And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him (St. Luke 5:10-11.)
In his most influential work, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—Lutheran pastor, theologian, and 20th century martyr—wrote these words to describe the kind of call we hear in today’s Gospel: ‘The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.’ For Bonhoeffer, death by hanging would come at the hands of Nazi executioners; Simon Peter, the called one in today’s Gospel, died some 1900 hundred years earlier—executed with the same kind of wood and nails which temporarily silenced his Master and Lord, but for both these men, separated by the blink of an eye in the kingdom of God, their deaths at the hands of the Evil One’s disciples were merely the last stage of a life-long resistance against the dark forces which surround us and seek to own our souls. When confronted by the Lord of life and death, whether on the banks of Lake Gennesaret or in Word and Sacrament, the only reasonable response is to surrender; the only logical posture is to fall on our knees and die.
Human beings, however, in our wounded state hate these two activities (surrendering and kneeling)—we don’t want to surrender because we know that to surrender is to die, and death haunts humanity like nothing else. In so many ways, last week’s beautiful prophecy from St. Paul is much easier for us to handle: a future in which God’s children rule the new heaven and new earth as co-heirs with Christ and the living, breathing fulfillment of all which Adam and Eve were supposed to be. This future sounds pretty great, but the idea that this ultimate elevation of the human person must come through a complete and utter surrender to the God we’ve wronged is really the great dividing line between real Christianity and the American folk religions which haunt our land. The Christian knows this surrender means a death to our wants and desires, a death to our prejudices and fears, a death to the ungodly enjoyments of our former lives. As an example, when Christian missionaries were kidnapped and taken to the land of the Vikings, they refused to accommodate their faith to the barbarous ways of their captors. It didn’t matter how “alive” or “authentic” the Viking chieftain felt when he was raiding villages, stabbing peasants, and raping virgins, to be part of the new life in Christ meant forever forsaking an entire way of life—it meant death. But incredibly when confronted by Christ in Word and Sacrament, the mighty Viking warriors surrendered and chose to die for their new Master and Lord; they knew in this encounter with the divine they had to put to death their former way of life. In the end, the God of Christian slaves vanquished the murderous gods of the pagans without raising a sword. Why? Well, the Vikings, very used to evaluating a contestant on the field of battle, understood they were outmatched by the Lord of Creation.
It is this same Lord Peter faced on the deck of his fishing boat. Jesus by this point in His public ministry had already become something of a sensation as He loudly proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was at hand: the God of Israel was preparing to liberate His people from their oppressors. The miracles of healing, which come before and after today’s miracle of abundant fish, are a living testimony to the compassion and love the Father feels for His people—the love which motivated the creation of all things in the beginning and now motivates the redemption of that creation through Christ and by the Holy Spirit. These miracles were a sign the prophecies of old were coming true, and that despite the strength of the Jews’ enemies (the army of Rome and the culture of Greece) there would be supernatural deliverance. But, what becomes increasingly confounding about Jesus’ messiahship—His reclaiming of the anointed King David’s crown—is that He isn’t fulfilling the expectations of the people but rather seems to have His own agenda and purpose which transcends 1st or 21st century politics. Crowds are thronging Jesus desiring to ‘hear the word of God,’ to hear the marching orders for the people of God against their enemies, and they get it, but it isn’t what they expect. What they get is the Sermon on the Mount, or here, the sermon on a lake. Luke doesn’t give us the sermon here in the narrative because he places such a sermon in the next chapter, but it would have been common practice for Jesus to repeat His royal proclamation moving from town to town, person to person, soul to soul. What is revealed in the sermon, and also in Jesus’ orders to the apostles, is that an enemy much greater than Rome has to be defeated by the messiah and His chosen laborers; the enemy who sponsors so much of the evil in the world must be wrestled to the ground and assassinated with his own twisted weaponry: Satan must be destroyed, and God’s people will be part of his defeat.
How though does Jesus plan to defeat Satan? By dying of course. Christ’s death on the cross is the ultimate renunciation of this evil world and the great moment when Satan’s best weapon against humanity—the death we spread through sin—pierces through the heart of Jesus and mortally stabs Satan on the other side. Our Lord’s selfless sacrifice of Himself for the sake of the creatures He loves breaks the Evil One’s power over humanity by revealing that not even death can keep God’s people from the love of their Creator, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ forever shows that death’s only true sting is the crushing blow each Christian man or women’s death makes against Satan’s mad rebellion. He can’t have us because Christ won’t let him.
Now, Jesus making a bunch of fish appear might not seem like it has any connection to this death-struggle for the universe, but it is miracles like this one which reveal just who it is that marched from Mary’s virgin womb to the cross-shaped battlefield upon which human sin lost and divine love forever won. Jesus stands on Peter’s boat and commands the fish to be caught because the God/Man is the same divine Word who caused the first fish to feel the water against its scales. This God/Man is the new Adam preparing for new creation: the ultimate human come to gift our redeemed-rebellious race with the authority and dignity and beauty which humanity was always meant to proudly bear. God has come to restore the crown and identity of Adam to humanity, and as we see today, the creation itself longs to do the will of its Creator; it longs to rise and serve the first man not to give His royal human dignity away for sin’s burning slavery.
And so, Peter and the other first apostles, find themselves in the presence of the Savior of not just their souls and bodies, but the Savior of the human project; The Savior who sits in a Galilean fishing boat, and on the highest throne of heaven, commanding His men and women to die to the fallen world and live in joyful preparation for the world to come. As our Lord says to His disciples, ‘Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Matthew 10:39). This command is not some morbid fixation on death, nor is it a special command for super Christians to follow; rather, every one of us is being told the truth about our current situation by ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ Himself. Our Creator is telling us we were made for more than this fallen, temporary world can possibly offer us. This truth does not mean that we cannot be joyful, we should be the most joyous people on earth, but our joy and work and life must be directed toward the life to come in such a way that men and angels and demons see a new kind of person in their midst—dead and cut off from the lies of our age, made alive and new in the assured promises of the age to come.
As Peter himself tells us today: ‘Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous: Not rendering evil for evil, or reviling for reviling: but on the contrary, blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing’ (1 St. Peter 3:8-10). He goes on to quote Psalm 34, ‘What man is he that desires to live, and would see good days…completely turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayer; the face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to root out the remembrance of them from the earth’ (Psalm 34:12,14-16). On that day on the Lake of Gennesaret, St. Peter looked into the eyes of the Lord and knew his utter unworthiness to be in the presence of the Holy One of Israel. But, the Savior who descended from heaven to become a human man simply will not allow our unworthiness to get in the way of His mission, and by the grace of God, our mission as well. You may think you are unworthy for the calling Jesus beckons you to take up (because you are) but that’s okay because the Lamb is worthy. Christ is worthy, and when He commands us to take up our cross and follow Him, we need not ever worry about our worth ever again. We can leave behind the yesterday man: the human we were 10 years ago, one day ago, one minute ago. We can leave the old man behind, forsake it all and follow Him. We can die and say right along with Master Bonhoeffer, in the last words of the final sermon he gave to his fellow prisoners, ‘This is for me the end, the beginning of life.’