Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – February 10, 2019
Today we hear the Lord Jesus say two things that the church today desperately needs to hear: “Cast your nets,” and “Do not be afraid.”
Simon Peter had been skunked. He and his fellow fishermen had worked all through the night and hadn’t caught anything. How disappointing! How discouraging! All that work for nothing!
It wasn’t always like that. Plenty of nights Peter had brought in plenty of fish, enough fish to make a living. Peter was part of a fairly prosperous group, with more than one boat and multiple fishermen. They knew the sea of Galilee. They had caught plenty of fish before. But now they had been skunked. They had fished all night and caught nothing.
Jesus borrowed one of Peter’s boats, using it as a perch from which to teach. The water made a nice amplification system for him, no doubt. When Jesus was done teaching the crowds, he told Peter to cast his nets. “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch,” he said. Peter was reluctant. Still stinging from being skunked the night before, he had his doubts. You can hear it in his voice. He said to Jesus, “Master, we have worked all night and caught nothing.” But Peter trusted the word of his teacher. He was willing to do what Jesus said, in spite of what he had experienced. “Yet, if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
Peter and his fellow fishermen put down their nets in the deep water just as Jesus had told them, and the catch was so enormous that they had to have two boats to haul it in! Even then, they were almost swamped with all the fish!
“Cast your nets,” Jesus said. In spite of the fact that he had been skunked just the night before, Peter obeyed. He trusted Jesus’ word. And his trust proved to be well-placed.
I believe there are a lot of Christians, both here at OHLC and across the church, who are discouraged and disappointed. We just don’t seem to be catching fish like we used to. Just about every ministry team in our congregation is struggling to have enough volunteers to keep things going, and no matter how many invitations go out, no matter how many times something is put in the opportunity form, the net comes back empty. I know there are times when teachers have worked hard at a Sunday school lesson, only to find an almost empty classroom on Sunday morning. I know our choirs have worked hard during the week to prepare a special piece of music, only to look out at a half-empty sanctuary. I know there are invitations to “come and see” that you’ve extended to people that have gone unheeded. I know there are friends and relatives you’ve tried to share your faith with and it feels like you haven’t gotten anywhere with them.
We know what Peter experienced. We know what it feels like to be skunked.
The church today is struggling, there’s no doubt about it. There are a lot of factors involved in this. Part of it is changing demographics. Part of it is a changing culture – so very much has changed just since I graduated from seminary! There are so many things competing for people’s time and attention. I’ve shared with you before the statistics that show a dramatic shift in what even practicing Christians think active church membership means. The expectation has changed from being at church three times per week for worship and programs to being at church once a month. That’s why you can have steady overall membership numbers while worship attendance numbers dip. This is happening across the church.
All of this can be discouraging. It can be disappointing. But we take our cues from Jesus and not from our circumstances, right? And Jesus calls us again and again to be about his work. In the great commission, Jesus has given us, his church, clear instructions to go out into the world, to go to all peoples. He calls us to baptize and to teach and to witness. Jesus calls us to cast our nets. And you know what? Sometimes we are surprised with a big catch.
I have been surprised by a big catch this past year. This past fall I decided to try to have a Tuesday night Bible study this program year. I read a book last summer which argued convincingly that the most vibrant congregations are those congregations where most of the congregation is actively involved in Bible study. Too many of our people are not, so I thought I’d try to expand the opportunities for people. I had my reservations. I had my doubts. Part of me thought: no one comes to Bible studies anymore. I’ve been skunked before. So, I had very modest expectations. In fact, for the first Tuesday night class I only made six copies of the hand-out. So imagine my surprise when we had 30 people come! I had to run back to the copy machine! Not all of those 30 have stuck with it, but most have! See what can happen when you trust Christ’s word and cast your net?
I had my doubts about taking the kids to Quake this year too. I thought we’d go, but for a variety of reasons, I thought we’d have a much smaller group going this year. But I cast a wide net, sending out an email inviting everyone in that age group, and sure enough, I got email after email saying, “We’re in!” We have fourteen kids are going – our biggest group yet! Then I realized with all the extra rooms and chaperones we’d need, it was going to cost four grand to send that many kids. Again, I had some reservations. I was scared to death to have Rekann mail a check for four thousand dollars to register us before we’d done any fundraising, but I cast a net around certain corners of the church, and we had two-thirds of that money donated before we’d even done any official, public fundraising. (I probably shouldn’t tell you that. I hope you’ll still come to our pancake fundraiser!)
Now we shouldn’t get overly concerned about numbers as the gauge of success in our ministry together. A lot of good and valuable ministry happens below the surface, in the deep water, where you can’t see it. A lot of important gospel ministry has nothing to do with large numbers. But we should also not be so discouraged or disappointed by the challenges of our time that we stop casting our nets. When we listen to our Lord Jesus and obey his command, when we carry out his commission to us and cast those nets, sometimes he surprises us with a big catch!
When Simon Peter saw the big catch Jesus had given him, he was overwhelmed. He fell to his knees. He knew right then and there that Jesus was more than simply another teacher. He went from calling him “Master” to calling him “Lord.” And as Peter had this Epiphany about who Jesus really was, he felt that he shouldn’t be in his presence. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus responded to Simon by saying, “Do not be afraid.”
In the light of Jesus’ power and majesty, manifested in that miraculous haul of fish, all of Peter’s sin, all of his inadequacies, all of his failures, all of his foolish doubts, were laid bare. Peter thought that his sin disqualified him from being in Christ’s presence. He thought it disqualified him from being his disciple. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” But Jesus gave him a word that was both forgiving and encouraging: “Do not be afraid.” Jesus wouldn’t let his sin or his fear about his sin get in the way of his mission, his calling. It has often been said that Jesus doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called. That’s what he did with Peter. He tells him to not be afraid, and then he commissions him with a new calling, saying to him, “From now on you will be catching people.”
Like Peter, we have experienced our own disappointments. We have been discouraged. We have been skunked at times. This sometimes leads us to be skeptical about fishing. “We have worked all night long and have caught nothing!”
Like Peter, we are all plagued by our sin, by our failures, by our foolish doubts – and sometimes we think this disqualifies us from being in his presence and participating in his mission. “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Both collectively as the church and as individual Christians, we have a lot in common with Simon Peter. And so I can’t think of anything we need hear more today from our Lord Jesus than what he said to him: “Cast your nets, and don’t be afraid.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church