Text: Luke 5:1-11
A few days ago, I was reading an article about the rise of “burnout” among young professionals, folks who are currently in their twenties and thirties. According to this article, the combination of changes in technology, the economy, and society has led to a situation where young professionals are often always “on call,” often working multiple jobs (typically in contract or other non-benefits work), and therefore often in a state of exhaustion, all without a sense of security that things will get better. While the issues that may be behind this apparent epidemic are beyond what can be solved (or even addressed) in a Sunday morning homily, today’s readings do indeed deal with the ultimate problem: despair, a loss of hope, desperation, and a general lack of peace or joy. Last week we discussed how hope is the antidote to the nigh universal human problem of vanity or futility. This week we see that Christ also gives us an antidote to despair or desperation.
Please turn in your bibles to our Gospel passage for the day: Luke 5, beginning at the first verse. You can also find it on page 196 in your Prayer Books:
On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.”
If your bible is like mine, it may have a subheading over this chapter saying something to the effect of “Jesus Calls the First Disciples.” Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, and their business partners John and James (who may have been Jesus’ cousins) were about to be called to be the first Apostles. But at this point in St. Luke’s version of the Gospel, they didn’t know it yet. In fact, for these four men, it was just another morning after a long night of work as fishermen. I’ve only been fishing a few times, and am frankly not very good at it. Many of you here today are probably much better at the sport. But unless I’m mistaken, for just about everyone here fishing is just that: a sport.
Not so for St. Peter and his friends. Fishing was their livelihood. Fishing is what kept a roof over their heads and food on the table. Fishing is what clothed their families. Fishing was their business. And it didn’t look like business was going so well. They had been out all night, toiling at their work, and had nothing to show for it. That meant that they weren’t getting paid that day. It meant that their customers weren’t going to be able to buy fish that day. It may have meant some of these folk wouldn’t have food on the table that day.
I don’t know if anyone here has ever worked commission or contract work, such as sales. Prior to becoming one of the priests here at All Saints, I worked exclusively as an independent contractor in residential real estate appraising since 2003. I still do appraising as an independent contractor on the side to this day. For a good portion of my career, appraising was a feast-or-famine line of work. We would alternate between being overwhelmed with orders and having no orders at all. Eventually, you learn to see the typical patterns and plan accordingly. I remember, though, the Fall of 2013, the months leading up to my marriage, when work all but dried up for no discernible reason. I did about the same amount of work in three or four months that I’d usually do in two or three weeks. Talk about scary. I knew what Simon Peter and his companions must’ve felt like that morning.
But, of course, we know that’s not the end of the story. Let’s pick up in Verse 6:
And when they had done this [i.e., followed Jesus’ directions and went back out to sea], they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they filled both the boats so that they began to sink.
So, we see that Jesus meets their need. In fact, he meets it so extravagantly that they were being overwhelmed, even to the point that they were in physical danger! I think it is safe to say that Our Lord is not without a sense of irony at times. At this point, some might conclude that the passage is telling us that if we just listen to Jesus, he’ll make us extravagantly successful. But that conclusion would be to miss the point of the passage. In fact, knowing what we know about the rest of the lives of all four of these soon-to-be Apostles, the idea that Jesus was simply making them materially rich or successful is laughable. Three of these men die as martyrs, and all four suffer poverty and persecution for the sake of the Gospel. We need to look at the rest of the passage to see what the Scriptures are really telling us. Verse 8:
But when Simon Peter saw it [i.e. the dangerous catch of fish], 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 that they had taken, and also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.
In the face of the miracle, in the face of the Lord’s power, Peter realizes his sinfulness. He realizes he cannot stand before Jesus’ holiness. This echoes many of the stories from the Old Testament where people respond to an encounter with God’s power in abject fear. And that fear isn’t due to the power itself; rather it’s due to the realization that God’s power also shows God’s holiness and our own sinfulness. Peter’s humility here is certainly the right response. But his gut reaction to ask Jesus to leave is not. He doesn’t need to be separated from the Lord’s holiness. No, he needs to follow the Lord. For Jesus to depart from Peter would be for Peter to be left in his sin, left to the Judgement. Hell is indeed separation from Jesus.
Jesus instead tells Peter to not be afraid and gives him a new job. Peter and his companions are then obedient. They leave everything to follow the Lord.
At this point we could draw yet another false conclusion: we could conclude that the point of the story is that we should all leave everything behind and become evangelists or in some other way enter vocational ministry. This is, of course, another exercise in missing the point. The call to leave fishing was to Peter, Andrew, James, and John, not necessarily to you and I. Certainly some people are called to serve the Lord in this vocational way. Indeed, I expect that one day I will need to hang up my Appraiser’s hat and only wear the priest’s cap! But that call is not for everyone. Nonetheless, we are all called to be followers of Jesus. We are all called to put him as our top priority. We are all called to hold the things of this world somewhat loosely, keeping our eyes upon the Lord. This is the first step to combatting despair and desperation. We keep our main focus upon what ultimately matters: following and serving the Lord.
This is an area where the Spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, reading and studying Scripture, fasting, giving, etc. help us. They aren’t there to give us a divine to-do list. They aren’t there so that we would earn brownie points with God. Jesus doesn’t need our disciplines and service. He was doing just fine before us and he’ll be doing just fine when we’re gone! Rather, we are the ones who need the spiritual disciplines. God has given us the spiritual disciplines as a gift to help us keep our priorities straight. He’s given us the spiritual disciplines as a way of training our flesh so that it wouldn’t be in charge. And we Anglicans have something of a leg up on some of the other traditions in that the Book of Common Prayer gives us a time-tested guide for these disciplines!
But we do see some other details in today’s Gospel passage that help our sanctification, especially with respect to combatting despair. Notice that the passage begins with Jesus preaching to the crowd and using Peter’s boat to do so. Jesus can use our jobs, families, school, neighborly relationships, etc. as a way to advance his kingdom. All of us, regardless of our vocation, have a share in the Gospel, a share in spreading the Kingdom of God. As you serve your neighbor in your vocation, God is glorified. This means that even those times when you catch no fish can be used by God.
Second, notice that Peter exercises his faith in a small way before being called to exercise his faith in the big way. He lends Jesus his boat. Then he takes the boat out into the waters. Then he is called to leave it all behind. When you are in despair, exercise your faith in the little ways and trust the Lord. He uses the little things to trains us for the bigger ones. Take it one step at a time.
Throughout all of this, remember that God is in control. We prayed in our Collect:
Grant, O Lord, we beseech thee, that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered by thy governance that thy Church may joyfully serve thee in all godly quietness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
God orders the course of the world, whether that is the catch of fish, the flow of appraisal orders, or the grand events of the world stage. Throughout it all, we are called to serve him with joy and peace. In Christ’s presence, our wants and our abundance both fade into the background. We cannot order the world. We cannot create peace. By turning to the Lord in prayer, we do indeed see God order things. But we also see the healing of our souls. Joy and peace are impossible with a divided heart, with divided priorities. It is only by turning to Christ that our hearts are made whole, our priorities are ordered, and despair, anxiety, and worry are banished.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.