By Rev. Sarah Buteux
February 6, 2022
Epiphany 5, Year C
(To watch this morning’s service click here. The sermon begins at the 34 minute mark.)
I know it says in Proverbs that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but I sometimes wonder if “fear of the Lord,” isn’t where it all went wrong for religious people (1:7).
From Adam and Eve hiding from God in the garden to Jonah jumping ship to avoid both God and Nineveh, to the Israelites wiping out entire peoples like the Canaanites, the Amorites, or the Amalekites lest they be defiled by false religion and displease said God, on down through the ages, it would seem that fear has done much more to separate us from God than it ever has to draw us into more loving relationships.
This is so, in large part, because fear is contagious. Fear is hard to contain. It would be one thing if people could fear God and leave it at that, but from what I’ve seen, people who fear God have a tendency to fear others too, especially anyone whose otherness might draw the attention of a God they are already trying to avoid.
Fear makes it very hard to love: hard to love God, hard to love our neighbors, hard to love ourselves or anyone else.
And yes, I know that the word “fear” in this proverb, is better translated as “reverence” or “awe.” It really ought to read: “to revere the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
But for whatever reason, “fear” was the word they chose when they went to print, and that fear has caused a lot of damage.
What are you afraid of? What are some things that you fear? Just go ahead and shout some things out.
Clowns. Climate Change. Covid. Spiders. Death. Failure.
When we think about what we fear, we think about things with the potential to hurt us or harm us. We think of those things that threaten us.
But my friends, hear me when I say that God…God should never be one of those things.
God is not an angry old man up in the sky just looking for an excuse to harm you or waiting for an opening to punish you or watching for your next misstep so he can teach you a lesson.
God is not out to get you.
And yet the sad truth is that so much of religion is based on the idea that God is, and God will if, God forbid, you step out of line or fail to do exactly what God wants you to do.
I have the sense that Peter was raised amongst people who feared God in precisely this way. I have this sense, because when Jesus tells him to push out into deep water and they miraculously catch so many fish that their nets are about to break, so many fish that their boats are about to sink, Peter’s first reaction is not joy.
It is not excitement.
It is not even relief.
Peter’s first reaction is fear.
I think it is worth taking a moment and asking: Why would a fisherman of all people be afraid of a miraculously large catch of fish? I mean, it’s a little strange when you think about it. You’d think an huge haul of fish would be a huge affirmation for Peter. #BLESSED, right?
But it all goes back to the idea that miracles, at least in the Bible, are never just miracles. Miracles are always signs; signs of God afoot and at work in the world.
And if Peter was the least bit familiar with the prophets of his own religious tradition, as I’m sure he was, he would have known that when God goes fishing, it is not to save people but to judge them (thanks to saltproject.org for this info).
He would have known that passage in Jeremiah where God says:
But now, I will send for many fishermen…and they will catch them (“them” meaning all those Israelites who have disobeyed me). After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks. My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from me, nor is their sin concealed from my (sight) (16-16-17).
Peter would have heard the words of Amos (4:2) read in the synagogue:
The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fishhooks.
He would have been raised with that warning from Habakkuk (1:14-15) ringing in his ears. You know, the one about the enemy brining you up with a hook, dragging you out with his net, and rejoicing over your poor sad carcass. (Yeah, we all know that one).
My point is that Peter would not have warm fuzzy feelings associated with the idea of God as a fisherman.
With God as a shepherd, sure. With God as a nursing mother, an eagle, a rock, absolutely. But God with access to nets and hooks? No. Not so much.
So fast forward to our reading for today and maybe you can better understand why this miracle in particular would have left Peter feeling particularly exposed.
Today’s gospel reading finds us on the banks of Lake Gennesaret, also known as the Sea of Galilee – where Jesus has been teaching the crowds from Peter’s boat. We are not privy to the sermon, which makes me think it is more of the same that we heard back in chapter 4.
Jesus has been roaming the countryside to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor – the year of Jubilee – the year when all debts will be forgiven, slaves will be freed, and everyone will rest from their labor and share all they have stored up with one another so no one will go hungry.
The year of Jubilee was celebrated every 50 years. It was a sabbath of sabbaths. It began on the day of atonement, a day of confession and reconciliation when everyone’s sins were forgiven. And it was a time of grace and mercy, a time to celebrate God’s love and provision for all.
But Jesus, being Jesus, hasn’t just come to preach about God’s grace and provision, he has come to demonstrate it. And so at the conclusion of his sermon, he turns to Peter and says: “Psst. Hey man. Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (Wink)
Which would have made Peter terribly nervous right off the bat because he already knows, after fishing all night, that there are no fish to be had. He tries to warn Jesus, but complies anyway and lo and behold, when they let down their nets they are immediately overwhelmed by more fish than they can handle.
At which point Peter falls on his knees before Jesus and says: “Get away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
If Peter wasn’t sure before he is fully convinced now that this Jesus has come from God. But rather than see that as a good thing, Peter is afraid. He wants nothing to do with this holy man because he doesn’t want God to have anything to do with him.
Peter’s biggest obstacle to following Jesus in this moment is fear. Not the fear of walking away from all he knows: his family, his livelihood, or even the profits from his biggest catch ever. Jesus hasn’t asked him to do any of that yet.
No, his biggest obstacle to following Jesus is his fear that he is unworthy, his fear that God will see him for who he really is and reject him or punish him for not being good enough.
Peter’s biggest obstacle to following Jesus is his fear of God.
Which is why the first words out of Jesus mouth are?
“Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
It is such a tender moment, because Jesus sees straight into Peter’s heart. He knows exactly what Peter is afraid of and why. And so he takes that ancient image of God sending out fisherman to catch sinners so they can be punished and turns it upside down and inside out.
“Do not be afraid (Peter); from now on you will be catching people.”
Jesus lets Peter know that God is not out to get him.
Jesus lets Peter know that he hasn’t come to catch Peter in his sins…or you…or me…or anyone else for that matter, but to catch us all up in a movement of love and mercy.
Jesus has come to proclaim the dawning of a new era, a new kind of kingdom built on love and grace. He has not come to collect on anyone’s debts but to redeem us all for something more. “For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17).
Jesus has come to proclaim grace for all – and not only that – he wants Peter of all people to come with him. Poor, untrained, unworthy, unpredictable Peter! He invites Peter to help him get the word out, to become a new kind of prophet, the sort who catches people, not to punish them, but to set them free.
Jesus wants Peter to be part of his mission, his mission to spread the good news that there is nothing to fear because God loves us… already…before we’ve done a thing to deserve it. There is nothing to fear because God has forgiven us…. already… forgiven us before we’ve even had a chance to ask. That is the gospel.
As I’ve said before and I will no doubt say again, the gospel is not a threat. The gospel is ever and always an invitation.
And it is such good invitation that Peter and James and John drop their nets immediately and follow. It is such good news that they leave all those fish behind for the taking; a sign, if you will, that in God’s kingdom everything – everything from love to grace to forgiveness to flounder, everything from sardines to salvation – all of it is free.
Friends, Peter was right about one thing. He wasn’t worthy. And he would go on to prove that time and time again. Peter wasn’t worthy, but he was wanted. He wasn’t perfect, but he was loved. And Jesus would go on to prove that every time he forgave Peter, took him back, and put him to work for the kingdom.
He sent Peter out as one forgiven to proclaim forgiveness.
He sent Peter out as someone loved unconditionally to proclaim God’s unconditional love.
He sent Peter out as someone loved perfectly, wholly, completely “because (God’s) perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18).”
Jesus built his church on Peter, so that people like you and me would know that our worthiness was never the point.
He broke bread and shared a cup with Peter on the night he was betrayed, so that people like you and me would know that
this feast and the Church that hosts it,
this table and the Church that shelters it,
was never meant to be a place of fear or condemnation but a place of second chances and forever tries….
a safe place to come and repent and start over….
a place to drop all that would hold us back from God’s love
that we too might follow.