A Sermon for St. Francis Anglican Church, Portland, OR.
July 16, 2017
Fifth Sunday After Trinity
Luke 5:1-11; 1 Peter 3:8-15
I imagine most of us have been there at one point in our lives. We are eating dinner with family or a group of coworkers, and our faith comes up – maybe it’s an offensive comment, maybe it’s as simple as the question, “What are you doing Sunday?” – and we immediately feel uncomfortable. We’re anxious, we start to sweat, our mind goes blank. We’re uncomfortable in part because we believe that God matters – in our lives as individuals and in the life of the world as a whole – and so we want others to see that God matters too.
And since we believe that God matters in our lives, we are also uncomfortable because we feel that we are somehow on the line. If someone rejects our faith, we feel that they are in some way rejecting us too. Even if you haven’t forsaken all possessions or taken a vow to live in a monastery, if you are at all committed to Christ, then this isn’t an abstract discussion; you are personally invested – something of your intelligence, your integrity, your sense of personal meaning is on the line.
We are uncomfortable, and so we pause to gather ourselves. We scratch our face, avoid eye contact, and mumble a quick reply hoping someone will change the subject. We walk away thinking of what we should have said. Later on, still thinking about the conversation, we wish we were more prepared, maybe even feeling a little guilty.
It’s no wonder that most Christians avoid sharing their faith – we feel intimidated, unprepared, and, ultimately, we just feel inadequate. There is some truth to this feeling of inadequacy, and today’s Gospel lesson presents good news and bad news concerning that truth. The bad news first: yes, we are inadequate, and we will never be able to adequately speak of God’s love in this life or sufficiently demonstrate His goodness in our actions.
The good news is that God does not seem overly concerned about our inadequacy. He has decided to work through us anyway to share His love in word and deed.
In Luke 5, Jesus has been travelling around Galilee – the lake of Gennesaret is another name for the Sea of Galilee – healing the sick and preaching the good news of the Kingdom. It seems that Jesus has chosen to use an inlet on the sea as a natural amphitheater, but the crowds have grown. So Jesus sees Simon Peter’s boat, and asks him to put out a little bit from shore in order to continue teaching as the crowds fill in.
Jesus sits in the boat and preaches: He “fishes for people” from Simon’s boat. Not one to ignore a good, down-home metaphor, Jesus then asks Simon to put out a little further from shore and let down the literal nets. Simon Peter answers with more than a little hesitation, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
It’s easy to forget that before the invention of nylon, fishing with nets occurred almost exclusively at night. Otherwise, the fish can see the nets and avoid them. In addition, fish tend to be more active at night and rest during the day. So Simon Peter’s concern isn’t just that they had no luck before. The ideal time for fishing had past with no results; what chance was there now?
Jesus may be familiar with woodworking, but He obviously doesn’t know the first thing about fishing, and He commands Simon, who is a professional fisherman, to give it one more shot after a long night. No one feels great after working hard with nothing to show for it, and no “expert” likes getting advice from a novice. Yet Simon lowers his nets in faith – despite the obvious, without much hope of success.
Simon Peter’s faith is rewarded. Apparently a gigantic school of blind, insomniac fish happen to be passing by at just that moment – the nets are strained, their boat rocks, they signal wildly for another boat while they try to secure the nets, and even so the two boats almost capsize with the weight of the catch. When it’s all said and done, Simon Peter, James, and John come away with hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars worth of fish.
As the flurry and excitement dies down, Simon Peter recognizes the significance of what happened: He falls down at Jesus’ knees,* and says “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Earlier in the passage, Simon referred to Jesus as “Master,” and now he calls Him “Lord.” The word translated “Lord,” Kyrie – you may recognize this from the liturgy – has a special significance for Luke in his gospel. It has been used 30 times in the first few chapters, and every time it has been used to refer either to the God of Israel or to Jesus. Through the word “Lord,” Luke is trying to identify Jesus as the God of Israel come in the flesh.
So in Jesus’ command over creation, in the fact that even the fish obey Him, Peter recognizes the divine power at work in Jesus, and he responds appropriately – with an awareness of his own inadequacy, he asks Jesus to leave him.
Jesus does not leave him, but commands Simon Peter to follow Him to become a fisher of people. This is not a self-help message. Jesus does not say, “Follow these seven steps.” Nor does He say, “Actually, Peter, you are holy enough.” This is not a message about trying harder and not giving up – “Third time’s the charm.”
This is a message about our own inadequacy, but God’s intention to work through us anyway.
We too, are called to follow and imitate Jesus, and following Jesus includes inviting others to experience God’s Kingdom. It’s important not to rationalize this away because we’re uncomfortable.
At the same time, it’s necessary to clarify what sharing our faith means and what it doesn’t mean. Often times, I think we get uncomfortable about sharing our faith because we have some ideal that we think we have to live up to. We might think that we have to have all the answers, or have a charismatic, outgoing personality, and so we get caught up in our own limitations. Or maybe we think sharing our faith always involves striking up deep, intimate conversations with strangers, or that it involves awkward confrontations and accusations of sin.
A wise, old Benedictine abbot always counseled people who struggled with prayer, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” His point was that you have to start where you are, and not with some ideal of how you should pray.
I wonder if we can’t also say, “Share your faith as you can, not as you can’t.” If you’re the kind of person who has a few close friends, sharing your faith will most likely happen in that context – probably not in one conversation, but spread out over a number of years. If your workplace is hostile to the Christian faith, sharing your faith may mean simply being a person of integrity there. If you like reading, join a book club at the local library. If you have extra time, volunteer for a worthy cause. If you are going through a difficult season in life, recognize that your faithful perseverance is itself a profound witness to God’s presence. And most of all, no matter what, pray – for wisdom, for opportunity, and most of all, for the Holy Spirit to be at work.
The point is to start where you are; to intentionally think through your opportunities and your personality, and not to let your inadequacy get in the way. Chances are, that will still be challenging and uncomfortable. But start where you are. Share your faith as you can, not as you can’t.
*Tangential note – to my knowledge, there is no other example in Hebrew or Greek literature of someone falling at someone’s “knees.” If someone was inventing this account or taking poetic license with details, they wouldn’t put “knees” but “feet.” This detail, along with a few other markers, indicate that Luke’s account is likely based directly off of Peter’s own testimony of the miracle.