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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 2/7

          During these weeks of Epiphany I have mentioned many times that the overarching theme of this season has to do with Jesus’ identity becoming known.  So when Jesus is baptized, when he changes the water to wine, when he preaches in his hometown we learn things about him.  That’s true today too with the great catch of fish and the calling of the first disciples.  We learn some more about Jesus, but maybe even more than that, today we learn about ourselves.  Part of today’s epiphany is about us and some of it is stuff that we might just as soon not talk about because it has to do with things like sin and enemies and death which are not necessarily our favorite topics. 

          In the first lesson Isaiah recognizes his inadequacy in the face of God’s glory, “Woe is me!  I am lost, a man of unclean lips.”  Likewise Peter in the gospel, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  The psalmist is being pursued by enemies and while today’s portion of First Corinthians 15 doesn’t touch so much on it, the theme of this chapter has to do with the inevitability of death and what that means.  You could say that a sense of helplessness is what links all of these lessons and helpless isn’t a place any of us really want to be.  People go into therapy and pay lots of money to regain a sense of control and independence and self worth, so that they don’t feel helpless.  Curiously though, to be disciples, to follow Jesus, might require a visit with helplessness.     
Let’s consider Peter and what happened to him.  A lot of people kind of like Peter; maybe it’s just because there’s more about him in the Bible than there is about the other disciples but whatever the reason among the disciples he becomes the poster child for lack of understanding and impulsiveness, a tendency to speak first and think about it later.  A lot of people can identify with that and so we say, “He’s like us!”   

          When we first encounter Peter, or Simon as he’s referred to more often in this story, you could say that he was a regular guy working the night shift.  At this particular time, he wasn’t doing very well, he and his companions hadn’t caught any fish all night, and you get the idea that this wasn’t all that unusual; it was something that Peter and the others were pretty well resigned to.  But, at least his shift was over; he and his co-workers could wash the nets and go home, get some rest and get up and do it again.  That was his reality; not much hope for change, not much promise of anything better.  Peter certainly wasn’t ready for Jesus to intrude on his life and his reality, but what are you going to do when Jesus decides to get in your boat?

To Peter’s credit, he was receptive to Jesus.  You might have expected a little indignation from Peter when Jesus suggested letting down the nets again after they hadn’t caught anything all night, but after a mild protest, Peter’s basic response was, “Whatever.”  Maybe it was just part of his resignation to the way things were. 

          “Whatever” though, was more than he imagined because what happens in this story is that Jesus breaks into Peter’s hopeless reality.  Not only did they catch fish, they caught so many that the nets were breaking and the boats were sinking.  It Peter’s world, this was impossible, but this wasn’t Peter’s world.  Jesus had said something about the kingdom of God and suddenly Peter was in the middle of this kingdom and he couldn’t handle it.  He wasn’t ready for it, so he falls down on his knees and says, “Get away from me; I’m a sinful man!”  The abundance of the kingdom of God was scary and Peter preferred the security of the world that was familiar to him, even if it wasn’t doing much for him. 

          It’s too early for Easter; we’re still another ten days from Ash Wednesday and Lent.  But what you get here today is an early dose of Easter, a glimpse of the Jesus move from death and failure and scarcity to new life and abundance.  It’s a move from hopelessness to hope, but along the way there’s a visit with helplessness.

          We will engage this visit with helplessness more extensively when we get to Ash Wednesday and Lent but…Peter is there today.  He becomes aware of a new reality which is beyond his control and he’s afraid and helpless.  With Jesus, he’s in the presence of someone and something that is beyond his control.  His boat is sinking and he’s going down with it and there’s nothing he can do about it…until he hears Jesus say, “Do not be afraid.”  That’s his entry to discipleship. 

Now, let’s give Peter some more credit here.  Remember a few weeks ago when Jesus changed the water to wine, the response of some was that the bridegroom was holding out on the good stuff?  They remained stuck in the old reality that could only be explained by what they knew.  In today’s story though, Peter wasn’t stuck there.  He knew there was more going on than just Jesus getting lucky as the nets and the boat filled with fish.  Peter recognized his helplessness, but that’s what enabled him to hear Jesus’ words and helped him to know that what was happening here couldn’t be explained by anything he knew.  He knew a lot about fishing, but he couldn’t explain this and he was afraid…until Jesus answered his fear 

          The God of the gospel is an answering God, a God who answers our fears, but maybe we can’t hear the answer until we’re at that point of helplessness.  Like I said though, none of us really wants to be there.  We’re wired for independence and self-sufficiency, we’re admired for independence and self-sufficiency.  But without that sense of helplessness, could Peter have been a disciple?  Would “Do not be afraid,” have meant anything to him?  Would he and James and John have left everything and followed Jesus?

          When Peter experienced the great catch of fish he began to recognize that Jesus represented God breaking into the world in new and powerful ways.  Jesus wasn’t just a prophet or teacher, he was God himself shaking up a reality that may have been safe and secure but which didn’t promise much.  In Jesus, reality itself would change.  For Peter, his feeling about being a sinful man wasn’t about anything bad that he’d done, it was that he had given up on God’s presence and power in his world.  Suddenly in the middle of that power, Peter was scared and knew he was helpless.  But then, with Jesus’ “Do not be afraid,” the way to a new reality was there, because Jesus won’t leave you helpless.

          The leap to that new reality is a difficult one though.  The church is supposed to represent the new reality of the Kingdom of God and at its best it does that; we have those moments when Jesus’ kingdom reality transcends the world’s reality and the power of God’s presence with us through word or music or sacrament really hits home.  For a moment it’s real and faith isn’t merely an intellectual exercise, church is more than a Sunday morning social club and a feeling of helplessness may well have something to do with it.  You realize that you are inadequate in the presence of God;  you realize there distance between you and God that you on your own can’t do anything about; but then you can also hear those words, “Do not be afraid.”

          Inevitably though, the fear that drives the old reality resurfaces and Annual Meeting Day is a reminder that we regularly straddle these two realities, drawn to Jesus’ kingdom reality that’s a little scary because there’s a lot we don’t know about it, pulled back by the security of the old reality in which everything can be explained.  As a pastor, this will be my 14th annual meeting at one church or another, my 7th one here, and every year so far an unbalanced, deficit budget has been presented and passed; that’s what we’re going to do again in a little while.  During the year some get nervous because the numbers on paper don’t line up but every year things have come out pretty well at the end of the year.  Regardless of the size of the deficit on paper, the bills have been paid, the staff has been paid, our commitments to the synod and other ministries we support have been honored and there’s still money in the bank and the work of the church continues. 

When you think about it, it’s kind of like the great catch of fish.  By the rules of the old reality, it’s impossible, but there it is.  Now certainly there are very logical money management, fiscal responsibility, stewardship explanations that one can propose for why we make it every year and I don’t mean to be dismissive of that…but it’s the comfort of the old reality. I’d prefer to think that maybe Jesus is in our boat, letting down the nets and fishing with us.  There’s more people to catch so he’ll continue to provide surprising abundance and he’ll continue to encourage discipleship with the words, “Do not be afraid.”  His work and our work isn’t done.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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