He is, with present comfort and forgiveness drawn from His once-for-all death on the cross. We thank our Lord Jesus Christ for calling us His children and drawing us into His net of faith. And now we will run with joy to meet our Savior and receive His gifts.

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