Sinful Fishers of Men
Preached on Sunday, July 24, 2011 by
The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret, And saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets. And he entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And he sat down, and taught the people out of the ship. Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken: And so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him. (Luke 5:1-11)
My wife and I love to go fishing together. If we had a boat and a place to keep a boat, we would spend far too much time on the water. I was blessed with a wife who is the most patient fisherman in the world. She can cast and cast all day long, never catch a thing, and still be perfectly happy to sit there all day long and throw in the line just one more time, hoping that on that next cast, she will catch one. Now, my dad is exactly the opposite. Go fishing with him, and if you haven’t caught anything in 30 minutes, he’s ready to go home. We do this kind of fishing primarily for recreation, but people like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, did it for a living. They knew how to fish. Truth be told, I am not a very good fisherman. Most of the time, when my wife and I go fishing, we catch very little, and we often put up our rods and reels with a sense of disappointment for we have caught so few. I just can’t find the fish, or I can’t get them to bite. Last year, my son-in-law and I went fishing with a man who had a top-of-the-line fish finder in his boat. He would drive us to certain spots in the lake, look on his fish finder and say, “There they are, about 15 feet down.” But even though we knew where they were, we couldn’t always get them to bite. I imagine that fishermen like Peter, James, and John would have loved to have had a fish finder, for like many fishermen of all kinds, they often knew what it was to fish all day, or all night, and not catch anything.
In our Gospel reading for today, we find this incident where the disciples have been toiling all night, casting their nets into the lake again and again, and catching nothing. But Jesus encourages them to go back, make one more try. Peter thinks this is rather foolish. He is the fisherman. Jesus was the son of a carpenter. What did he know about fishing? Now, if I’m fishing, and a man pulls up beside my boat, and says, “Try a yellow worm with purple spots,” I’ll probably take his advice. But Peter, being a professional fisherman, thinks that trying again is a waste of time. But you know the story. They go back out and make a huge haul, so much so that their nets begin to break, and their boats begin to sink under the weight of all the fish they catch. When Peter and they others see this catch, they are astonished. But Peter is more than astonished that a great miracle has taken place. For some reason, when he sees the number of fish, he is convicted of his own sinfulness. For he looks at Jesus and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Something has happened to Peter that has made him aware of his sinfulness in the presence of someone who is holy. It is possible that for the first time, Peter has recognized that Jesus is God, that he is in the presence of the divine, for in verse five, you notice that he calls Jesus “Master.” But in verse 8, he refers to him as “Lord,” possibly indicating that he realizes that Jesus is God. Since he is in the presence of the Holy One, he is embarrassed and ashamed of who and what he is. This awareness of being sinful is a typical reaction when people realize that they are in the presence of God. Remember how Job, throughout that book, calls God on the carpet and demands an explanation for the way God has been dealing with him. But when God does reveal himself, Job says: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). Notice that Job doesn’t start rejoicing, boasting about how the Lord has appeared to him. He doesn’t start testifying about what a wonderful experience it is to be in the presence of God. No, the presence of God makes him aware of his own sinfulness. Peter is having the same reaction in the presence of the Holy One. When Peter looks at the purity and holiness of Jesus, he finds his own sinfulness disgusting. Didn’t Isaiah have much the same experience? When Isaiah saw the Lord, high and lifted up, he said, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). Peter is having that same experience of realizing how unclean he is in the presence of such dazzling holiness.
We aren’t told exactly why this miracle made such an impression on Peter that he realized he was in the presence of the Divine. Peter had seen Jesus perform many miracles already. In the chapter previous to this one, we have read how Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, but we don’t read that this brought Peter under conviction about his own sinfulness. We are also told in that fourth chapter that Jesus had cast unclean spirits out of people, and these spirits would cry out saying that he was the Christ of God. Chapter four tells us how Jesus healed all kinds of sick people. But for some reason, it is this miracle of the great catch of fish that causes Peter to recognize who Jesus is. Some have speculated that the reason Peter is so impressed in this instance is that Jesus had performed a miracle in the realm where Peter was an expert. Peter knew fishing. Peter knew there were no fish out there. They had been toiling all night with nets that some Bible scholars say would have been 300 feet long. If there were any fish in that area, they would have caught them. Others have pointed out that in that part of the world, they fished at night because the fish wouldn’t be able to see the nets. Now that it was morning, it would be pointless to go back into the water and fish, because the fish would see the nets coming and run away. Though all of these circumstances pointed to the fact that they would be unsuccessful in their attempts to catch any fish, they make the biggest haul they had ever made. One of the commentaries I read said that this was no miracle. Jesus just had a keen eye and saw the fish out there. Well, Peter had a keen eye, and I’m sure that if there had been any fish there, he would have seen them. No, this is clearly a case of Jesus showing that not only does he have the ability to calm the raging of the sea, but he also has the power to control the actions and motions of fish in the sea. When he does so, Peter is made aware of the divinity of Jesus and his own sinfulness. Peter knew fishing, and he knew that this was a miracle. Jesus had broken into his life in such a way, that Peter recognized who he was.
Our Lord has a way of breaking into our lives in certain events so that we begin to see him for who he really is. Surely, Peter had some idea of who Christ was. Andrew, his own brother had come to him and said, “We have found the Messiah!” Peter had been following Jesus for a while. He had seen the miracles. He had heard his teaching. But here something has happened that makes him clearly see who Christ is. For many of us, there is a moment in time when Christ breaks through to us, and we say with Job, “I have heard about you, but now I see you.” This can happen when you are reading Scripture and a verse or passage jumps out at you, one that you have been reading all your life, but suddenly the Holy Spirit reveals to you the glory of Christ in a way that you have never seen it before. It may happen during the sacrament of Holy Communion. You may have been taking the sacrament for years, and though it was always special and very meaningful to you, one day you look at these elements and you say, “Christ is here. He is really here.” The priest says, “The body of Christ which was given for thee,” and you realize that this is the body of Christ. You realize in a way that you never have before what Christ suffered for your sake, and you want to say, “Depart from me, O Lord. I am not worthy to eat the crumbs that fall from your table.” Sometimes, this new reality breaks through to you when you are hearing the preaching of the word. You have been listening to sermons all your life, and you may have even found them to be boring and tedious, but suddenly, what the preachers says pierces your heart, opens your eyes, and you see the glory of Christ. It may be that the Lord does something providential in your life, and you see his glory and his goodness. Remember how St. Paul says that the goodness of God leads us to repentance. Sometimes, when God blesses us in unexpected ways, we are also made aware that we are not worthy to receive even the least of his blessings. These blessings are actually an embarrassment, for we realize that we deserve nothing but the judgment of God, and with Peter we say, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
Peter’s reaction may seem a little strange to us. If Peter had been like most people, he would have said, “Lord, stay with me. We are going to make a killing. As long as I have you in the boat, we will catch fish like this every day, and we will make a fortune.” Remember when people saw Jesus multiply the loaves and fishes they began to follow him because they saw him as a free meal ticket. Peter could have seen Jesus in exactly that same way, but all that Peter is aware of is that he is in the presence of the holy, and he is a sinner.
Peter’s request that Christ depart from him comes from a deep humility caused by a sight of his own sinfulness. But sometimes, people ask Christ to depart from them for all the wrong reasons. Often, people ask Christ to depart from them because they love their sin, and they don’t want to be convicted about it. When Job describes the wicked he says, “They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment go down to the grave. Therefore they say unto God, Depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of thy ways. What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? and what profit should we have, if we pray unto him?” (Job 21:13-15). Here we have people who ask God to leave them alone. They don’t want to know his ways because they know that God will ask them to leave their sinful ways behind. These particular people are having fun, making money. The knowledge of God and his ways would interfere with their lives and their plans, so they tell God, “Leave us alone.” They are like the people in the story of the Gadarene demoniac. You remember that when Jesus cast the legion of demons out of that man, he sent them into the swine which then proceeded to run off a cliff and into the sea. The people of that area came to Jesus and asked him to leave. The very presence of Christ was causing them trouble, interfering with their profits. Better to have demon-possessed men around than someone who upsets our lives. When we see people running from God, they are, in effect, simply asking God to leave them alone. When people become atheists, agnostics, skeptics, it is just their way of asking God to leave them alone. Sometimes, when we see our children grow up to rebel against the faith and the teaching of the Church, we see that as departing from God, and it is. But in another sense, it is their attempt to ask God to leave them alone. So often people tell the Lord to depart from them so that they can continue to live in their sin without being troubled by the voice of conscience. Oh, they might not literally say, “Depart from me, O Lord,” but their actions are designed to blot him out of their minds and memories. They party constantly, they work without pause, or they engage in the endless pursuit of trivial things. As long as they can stay busy, as long as they can keep their minds occupied, they don’t have to deal with the claims of God upon their lives. The presence of Christ troubles them, and they want to be left alone.
But in Peter’s case, his desire that the Lord should depart from him sprang from a genuine humility caused by the sense of his own unworthiness, and, in that respect, is admirable. But on another level, this request was actually foolish. When we ask the Lord to depart from us because we are sinful, we are making a huge mistake, for the best place for a sinner to be is near to Christ. Sometimes, this “I’m so humble,” routine is just a subterfuge to justify our refusal to follow Christ. We say, “Oh, I’m just too sinful. The Lord would never receive me.” That sounds so humble, but we are really hiding behind a false humility in order to cling to our sins. If we are truly humbled by the sight of our sinfulness, we will want to seek a solution to it, and that remedy can only be found in Christ. As Alexander MacLaren put it “And so the man who knows his own need of Christ and Christ’s grace will not say, ‘Depart from me for I am a sinful man,’ but he will say, ‘Leave me never, nor forsake me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord; but in Thee I have forgiveness and righteousness.” Have you truly seen your own sinfulness? Then, by all means, don’t ask the Lord to leave you. Draw near to him, realizing that it is only through drawing near to Christ, kneeling at his cross, and being washed in his blood that you can be cleansed of your sin. Every time we come to the Lord’s Table, we confess our unworthiness, but we do not ask the Lord to depart from us because we are unworthy. Rather, we draw near with faith and take this holy sacrament to our comfort, asking that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood.
While it is a good thing that Peter saw his sinfulness, it was not wise to ask the Lord to depart. It is for that reason that the next words that Jesus speaks to him are, “Fear not: from henceforth thou shalt catch men.” I want you to notice that Jesus does not disagree with Peter when he says that he is a sinful man. Jesus doesn’t say, “No you aren’t. You’re not a sinful man. Stop being so hard on yourself.” But Jesus wants Peter to know that his sinfulness does not stand in the way of his being useful in the Lord’s service. Christ is telling Peter that though he is a sinful man, he is going to use him to catch men. He will use him, sinner though he is, to go preach the gospel to people, and they will come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Sinner though he is, he will catch men in the Gospel net. What a comfort to all of us to know that Christ uses sinners to save sinners! Don’t let your past failures stand in the way of serving Christ. Don’t say, “Oh, God could never use me. Think of all that I have done in the past.” Well, look at Peter. Was he a perfect man? Why, in a short while, this man, destined to catch men, will deny that he ever knew Christ. I wonder if after the resurrection, when Peter saw Christ, he had this same reaction, “ Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Perhaps. It would be only natural. But preachers and commentators down through the years have pointed out that there was another miracle of fish that is very similar to this one. You remember after the resurrection that Peter and John are fishing, and someone on the shore shouts to them, “Children, have you caught anything.” They said, “No.” Then, this stranger on the beach says, “Try on the other side of the boat.” Now, you might think all kinds of bells would be going off now, but it doesn’t seem to dawn on them what is happening. They cast the net on the other side, and again, they catch so many fish, they can’t get the net in the boat. Finally, John says, “It is the Lord.” This time, when Peter hears these words, he does not say, “Depart from me, O Lord.” Instead, Peter jumps in the water and starts making his way toward Jesus. Maybe Peter realizes now that sin, not even the sin of denying Christ, lessens the Lord’s love for us. This time, instead of asking the Lord to get away from him, he wants to be near to Christ. Then, once again, even after the sin of denying Christ, our Lord Jesus gives him the commission, “Feed my sheep.” It is as though our Lord is saying, “Sinful man though you are, even guilty of denying me. Feed my sheep.” Here is the greater miracle. The greatest miracle is not that our Lord could direct fish into the net of fishermen. The greatest miracle is that he can take sinful people, sinful people like you and me, and use us to bring others into his kingdom. Today, let us recognize that we are sinful. But let that be no barrier to drawing near to Christ, and committing ourselves to be useful in his service. Amen.