But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts,
and be ready always to give an answer to every man
that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:
(1 St. Peter iii. 15)
Our Trinity V lections this year coincide conveniently with yesterday’s Feast of St. Peter the Apostle. We have said that Trinity Tide is all about spiritual growth and fertility. And today we are invited to examine some aspects of St. Peter’s life that will better enable us to fertilize and grow the spiritual soil of our common Christian life together. St. Peter’s conversion and sanctification are nothing if they are not difficult, toilsome, and even painful. And so I hope that we might find something of ourselves in the trial of his faith that we read about this morning.
So let us turn to today’s reading from St. Luke’s Gospel. In it we read that the people pressed upon [Jesus] to hear the Word of God…by the lake of Gennesaret. (St. Luke v. 1) Jesus is crowded about by a throng of people, but sees clearly that if he is to be heard he will have to make some space between himself and his listeners. The Galillean fishing industry in Jesus’ time was economically thriving, and so the ports were always thronging with buyers and sellers, importers and exporters. Jesus needs to find a pulpit. The fishermen have just come in from the sea after a long night of fruitless fishing, and are cleaning their nets. So Jesus boards Simon Peter’s boat, and asks him and his companions to launch out a little from the land. From there he preaches to the people. We have no record of what he taught them. What is recorded is what Jesus did, and this will speak far more powerfully than words. So Jesus commands Peter and his friends to launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. (Ibid, 4) The request is curious since the best time for fishing is the night, which is now long over. Peter responds by saying, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing. (Ibid, 5) His own human effort, ingenuity, and craft have yielded him nothing, yet he obeys and says, nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.(Ibid) Peter has derived something from Christ’s preaching, and so now Christ will derive something from Peter’s occupation. And we should not forget that all this is demanded of Peter and his friends, who are by now exhausted, having fished all night, and so, probably had their minds set on sleep. (Matthew Henry: Commentary Luke’s Gospel) But Peter, though he is just beginning to follow Jesus, knows that when his Master calls, he must follow. So, they let down their nets, And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. (Ibid, 6,7) Peter and his friends, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were astonished. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. (Ibid, 8) Peter is overwhelmed by the power of God that he experiences in Person of Jesus Christ. He is so conscious of the radical otherness of God that he witnesses, that he can only feel the distance and difference between himself and his Lord. This is, of course, a dangerous feeling to have. It might lead a man to despair, recognizing as Peter does, that he is wholly unworthy and undeserving of such a presence and power. But on the other hand, it could lead also to spiritual growth and fertility. The first step towards a right relationship with God is the fear of the Lord. For, it is the beginning of wisdom, as a man learns humility and meekness in the presence of the Divine power. Father Mouroux reminds us that man must realize that [he] is dust and ashes before his God; however much he abounds he is always a poverty-stricken thing hanging on the Divine Mercy, and however much he may be purified he is still a sinner face to face with Holiness. (The Meaning of Man, p. 217) And so Peter’s spiritual journey begins with an abrupt and decisive recognition of God’s power in the actions of his Master. Peter finds himself in the presence of what seems to be a great contradiction, where the supernatural touches and transforms the world of nature, and where God is present to the experience of man. His Jewish soul must be overwhelmed as he remembers the words of his people in the Book of Exodus, Let not God speak to us, lest we die. (Ex. 20. 18) Or the words of his forefathers in the Book of Judges, We shall surely die, because we have seen God. (Judges 18. 22) And yet what Peter will come to see is that Grace does not destroy nature but redeems and transforms it. Peter does not die fully and completely, and yet something inside of him does begin to recede, shrink, and peter out in the presence of Christ.
Of course our Gospel lesson records only the first baby steps that Peter makes into the conversion and transformation that Jesus will bring to his life. Peter will go through so much more as he learns, the hard way, that his own good intentions, enthusiasm, and determination to follow Christ will avail him nothing by way of redemption and salvation. Peter, perhaps more than all others, save St. Paul, will come to experience the distance that prevails between himself and Jesus, before he will be fully overtaken and remade by the radical otherness that Jesus will infuse into his heart and soul. And make no mistake; Peter follows Jesus to the very end of his Master’s life and ministry. And yet progressively and increasingly Peter runs up against the powerlessness and ineffectiveness of his own zeal and passion to become a disciple of Jesus. Just prior to his crucifixion, Jesus says to his disciples, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. (St. Matthew xxvi. 31) Peter’s response is this: Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended…Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee. (St. Matthew xxvi. 33, 35) Jesus assures Peter that, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. (Ibid, 34) Of course, the very same came to pass, and Peter wept bitterly. (Ibid, 75)
Now returning to today’s Gospel, Jesus said to Peter, following the miraculous draught of fishes, Fear not; from henceforth, thou shalt catch men. (St. Luke v. 10) Peter has always been acknowledged as the chief and head of the Apostles of Jesus. Peter began to catch men through his own response to Jesus, beginning with today’s miracle and throughout all the trials and tribulations which his own faith endured to Calvary and beyond. The other Apostles and Disciples followed Peter not merely because of his zeal and passion, but also because of his truly human and honest relation to Jesus Christ. Peter, after all, is always fighting tooth and nail to be Jesus’ friend. For, despite his slow learning curve, he longs desperately to be faithful to his Master. Yet perseverance and persistence, zeal and passion can find their perfection only if and when they are received as the gifts of God’s Grace in man’s heart and soul. Peter could become a true friend and disciple of Christ only when he discovered the futility of his own good works and intentions, and allowed himself to be caught up in the net of Christ’s draught.
So what does it mean to be caught up in Christ’s net? It does not mean that Peter is any the less overawed by his Master. For, as Father Mouroux reminds us: his love is always penetrated with the great wave of adoration that comes from the depth of his being, and is [still] clothed in pure and holy fear before the Majesty of Him who loves him…, (The Meaning of Man, p. 217) who says, with St. Francis of Assisi, ‘O blest beloved Lord and Master, what I am I compared with thee.’ And yet now it is through his membership in the Body of the same Master that he lives, and moves, and has his [new] being. Now he realizes that he is being uplifted in thankfulness for the unspeakable gift of the mighty God, [through] the charity which passes the thought, desire, and capacity of [his] created spirit…[so that] he cannot but overflow with praise and benediction. (Ibid, 217) And so the word of Christ dwells richly in him. (Col. iii. 16) Or, to put it another way: It is not [he] who lives, but Christ who lives in [him]; for the life that [he] now lives in the flesh, he lives by the faith of the Son of God. (Gal. ii. 20) Thus he commands the fish that he has caught in Christ’s net to do the same. To be of one mind, having compassion one of another, [loving] as brethren, [being] pitiful, [being] courteous: not rendering evil for evil, nor railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing…[eschewing] evil, doing good, seeking peace, and ensuing it. (1 St. Peter iii. 8-11) In other words, he exhorts his fish to live in and through Christ Jesus who has loved us and given himself for us. (Gal. ii. 20) Realizing that he has been caught up into the net of Christ, he cannot help but catch others up in the same net. And that net is the safe and secure enclosure that rescues men from the deep waters of human sin, and secures and establishes them in the uninterrupted and persistent love, forgiveness, generosity, and hope that Christ offers to all men.
In closing, this morning, let us follow the example of St. Peter who discovered painfully who he was to become as the chief among Christ’s fishers of men only by being caught up and into the net of Jesus Christ. Let us grow and become fertile spiritually with St. Peter by allowing Christ to catch us up into the net of his desire for us. The Divine Love that we find in Jesus Christ can flourish and bloom [only if] it is welcomed; it can act [only if] it is activated, [for] all the infinitude of its power comes from the adoring passivity in which it lies open to God.(Mouroux, p. 217) To be caught up in Christ’s net means that we must, with St. Peter, forsake all and follow Jesus. (St. Luke v. 11) To forsake all means, too, that through the desire of his mercy and the strength of his power, Jesus will ignite our souls to a new kind of fishing, real fishing, the fishing for men to be caught up in his net, even here at our Church of St. Michael and All Angels. Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: