by Daniel Harrell
For those keeping count, today is the twelfth day of Christmas, or more to the point liturgically, the eve of Epiphany. Tomorrow, January 6, ranks as the third most important day of the church year, right after Easter and Pentecost. Church-wise, Epiphany historically trumps even Christmas. It was one thing for Israel’s King to be born among Jewish shepherds. Quite another to have him revealed as King of the Gentiles too. Epiphany means revelation, and with the revelation of Jesus to the Magi, God’s plan to save his chosen people turns out to be a plan to save the whole world.
Epiphany enjoys a good bit of irony. The Magi, pagan astrologers from Persia, journey the long distance to adore Israel’s Savior, while Israel’s religious leaders, who know the prophecies inside and out, fail to make what was for them a mere six mile trip. Worse, Israel’s ruler, the crazy King Herod, only wants the baby Jesus dead. Moreover, the newborn king shattered human expectations of royalty. Rather than a Downton Abbey birthday, Jesus arrived amidst destitution, political oppression and scandal—everybody knew Joseph wasn’t the father. And yet angels rejoiced, and before the story is over, it would be the destitute, the oppressed and the scandalized who join Gentiles at the Lord’s table without regard for race, privilege or class. To employ the picture from this morning’s passage, Jesus casts a net wide enough to catch just about everybody.
The story from Luke’s gospel is popular Epiphany reading. Simon Peter has the epiphany here, not as a Gentile, but a working class Jew who profoundly sees himself a sinner in the bright light of deity. Ironically again, Jesus shows himself not with the bright light of thunderous glory, but with an ordinary net full of fish. Granted, it was a net full enough to force Simon to his knees in worship. Commentators make much of Simon’s change of address in regard to Jesus. Awestruck, he replaces the respectful “Master” or “sir” in verse 5 with the reverential “Lord” in verse 8. Seeing himself a sinner now stuck in a boat with the Lord, he presumed he was doomed. With nowhere to go (since the verb swim never appears in the Bible), Simon begged Jesus to depart with words that echo the sentiment expressed by the prophet Isaiah when he first saw the Lord: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
I was reminded of a friend who wanted to end a relationship he was in but the girl he was dating refused to listen. So he lured her out into a boat for an evening sail so he could lower the boom without her running away. He made sure he was out far enough so she wouldn’t try to swim away either. The difference, obviously, is that Jesus intended to start a relationship with Simon, not end one. He told Simon to “fear not,” just like the Lord did with Isaiah and the angels did with the shepherds.
Having never had such a close encounter with divine glory myself, I’ve searched my memory for approximations of awe. The best I could come up with was my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. I’d seen pictures and heard descriptions, but none of that prepared me for my first step to the rim. Driving west to California, I’d detoured through Arizona specifically for see the grand Canyon, but a traffic accident closed the road into the park. Having come this far, I was willing to wait, and after a few hours the road reopened and I was allowed in. No other car was in line. I had the whole canyon to myself. The sun was just setting as I reached the rim and saw the entire earth open beneath me. I literally gasped in both wonder and terror. That the chasm was carved out of the earth over billions of years by the Colorado River only enhanced the wonder. I marveled at the majesty and beauty of intersecting rock and light and depth and height. “You make rivers gush forth in the valleys;” sang the Psalmist, “they flow between the hills… From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.”
Among the many amazing characteristics of the Grand Canyon are the immense geological stratifications that mark the passage of the eras of earth. Go to Israel and you’ll see a similar stratifications, only there the distinctions are archeological rather than geological. While visiting there last year with our church group, we were constantly reminded how to actually walk in the footsteps of Jesus required a shovel. The Holy Land as it existed in Jesus time lay at least five civilizations underground. It wasn’t until we were afloat on the Sea of Galilee, which Luke calls the Lake of Gennesaret, that we could say with any confidence we were standing where Jesus stood (though we needed a boat to do it).
Jesus walked on water in the other gospels, but not in Luke. In Luke, Jesus needed a boat too. Driven out of Nazareth by his neighbors, furious over his appropriating Isaiah’s messianic predictions to himself (no prophet is accepted in his own hometown), Jesus escaped north to Capernaum where he became quite the rock star. He preached sermons that astonished the audience, and then added punch by punching out a few demons and healing diseases on the spot—which always livens a church service. Simon invited Jesus over for lunch afterwards, where his mother-in-law suffered a fever. Not confined to using his power in worship, Jesus rebuked her fever, as he had rebuked the demons, and immediately Simon’s mother-in-law got well, got up and got everybody dessert.
News quickly spread, not surprising given that Capernaum is a small town. Crowds crushed in from all directions with every ailment and illness, and Jesus healed as many as he could before finally having to call it quits for the day. Even God needed a break. Being human is hard. The Capernaum crowd hunted him down the next morning and pressed him all the way the shore where Simon was washing his fishing nets, along with his brother Andrew and their business partners, James and John. Jesus commandeered their vessels for a floating pulpit and then turned to Simon at the benediction and told him to throw his nets back in the water, effectively saying, “Watch this.”
Since Jesus healed his mother-in-law, Simon’s gratitude sufficed to allow him to humor the minister with what Simon knew to be a waste of time. “Master, we’ve fished all night long without a nibble, but if you say so… .” The ensuing haul was so huge that their nets began to break and their boats began to sink. Simon saw himself a sinful man—which turned out to be an ideal qualification for being a disciple.“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus replied, his arm sweeping toward the masses on shore, “from now on you’ll be catching people.”
If you’ve been a Christian for long, it’s likely you’ve heard this passage preached as a prescription for evangelism. Given the popularity of Jesus, these first disciples would have found evangelizing others as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. In our days of pluralism and political sensitivity, evangelizing can feel like being shot ourselves. Given all the bloodshed and bad manners associated with evangelism over the centuries—from the Crusades to the Reformation to awkward conversations on airplanes and fights with family over the holidays—sharing the gospel hasn’t always come off as good news. Maybe if Jesus had called the shepherds to be his first disciples instead of fishermen we’d have had a better analogy to work with. Shepherds don’t kill their catch.
Blogger John Shore, author of a column called Christianity Without the Inanity, advises the following when it comes to evangelism: “One way to show how wonderfully God is working in your life is to stop telling people how God should be working in theirs.” Of course, to read the gospels is to know that Christianity without the inanity is frankly, impossible. Following Jesus just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense—losing your life and loving your enemies and giving what you have to the poor—even if you believe the gospel you probably don’t fully live it. As Simon said, “We are sinful people!” Even after Jesus renamed him Peter, Simon’s faith was hardly as rock-solid as his new name implied. He would deny ever knowing Jesus at the moment his Lord needed him most. His faith couldn’t handle the pressure.
Talking about your faith is like talking about your money—which brings around to the topic of stewardship this Sunday. Faith and finances are both very personal, which may be why Jesus talks about both so much; both say a lot about who we are inside. The old joke is that if you want to know what’s important to somebody you look at their bank account, which would be funny if it wasn’t so true. The Bible regularly portrays money as an obstacle to faith, with Jesus unambiguously declaring that you can’t serve both God and money since to love one is to hate the other. This dichotomy plays out in our passage. Simon rowed his boat ashore where along with the others, “left everything and followed Jesus.” This included not only their boats and their nets and all those fish to be sold for a huge profit, but any future financial security and even their families. Not only did Jesus say you can’t serve God and money together, but “Whoever loves father or mother or son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” I’m not sure I’d call any of this especially good stewardship. Following Jesus just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Not even to the disciples. True, witnessing that miraculous catch and so much more kept them motivated for a while, and granted, they probably figured that following a rock star would make them richer and more popular too. And it was awesome for a while. But then Jesus got crucified, which was horribly disillusioning and downright dangerous for his followers since now the authorities would be after them too. Peter and the rest hide out in fear until the news arrived that Jesus was raised from the dead, which didn’t make any sense. Luke reports Peter ran to the tomb and found Jesus gone. Peter scratched his head in wonder and then went back home. In John’s gospel he went back to work, bcd to his old job on the lake in his boat (which someone must have kept safe knowing how religious experiences don’t last forever). Apparently it was time to get back to life in the real world.
If you’ve been a Christian for long, you’ve had those experiences where faith seems so easy. Full of the spirit, evangelism was no embarrassment, giving no sacrifice and prayer is no problem. Maybe it happened as the result of a powerful short term mission trip, or confronting some great injustice in the world, or participating in a fascinating Bible study, or having an unexpected encounter with grace, or even after an inspiring worship service on Sunday. But then Monday comes and time to get back to normal. Back home. Back to work. Back to the real world.
In John’s gospel, Peter’s epiphany also happened in a boat, only this time Jesus stood on shore. The Lord waved his arms from the bank and beckoned his followers, who are having no fishing luck, to cast their nets on the right side of the boat. It’s true deja vu, except that in John’s gospel Jesus appears resurrected from the dead! But rather than walking out on the water and demanding to know why they were back at their old jobs and not out converting the the planet and changing the world, Jesus has them cast their nets so they’d have something to eat. The ensuing haul was so huge that their nets began to break and their boats began to sink, compelling Peter this time to dive into the water and make a trout-line for the shore where Jesus cooked him breakfast after which he never went back to fishing for fish.
Risen from the dead for the sake of salvation, the resurrected Jesus starts things off by fixing a meal. He could have walked out to the disciples or even floated out to them on clouds surrounded by angels if he’d wanted to—but apparently he’s reserving the big splash for another Day. For now Jesus beckons you ashore too—to both eat what he’s prepared, his own body and blood, and to leave what you have for his sake. The offerings and pledges you leave this morning all support the work of the Lord through your church. It’s Christianity with all the inanity—a foolishness the apostle Paul labels as the very wisdom and power of God that saves us and makes everything new and gives us hope and life. We are in awe.