Fear, as we all know, is a powerful motivator. History is full of proof of fear’s ability to keep awful people in power—and if we look deep enough, we also see how awful people are motivated by their own fears.
But we also know from the biblical account that not all fear is a reaction to evil. Our text today is a prime example of a theophany text (a visible manifestation of God) resulting in fear of Jesus Christ. But in Scripture, such fear is often more akin to awe than it is to cowering: Jesus says to Simon Peter, “Do not be afraid,” after Peter and the other fishermen are described as being overwhelmed with awe. Literally, the translation “amazed” is actually two words in Greek: a state of astonishment from an unusual event (word 1) encircled (word 2). So Peter and the others, as they looked at the haul of fish that had no business being caught, were caught up and surrounded by a sense of astonishment that filled the space.
In the textual point below, I lay out the fact that this is not the first miraculous thing that Peter sees Jesus do. But, this will be the first time that Peter calls Jesus Lord, or “Master.” As I do with many of Peter’s reactions in the gospels, I wonder what it was about this moment that had such a profound effect upon him. Surely, he hadn’t forgotten what he had already seen and heard, but was there something to Jesus proving himself to be a better “master” of the vocation that Peter himself had mastered? In other words, did this astonishing display of goodness and bounty from Jesus’ hands hit closer to home and more personally for Peter because he experienced it as more than a mere witness?
As you’ll see from the Illustration Idea I highlight below, I happen to think that it was a layering of all these things that led to this moment being the linchpin in Peter’s call to discipleship. And yet, this sort-of a personal theophany (as evidenced by the singular forms of the verbs; see textual point below) also seems necessary. Something “clicked” inside Simon Peter on that boat (and they would continue to click throughout his time as a disciple). How else do we explain, as Justo González points out, that he and the other fishers leave their trade at the height of their career, uncaring about the catch of fish that almost sank their boat?
Something changed in Peter, because when Jesus tells him not to fear, Jesus also knows that Peter has already heard and answered his invitation to be a disciple: “from now on you will be catching people.” It isn’t a question or a command, but a statement of fact. Having experienced the abundant goodness of God, Peter’s heart and soul have already been connected to it by the Spirit’s transforming work. Abundant goodness towards others, including himself, is the only thing he has seen from Jesus Christ since the moment they met. Can you even imagine?
In the painting, “Fishing for Souls” William Hemmerling wrote at the top: “God is smiling upon His Creation. Life is very Good” and he depicts some of the humans with their arms raised towards heaven, others working nets or fishing poles. Lower down in the painting, there are fishing boats called Faith, Hope, and Charity. You get not only a sense of the large crowds (often Luke’s way of pointing to Jesus’ public impact), but also of the joy and goodness the call to discipleship includes.
Even when we know we are not good enough, unworthy, sinners who fall at God’s feet, as Peter voices here, Jesus lifts us up and tells us to not be afraid and invites us to the party. Though it was a show of power—as it often is—that caused Simon Peter to react with fear, it was just as much that Jesus consistently and constantly used his power to help other people that overwhelmed him. It was not just his power, but God’s goodness that encircled Peter and the other fishermen.
We might even say that God consistently shows that his goodness is his power.
Finding himself surrounded by God’s love and goodness, Peter sees the truth that he doesn’t belong as he is, a human like you and me who often use our power for ourselves. Instead of doing as Peter tells him to, Jesus, the embodiment of goodness, grace, love, everything that is good and beautiful and true, tells Peter that from now on, he will be doing the same thing: through teaching, through healing, through provision and care—all expressions of God’s goodness—Peter and the disciples become people who help others know how they have been overwhelmed in the net of God’s powerful goodness and love.
The focus is very much on Simon Peter and Jesus in this selection. Every time the other disciples are mentioned, it is as a note to remind us of their presence, and most of the verb forms are in the singular, referring only to Peter. To me, this speaks to the power of influence people have on one another.
This influence begins with Jesus, of course. This passage is not the first time that Simon Peter and Jesus meet and interact in the Gospel of Luke. Earlier, in 4.38-41, Jesus is at Peter’s house; there he heals the mother-in-law and spends the evening healing and performing exorcisms on the number of people brought to him there. Presumably, Peter witnesses all of this, and even hears the demons yell that Jesus is the Messiah. So when Jesus asks to use his boat in order to be heard better by the crowds, he’s already gotten some credentials with Peter. Influenced, then, by both Jesus’ teaching and his works, Peter agrees to cast out his nets even though, as an experienced fisherman, he knows it’s a bit of a fool’s errand. When Jesus shows himself to be all-powerful yet again, Simon Peter is overwhelmed with awe to be witnessing, yet again, the unimaginable goodness right in front of him.
It also seems that Peter has influence on the other fishers. Might he be the head partner of this two-boat enterprise with James and John? That they are all described as leaving the full nets (and everything else) in that instant to follow after Jesus and become his disciples—even though Jesus is technically only speaking to Peter—shows, at the very least, the influence that Simon Peter’s experience and witness had on his fellow fishers. It is an encouragement to us that part of becoming a “fisher of people” with God is allowing others in to witness our own experiences of God.
I’ve recently gotten around to joining the Avengers bandwagon, agreeing to watch all of the movies in the “Avengers Universe” with my boyfriend. We’re only a few movies in (and we’re watching them in the order of their story timeline, not cinematic release) but the basic super hero pattern facing the “big bad” is a universal trope. Plus, I have heard enough spoilers about Thanos to know that a real bad guy looms over the whole storyline… Bad guys are feared because of the way they use their power to do such great harm and evil.
I think that watching these movies and thinking about people who have been “most feared” throughout history is why Peter and the other fisher’s fear caught my attention so starkly this time. We often talk about how our fear in God, as awe, is right because God is holy and powerful. When we are hit smack dab in the middle of the face with it, we cannot help but feel our own sinfulness and lack in comparison—as Peter does here. But what if we consider all that Peter has seen and is overwhelmed by? What he has witnessed and experienced does not just reveal God’s agency and ability (i.e., power), but also God’s motivation, which guides his agency? Along with being holy, and maybe even, we might say, as part of being holy, God is love and God is good. Might we also consider that Peter is afraid because he is overwhelmed with the goodness of God? He’s seen Jesus heal his mother-in-law and countless others, he’s heard Jesus cast out demons and preach the good news to a crowd, and now he’s witnessed Jesus command nature to produce a bounty for him and his colleagues. Glory as goodness, overflowing. I repeat again, the only thing that Jesus puts into the world is goodness. Unlike the “big bads” that we fear for wreaking havoc, we fear Jesus for the way he abundantly gives goodness. And in answer to this, God himself commands us to not be afraid of all the good God does for his world. In other words, it might be good for us to get used to it…
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 6, 2022
Luke 5:1-11 Commentary