Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 26:35 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Everything begins and ends with the Word. Jesus is preaching the Word of God and people are pressing in on Him to hear that Word. Then Jesus gets into Simon Peter’s boat in order to preach the Word and teach the people. Jesus tells Peter to put the boat out into the deep and let down his nets for a catch. Peter tells Jesus that they have been fishing all night, and they haven’t caught anything; “but at Your Word I will let down the nets.” This is the Word that goes before and behind to accomplish what it says.
Simon Peter does what Jesus says, according to His Word, and his net is suddenly so full of fish that the net is breaking. He has to call James and John and whomever else is there in order to bring up the nets and fill both the boats until they are sinking.
All of this is a picture of what Jesus is going to do with Peter, James, and John and the other nine apostles, to create, gather, and enclose the Church. There is a show called The Chosen, and in that show Jesus does this miracle because Peter, James, and John are in debt, and the large catch of fish allows them to pay off their debts. That’s certainly possible. But like the water changed to wine, this seems to me more like simply the gratuitous nature of God. Jesus doesn’t do this because of some practical purpose or because Peter, James, and John need it. He simply does it because this is the sort of God He is, and to show that the Church that He is going to gather is far beyond any human expectation.
With Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God, which means health, salvation, and freedom from the devil’s power; in the gathering of Peter, James, and John here; in the calling of Levi right after this, Jesus is beginning the always miraculous and divine work of making and gathering a people for God called the Church.
And that Church has continued all the way to this day, and the work is the same. Peter, James, John, and the others may be pulling up the nets and putting fish in a boat, but they did not do anything to get those fish into the nets. They didn’t catch anything during the whole night, but now at Jesus’ Word, the catch is beyond all expectation and rational proportion. We do not build or create or grow the Church. We don’t get people into the nets of the Gospel or the boat of the Church; Jesus does, and will. All that’s left is the pulling up and putting in. And we should not forget that Jesus is not on the shore. He’s not somewhere else. He is in the boat with Peter, surrounded by the apostles and the fish.
The primary place that the fish get into the nets is in the deep. The Church in the boat with Jesus goes out into the deep: each of us with particular family members, particular friends, particular co-workers, particular relationships into which God Himself has put you. And it is in the depths of suffering, sickness, pain, grief, disaster where people are caught up by the Gospel, by the Word of God which is firmly and certainly tied to the salvation Jesus accomplishes in His crucifixion and resurrection. Apart from Jesus’ actual work, and Jesus’ actual words, there is no Gospel and there is no Church and there is no evangelism or salvation.
But how often we are kept from giving Jesus’ words to people who are in the greatest need of them. We have our fears. We don’t want to talk too much about “religion,” or we’re afraid of looking silly or less intelligent. People might not take us seriously. (It seems like our middle school and high school fears never really go away.) It is much easier to put it off on the pastor, or the congregation as a whole, or a committee; then we can feel good about it without actually doing it.
And there’s another problem as well. When people are actually gathered into Christ’s Church, they might discover that the Church is already filled with people like Peter—that is, people like us. Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man. And sinners sin, even in the Church, even redeemed and forgiven sinners. We don’t stop hurting people, stop messing up, start loving perfectly, just because we’ve been gathered in. And that reality of the Church in this world is an easy excuse for not being a part of it. Most of us have probably had a moment or two where we’ve grown tired of the sin in the Church and we’ve wanted to get out.
But we are with Peter—and Isaiah, for that matter. Watch how Isaiah and Peter mirror each other. Both find themselves in the presence of the holy God; both realize what they deserve: Woe is me, I am lost; I am undone! I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips! Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man. We are full of fears and inaction and sin.
But God doesn’t destroy Isaiah, and God-in-the-flesh doesn’t go away from Peter. They are both absolved of their sin and sent on their way. Behold, this coal has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for. Who will go for us? For Peter, Jesus’ absolution is “Do not be afraid,” and then He sends him: “you will catch people alive.” There is no doubt about what is deserved: death and the departure of God. But God on the throne is not there to destroy Isaiah, and God in the flesh is not there to leave Peter to himself. He does not depart; He remains, and He promises later to always remain. It is His Church!
With us, in spite of us, He will gather His Church, even sinners like Isaiah, Peter, you, and me. Breaking nets and sinking boats are together a pretty good image of the Church on earth, weak and unworthy. But that doesn’t stop Jesus from gathering His people alive into the nets and boats. It doesn’t stop Jesus from speaking His Word so that Peter, James, John, and the whole Church—including the Church in this place—gather in those other people of unclean lips and sinners like us. If it were up to us, as Luther says, we would quickly bring it all to ruin. And another Christian once said that he believed in Christianity, because a system must be divine which has survived so much insane mismanagement (Chesterton, Illustrated London News (Sept. 22, 1906), 334).
The Church is not up to us, and it is a divine work and system. It is Jesus’ Word and Jesus’ Word alone that builds, gathers, creates, and sustains His Church. We are with Him in the boat, and He touches our lips with the burning coal of His body and gives us to drink of His blood, by which our guilt is taken away and our sin atoned for; do not be afraid. You will catch alive the people I send to you.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “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, 2/5/22