But if we walk in the light, just as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Trinity 5 – 2023

Sermon Text Luke 5:1-11

There are many in this world who think they are too smart to be a Christian. They know that it is necessary for Christians to believe in miracles: chiefly the miracle of the incarnation and the miracle of the resurrection; but also the many other miracles that took place during the earthly ministry of Jesus. But they refuse to believe in miracles.

Their minds have been shaped by a rationalist and materialist worldview, according to which there is no such thing as a miracle. Therefore the Biblical miracles on which the Christian faith is based, and that the Christian faith requires, did not happen.

They did not happen, because they could not happen. That’s the assumption. That’s the conviction – the deeply-held faith commitment – of an increasing number of people who deny the possibility of miracles. And so, what they say to Jesus, in effect, is this: “Depart from me, for I am a rational man, O Lord.”

Simon Peter, the fisherman in Capernaum, looked at all of this in a totally different way. In today’s Gospel, St Luke gives us his version of a very familiar story involving Simon Peter.

Peter was not as naive and gullible as are today’s skeptics, who have talked themselves into the ridiculous belief that miracles cannot happen. Peter knew that miracles were possible.

He knew this, not only because he, as a Jew, was familiar with the reliable record of miracles that was to be found in the Old Testament; but also because he had seen miracles personally. In his presence, Jesus had turned water into wine, at the wedding in Cana. In his presence, Jesus had healed many who were sick – including Peter’s own mother-in-law.

When St. Luke tells us about that incident, he reports that after Jesus had “rebuked” the high fever with which Peter’s mother-in-law was afflicted, and it left her, “immediately she rose and began to serve them.”

So, as Peter was in the process of figuring out who Jesus was, and what his purpose in this world might be, he was more than willing to believe that Jesus could perform miracles. He had seen the evidence of this with his own eyes.

In today’s text, St. Luke reports that after Jesus had finished using a fishing boat as a platform for a seaside sermon, he said to Simon Peter,

“‘Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ But Simon answered and said to Him, ‘Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless, at Your word, I will let down the net.’ And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking.”

This is the kind of miracle that a fisherman like Peter would certainly welcome, don’t you think? Who would object to Jesus healing your mother-in-law, so that she can cook for you, and wait on you and your friends? Who would object to Jesus using his power over nature to make you prosper and succeed in your business?

Peter doesn’t think he is too smart to believe in these miracles. Peter doesn’t think he is too smart to believe in Jesus. He certainly does not say to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a rational man, O Lord.”

But after Peter had seen the miraculous catch of fish – something that was actually of great practical benefit to him – much to our surprise, he did tell Jesus to depart. It was not because Peter was a rationalist and a materialist. St. Luke tells us:

“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 and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken…”

Now, the miracles of Jesus were never an end in themselves. To be sure, they were of practical benefit to the people who received them, and they manifested Jesus’ personal compassion for the suffering and the weary. But the deeper purpose of these miracles was to give those who witnessed them a symbolic picture of who Jesus truly was and to illustrate the more profound reason for why he was in the world.

God’s Son did not come into this world to turn water into wine on a regular basis, so as to put wineries out of business; but he came to provide supernatural sustenance for us by his Word and Spirit.

God’s Son did not come into this world to heal the physical ailments of sick and injured people on a regular basis, so as to put physicians out of business; but he came to heal our broken hearts, and our wounded spirits, by the new birth of his Spirit.

And God’s Son did not come into this world to fill the nets of fishermen so that they would no longer have to do any more hard work, but he came to give us an abundant life in his Spirit, and to let us enter into the true Sabbath rest of faith.

Peter was beginning to understand this and to perceive that there was something pure, something righteous, and something divine in Jesus, that was fundamentally incompatible with the iniquity and the flaws that were in Peter, and that were a part of his sinful life.

Peter’s developing relationship with Jesus – also including its emerging tensions – was not based merely on the physical health and material wealth that the Lord’s miracles produced: for him, for his relatives, and for his friends. If Peter was concerned only about such superficial things, he would have welcomed the continuing presence of Jesus and the continued working of the miracles of Jesus.

Peter’s relationship with Jesus was, rather, going in a different direction from this, and it was making Peter uncomfortable. It was a relationship that was getting inside Peter and was making Peter face up to things – frightening and troubling things; challenging and threatening things – that he would rather not think about or deal with.

Peter, it would seem, had become accustomed to ignoring the voice of his conscience, regarding his unworthiness to stand before the holy and righteous God. This was a problem, but it was a problem that he was not thinking about, or doing anything about.

But now Jesus is making him think about it. Jesus, in a way that Peter does not at this point fully grasp, embodies within his own person the holiness of the God of whom Peter is frightened. Peter is beginning to see this.

Jesus – by getting close to Peter, and by revealing himself to Peter through his miracles and through his preaching – is therefore making Peter admit that things between him and God are not right and that something needs to be done about this.

But this scares Peter. This is unsettling to him.

And so the easiest way to avoid dealing with this problem, and not to think about it, is to pretend that it is not there; and, to get rid of what it is that is forcing him to think about it – that is, to get rid of Jesus. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

Peter, acutely aware of his sin, but unwilling or unable to deal with his sin, was repelled from the righteousness of Christ. And in many cases, that’s what is really going on in the mind and conscience of those who think they are too smart to believe in Jesus.

They’re not too smart to believe in him. They’re too scared to believe in him, and to submit to his rightful authority, over them and within them.

They know that if they let Jesus get close to them, and to stay close to them, their whole life will need to change. The sinful behaviors and attitudes that they think bring fun and satisfaction to them, will have to stop.

Familiar yet sinful things will have to be abandoned. Unfamiliar things will have to be embraced. For human pride, this is too much.

And so, an arrogant excuse for pushing Jesus away is fabricated. A clever way of showing disdain for Christ and for what he stands for is devised. A lie – which they tell to others and to their own conscience – is created. “Depart from me, for I am a rational man, O Lord.”

But Jesus does not depart so easily. Jesus haunts you. He pursues you. He does not stop striving with you, calling you to account, and calling you to repentance.

This is especially the case if you are a baptized person. You may have forgotten about your baptism, and about the claims that Jesus put upon you when you were baptized.

But Jesus has not forgotten about those claims. And he is going to continue to reassert them.

This is especially the case also if you have Christian relatives and friends who are praying for you. They are calling Jesus’ attention down upon you over and over again. They are lifting you up into his sight, so that he will not forget about you, or depart from you.

And Jesus did not depart from Peter, either. Peter gave voice to the anguish of his guilty conscience, and expressed the hesitation of his weak faith when he in fear asked Jesus to depart from him. But then, “Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid…’” Embedded within that short statement was Jesus’ absolution for Peter.

A heart that knows its sin, and that also knows the righteous judgments of God against sin, rightly fears that judgment. But Jesus suffered, died, and rose again for us, and for that sin.

Therefore when he speaks his peace into our fear, that fear is dispersed, like a morning mist is dispersed by the light of the rising sun. That fear is vanquished and expelled by the certainty of Christ’s forgiveness, Christ’s cleansing, Christ’s reconciliation, and Christ’s renewal.

When Jesus told Peter, “Do not be afraid,” those words – filled as they were with grace and life, with pardon and peace – took that fear away from his heart.

How close do you let Christ get to you and to your inner self? Since you are here in this worship service, I assume that you are not among those who would say to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a rational man, O Lord.” But otherwise, do you keep him at a safe distance from you?

Do you perhaps use the externals of your religious practice as a shield or barrier between you and his holiness, so that you will not actually have to deal with unresolved personal and interior issues that lurk in your conscience: issues that your pride and your shame, in a strange combination, wish would be left alone and not be disturbed?

And if Jesus does start to get too close to you – maybe through a particularly challenging sermon, a particularly incisive hymn, or a particularly probing Bible reading – do you cast about for excuses not to pay attention to him, not to listen to him, and not to humble yourself before him?

Do you want him to stop stirring up your conscience? Do you say, with Peter, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord”?

Oh, you do admit that you are sinful in general terms. Our Liturgy makes you admit this – at least outwardly – at the beginning of each Sunday service, through the prayers of confession that we always speak.

But maybe you don’t want to think about certain specific painful sins – of the past or in the present – that are too shameful, or too powerful, to be confessed and dealt with, without humbling yourself before God at a level where you don’t want to go.

Yet Jesus is not going away. And he is not going to leave you alone. You may wish to say to him, “Depart from me,” but he is not going to do as you wish.

“You are not your own, for you were bought with a price,” as St. Paul reminds us in his First Epistle to the Corinthians. Jesus bought you, and he still claims you. None of your excuse-making or self-justification will change that, or persuade him to give up on you.

Maybe you don’t want to dredge up something toxic and poisonous from the past that is deeply buried in the recesses of your memory, to deal with it once and for all.

Maybe you don’t want to expose an ongoing problem of sin and rebellion against God and his goodness that, up until now, you have not admitted is as harmful and spiritually dangerous as it really is.

But Jesus wants to dredge it up, and expose it, so that he can deal with it – not for his benefit, but for yours.

The Book of Revelation gives us an image that can apply to this kind of crisis of conscience. Jesus is quoted to say:

“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; so be zealous, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

Jesus, as it were, is standing at the door of that hidden room in your conscience – a room of embarrassment to which you are afraid to admit him – and he is knocking. And as he knocks, and as he seeks admission, he also says: “Do not be afraid.”

This thought is expanded in the Book of Isaiah, where the Lord declares to those who need his compassion and forgiveness:

“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.”

You will forget the shame, because in his forgiveness – as you receive it by faith – your loving God assures you that he has forgotten it. Through Jeremiah, he declares: “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

The prayer of a heart that is delivered from its fear, and does then receive the liberating and soothing pardon of its Savior, is written in Psalm 31:

“In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me! Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily! Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me! For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me…”

“Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. … I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul, and you have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy…”

“Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away. …”

“But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand… Make your face shine on your servant; save me in your steadfast love! O Lord, let me not be put to shame, for I call upon you…”

When Jesus comes into the darkest place in your soul, and brings his light and life, nothing but good can come from this. And a lot of good does come from this.

This kind of naked honesty before God might hurt for a while, but then the hurt stops. The guilt stops. The fear stops. And the healing, and a new beginning with God, begin.

Jesus does not leave, but he stays. He stays, and he helps you, he guides you, he protects you, and he justifies you by his own righteousness.

In moments of fear, you may try to distance yourself from him. But in a lifetime of faith, you come to him for rest, and for his loving acceptance.

In his cleansing absolution, and in the nourishing sacrament of his body and blood, the forgiveness of your sins – all of your sins; all of your deep and dark sins – is bestowed upon you by the One who died for you, who rose again for you, and who even now intercedes at the right hand of the Father for you.

And as you may hesitate even today to admit to him all of your faults, and to open up to him regarding all of your failures, this One gently yet firmly tells you: “Do not be afraid.”

“For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken… And Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.’”