[This was preached at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Okanogan, WA and Hope Lutheran in Tonasket, WA]
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I like to fish, but most of my recent fishing trips have made it clear to me: that’s why they call it “fishing,” not “catching.” Even a few years ago, my dad reserved places for my brothers and me on a fishing charter on the coast. He even told me later that he mainly did it because he knew that I liked to fish. The way it works is that when the boat gets its limit, regardless of who’s caught what, everyone on the boat stops fishing. Well, we stopped fishing. And I was the only one on the whole boat who didn’t catch a salmon—well, except for one of my brothers who was sick inside the cabin the whole time. Other than him, I was the only one who didn’t catch a fish. That’s why they call it fishing, not catching.
Simon Peter knew something about that. He and James and John had been out fishing all night, and now their boats are on the shore and they’re cleaning their nets. Jesus is teaching by the lake, and the crowd is pushing and pressing on Him, so He gets into Simon’s boat and tells Simon to push out a little from the shore. He preaches to the people, and then He tells Simon to go out into the deep water and let down his nets for a catch. Notice: Jesus doesn’t tell Peter to go into the deep water and go fishing; He tells him to put down his nets for a catch. With Jesus, it’s not fishing, it’s catching.
Peter isn’t so sure. Lord, we’ve been out fishing, struggling, working, all night, and we haven’t caught a thing. But sure, Lord, we’ll humor You. Don’t blame me when the nets come back empty, but we’ll do it anyway. (We’ll have to clean our nets again, but anyway.) And as soon as the nets are in the water, while they’re still on the way down, the nets are full. It’s almost like the fish just swam into the nets. So many fish that the nets are tearing as they bring them up. Peter tells James and John to come help, and there are so many fish that both boats begin to sink.
It’s at that moment that Simon Peter realizes what’s going on. Lord, go away from me; I am a sinful man. It’s not just that Peter is a sinner. It’s that he realizes that he, like Isaiah, is in the presence of the holy God, and he is unholy. Like Isaiah, who says, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and I have seen the King, Yahweh of the heavenly armies!” Lord, go away from me; I am a sinful man. And not only is Peter a sinner in the presence of the holy God, he didn’t really believe Jesus’ word. When Jesus was done speaking, He told Peter to put down his nets for a catch. Okay, Lord, at Your word I will let down the nets.
If anyone knew how to fish, it was Simon Peter, and James and John. They literally fished for a living. If they worked all night and didn’t catch anything, what could possibly make Jesus think they’d catch something now? But the fact is, he had seen the evidence of the power of Jesus’ word before this. In the verses right before this account, it was in Simon’s own house that his mother-in-law was sick with a fever. Jesus came in and rebuked that fever, just like He’d rebuked the unclean spirit, and they both left. Both enemies and intruders in God’s good creation, and Jesus came to destroy and remove them. He has come to restore all things; to put all things right. And He’s come to do it by the authority of His Word. Peter didn’t believe it, but now he does. Go away from me, because I am a sinful man.
But Jesus doesn’t say, “You’re right about that!” He says, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will be catching men.” This isn’t a word for fishing, but a word for catching alive. This whole episode has been a picture for the Apostles, and for the Church that Jesus establishes through and after them, that nothing at all depends on them, and everything depends on Jesus. They worked and struggled and labored all night, and what did they have to show for it? But when Jesus speaks, immediately they have such a large catch that the nets rip and the boats sink. Unless the Lord builds the house, the laborers build in vain (Psalm 127:1). Unless the Lord catches the fish, the fishermen fish in vain. Unless the Lord builds and gathers into His Church, the members of the Church work in vain.
This is a reality check for our lives, for our congregations, and for the Church as a whole. But it is also a promise. Do not be afraid. The Lord will do what He says. And isn’t that what we’re worried about sometimes? That the Lord’s word is ineffective, that it’s not really working, that we’re not sure that what He says will really happen? We work and strive and struggle, and nothing seems to happen. It’s certainly a temptation for pastors who labor in the Lord’s vineyard, and have trouble seeing the effects of that work. It’s a temptation for Christians who pray and speak the Gospel to unbelievers, and don’t see the effects, or any changes. Peter gets to see the effects of the Lord’s word, but so often we do not.
But we forget the whole night that they fished and worked and did everything they could do. Perhaps it’s our night, or the night of our congregations, or the night of the Church. But then the Lord speaks. And when the Lord speaks, the nets and boats fill up. Maybe there aren’t thousands; maybe it’s one by one. But when the Lord speaks, He gathers people into the boat of His Church. His word does what He promises, whether we can see it working or not. Here is a promise not to worry, not to be afraid, if we can’t see things happening. But whether we can see anything or not has very little to do with what God is doing. Because we hear what Jesus is doing, and His word is worth far more than what we see or experience or feel.
You have two boats here: Our Savior in Okanogan and Hope in Tonasket, and you are here to help each other out in the common work you have to do. You are about to be joined together in what God has given His Church to do. I don’t know whether your boats are going to start to sink because of the number of the catch, but I do know that where Jesus’ Word is preached and His Sacraments are given out according to His institution, then He has promised: Do not be afraid; you will catch men and women. You are evidence of His promise. Do not look at the number gathered; listen to the Word that Christ speaks. With Jesus, it is not fishing, it is catching.
Do not be afraid. When Jesus speaks, He does what He says. When He baptizes someone into His Name, His word is authoritative. It does what He says. When He says, “I forgive you all your sins,” His word is authoritative. It does what He says. When He says, “This is My body and this is My blood, given and shed for you,” His word is authoritative. He does and gives what He says. And let there be no doubt—know this—that because you are in Christ, who is risen from the dead, all your labor, all your work, all your struggling and striving in this creation, in the place where God has put you is not in vain. In the Lord, your labor is not in vain. With Jesus it is catching, not fishing.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/8/19