Third Sunday of Easter
There once was a man in Galilee who was a fisherman. He did not work at this alone, for his brother and at least two friends were partnered with him. One night, he and his partners go fishing. They cast their nets and toil through the night, but catch nothing. Dejected, they return to shore in the morning. After a long night of fruitless work, it must be hard to tend to the necessary chores—harder, at least, than had they caught fish. However, tend to their nets they must, so they clean them and do any mending that they need.
Before they knew it, however, a crowd approached the shoreline. They are following a man who is talking to them, but they are following to a point where it looks like they are herding him. The crowd reaches the docks, and this teacher looks down at the fisherman and asks to use his boat. The teacher is going to continue teaching, using the fisherman's boat as his lectern.
"Sure, why not...it's been one of those days. We'll do it," the fisherman might have thought. So, the fisherman, a parter or two, and this teacher get into the boat and push out a little from shore. The teacher teaches. The fishermen listen or nap or continue to look after their nets.
After a while, the teacher has completed his lesson. He looks down at the fisherman and says, "Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch." Now, you might imagine a bit of a confused look on the fisherman's face. They're used to fishing at night, when the fish are in shallower waters and when their nets are harder for the fish to see. Now, it is the middle of the day and this teacher—what does he know about fishing?—tells him to go to deeper water and catch some fish. "This teacher certainly knows a lot—he's taught a convincing lesson—but he's got a thing to learn about fishing. Okay, here's an opportunity for me to teach the teacher," the fisherman could have thought.
"Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net," the fisherman says. So, they go out into the deeper water, let down their nets, and pull in a catch so large, their nets start to break! They signal to the rest of their partners for help. They need the other boat the carry this large catch of fish. The boats are filled, and they begin to sink.
The fisherman is amazed at this. He must have thought, "Who is this teacher that even HE knows how to catch fish, and at a time when we don't catch fish?" The fisherman falls at the teacher's feet and says, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" The fisherman recognizes the teacher as something more than a mere teacher...something more than a regular man. This teacher was sent from God! And he recognizes in himself a sinner, unable to stand in the presence of the divine.
You might recall me preaching on this text over two months ago. I asked you then:
If you were to meet Jesus today, how would you react? If you came face to face with the Son of God, what would you say? Would you recognize Him? Do you even know how to recognize Him? Better yet, what would you do if you found yourself in the very physical presence of God the Father?
The Galilean fisherman, Simon Peter, did find himself in the presence of Son of God, the teacher. His reaction is, perhaps, the knee-jerk reaction of any mortal who is in the presence of the divine. Man has every reason to fear God. God created man, and man transgresses against what God commands and doesn't fulfill what God expects; why wouldn't man expect to be smitten by God, especially when they find themselves in the presence of God. Peter did it here. Isaiah did so in his sixth chapter.
And it is a valid way to approach being in God's presence. As we are taught the law, we are chiefly taught that we should "fear, love, and trust in God above all things." Fear is the first order of our relationship with God according to the Law. So, we are prone to recite penitential psalms when we come into God's presence: Psalm 22, Psalm 51, and this verse from Psalm 25: "Do not remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions; According to Your mercy remember me, For Your goodness' sake, O LORD."
So, my questions from two months ago are still valid. Do you come into this house with even a modicum of fear? Do you approach the rail to receive the body and blood of Christ with a bit of shame and trembling? After all, you are a sinful mortal coming into the very real presence of the immortal, holy God.
He created each of us, and we each transgress against what God commands and don't fulfill what God expects—that is to say, we sin against God. Remember, then, that which is sinful cannot exist in the presence of that which is holy. What is there to keep God from striking any one of us (or all of us) down right here and now, in his presence, for our sin?
That is why Peter said, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" That is why Isaiah said, "Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts."
But we also have the clear invitation from Scripture:
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.
And so we say at the beginning of the Divine Service:
O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee and justly deserved Thy temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray Thee of Thy boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.
It's now three years later. The fisherman is back in Galilee after have traveled through the region of Judea and Samaria, following that very same Teacher. He and ten other men had done so and had just returned from Jerusalem where the Teacher was crucified and on the third day following, rose from the dead. He had appeared to these men behind locked doors, twice. He had given them instructions to go back to Galilee and wait for Him.
So, they are there, waiting. Old habits die hard. This fisherman decides he's going to go fishing. Six of the other men decide to go with him. And, just like that night three year ago, their efforts were fruitless. Morning breaks and the men are about the head back to shore; after all, there are chores to attend to, even when there is no catch.
Before they could get back, however, a man is standing on the shore and calls out to the boats: "Children, have you any food?" Children...it's what a teacher would lovingly call his disciples; a clue to who this man on shore is. "No," they answer him. "Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some," he replies, another clue to who he is. He is telling them where and when to catch, just like Peter was told three years earlier.
They do as he bids them, and just like three years earlier, the catch was large; so large this time, they had trouble bringing it in. John turns to Peter and says, "It is the Lord!" It's likely they all recognized who He was by now, so I like to imagine John's words being said with giddy excitement. He's risen! He's come to Galilee, now, like He said He would; like He instructed us to do!
This time, however, Peter's reaction is different. This time, there is no bowing at the feet and begging for mercy. This time, there is no fear of impending judgment. This time, Peter rushes to get to his Teacher. He puts on his outer garment, jumps into the Sea of Galilee, and swims to shore.
Now, we are prone to see this as an act of excitement that the man they have been with for three years is with them again, and there is some of that, to be sure. But there is more going on here. Recall that three years earlier, Jesus responded to Peter, "Do not be afraid." Here, Peter is not afraid. He knows His Teacher; He knows His Teacher comes not to judge, but came to be judged, was judged, and brings forgiveness and healing.
John helps paint the picture. Before jumping into the water, Peter puts on his coat. He gets it sopping wet in order to rush to be by His Teacher's side. What we have here, dear hearers, is a picture of Baptism. In Baptism, we were made wet in order to be by our Lord's side, or as I could have said last week, to be in our Lord's side. It is in Baptism, then, that we are clothed in the robes of righteousness, having been washed clean in the blood of the spotless Lamb of God. It is as St. Paul wrote, "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ...There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus."
No condemnation...that's why Peter was eager to leave the boat and get to Jesus. Peter was no longer afraid; He couldn't be for He was in His Lord Jesus Christ, forgiven and not condemned. So it was also with Isaiah, who had a coal touched to his lips, taking away his iniquity and removing his fear so that he could eagerly reply to the question, "Whom shall I send?" with "Here am I! Send me."
So it is also, with you. You can come into this house knowing full well that you have put on Christ because you are Baptized. You are found to be in Christ, therefore there is no condemnation to you. Oh, to be sure, there's room for righteous fear, according to the Law, but that fear is allayed according to the Gospel which is found in Christ who has died for you, according to the Law, but who is now risen and ascended for you and comes to you today and every day in His Word and Sacraments to give you forgiveness, life, and salvation! "Do not be afraid."
That is the answer to my question earlier—What is to keep God from striking us down?: It is Jesus and that we have been put into Him by way of Baptism into His death and resurrection. And because we have been clothed in Christ's righteousness through Baptism, now it is His Son that God sees when He looks at us; since His Son already bore God's wrath on our behalf, by the will of the Father, He no longer has wrath for His Son—for us—to bear. Through that, we can rightly say Christ died for you and you have received the benefits of His death on the cross. Yes, we each sin, but Christ has atoned for those sins, and by grace through faith, our sins are covered by the blood of the Lamb—washed off in the pure Word-driven water of Holy Baptism.
This gives us a righteous boldness and confidence, as the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes:
Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
St. Paul confirms this when he writes that in Christ Jesus our Lord we have boldness and access with confidence through faith in Him.
As our Gospel ends, Jesus speaks with Peter after breakfast. Three times He asks Peter, "Do you love Me?" We are to recall the episode at Jesus' arrest, before which Jesus told Peter that he would deny Him three times. We are also to recall that when Jesus had said this, He also told Peter that Peter would return to Him and be restored: "[A]nd when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren."
So, now, three times he is asked, "Do you love Me?" Three times he answers, "Yes, I do." And each time, he is told to tend to the flock. Peter, who was once an ordinary Galilean fisherman and who was made a fisher of men, is now returned and restored and made leader of this group of disciples. He is told to feed this flock. With what is he to feed them? With the same grace he has received and which gave him the confidence to leap from the boat and swim to shore to be by his Teacher's side.
It's that same grace with which you who are gathered here are fed with, too. It's the grace that reminds you that you are clothed is the righteousness of Christ who was crucified for you and received the full blast of God's wrath intended for you. Now, there is no wrath left, only the love that God has for His Son, which His Son exchanged with you for the wrath you deserve: "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus." It's the grace by which you were welcomed into this family through the waters of Holy Baptism. It's the grace by which your faith is fed as you receive your Lord's body and blood, given as bread and wine. It's the grace which grants you the boldness and confidence to walk into this house and receive the holy things of God. It's the grace which says to you that you are forgiven for all of your sins.