I had the privilege to preach at Emmanuel Church Northwood on Sunday 26th June 2016 at the BCP Holy Communion Services. I also preached a slightly modified version of this sermon on Wednesday 29th June at the midweek BCP Communion Service. The passage was Luke 5.1-11 and this was the first Sunday after the UK democratically decided to vote to Leave the European Union in the referendum on the 23rd of June 2016.
On Thursday our country braved the wind and the rain to head to the polls to vote on the EU Referendum.
The polls closed at ten and the country waited. It waited through the night as the different areas declared their votes. By breakfast time it became clear that the result a vote to leave the European Union. This is one of those moments where we know that we stand at the crest of history in the making. Whether we personally endorse the result, or whether we voted to remain it is clear that the voice of democracy has spoken in such a way that the political landscape has been fundamentally changed for a generation, overnight.
We have all seen the heated discussions in the run up to the referendum, in the papers, on the internet, in churches and at pubs. There have also been campaign rallies and assemblies, with crowds of people wanting to hear what the respective sides had to say, wanting to figure out what they thought of it all and whether or not they would vote, and if so – how they would vote.
In a way, this atmosphere of discussion and curiosity is very similar to the reaction of the people to Jesus in the Gospels. There are numerous occasions when we read that all the people came out of the towns and cities to come and hear Jesus speak. Our passage today is one of those occasions. Jesus was by the Lake of Gennesaret. He had been preaching throughout Judea at the synagogues and healing the sick, including Simon’s mother-in- law.
Today the crowd was gathered around him, listening to him as he spoke the Word of God. Normally when someone preaches or speaks on the street it’s possible for a small crowd of people to gather around to see and hear them. Yet today there were too many people. It’s likely that people would have been peering at the backs of other people’s heads and struggling to hear Jesus’ voice faintly on the breeze. And so Jesus turns to Simon, a fisherman he had been staying with, and asked him to put his boat out just off the shore so that the people could see and hear him. Jesus then continued to preach the Word of God to the crowd!
This is such a fascinating thing for us to note. So often for us preaching the word of God can almost be short hand for declaring that Jesus has died on the Cross for our Sins and that he rose again, a promise that all those who believe in his name will join him in the final resurrection when the broken and hurting creation melts away to be replaced by the new creation filled with the heavenly presence of God. This is the Gospel which we believe and which we confess in the Creeds. Yet the Gospel is more than just a story of what has been done for us, but is of a God who loves us and desires to communicate with us! That’s why Jesus preached the Word of God to the crowds, to prophesy God’s continuing faithfulness to his people.
Once Jesus had finished preaching, he turns to Simon and asks him to head out to deeper water and put the nets down for a catch. Now Simon was, as I said before, a fisherman. He knew that the fish wouldn’t be out at that time of day. Yet because he’d seen his Mother-in- Law healed, because he’d seen and heard Jesus speaking to the crowd there was something in him which prompted Simon to acquiesce. On the surface, it was a peculiar request but he says that because the request came from Jesus, he would do it.
Now we know what happens next. We know that there’s a miraculous catch of fish which was so overwhelming that the boat started to sink! But before we get there, let’s acknowledge this simple act of faith – because that’s what it is, an act of faith.
What makes this an act of faith? The belief that actually he would catch fish? I don’t think so. I think that this is one of those moments when faith is found not in what we hope for or expect but actually it is a response to God’s will – even if we do not understand that will, or actively believe that it’s impossible. This is not an act of faith which results in a catch of fish, this is an act of faith which stems from a trust in Jesus.
Often when we tell this story to children in Sunday school we stop with the miraculous catch of fish. However the story does not stop there! In fact, the catch of fish isn’t even the point of the story! The point of the story is Simon Peter’s reaction.
Simon Peter’s reaction.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but so far I’ve been calling him Simon. And that’s because so far in the Gospel of Luke he has always been called Simon. Just Simon, in fact. Then here Luke describes the reaction of Simon Peter. Yet throughout the rest of Luke and Acts he’s referred to only as Peter! Now I’ve spent some time reading through the commentaries and I’ve not been able to get to the bottom of why this shift happens in Luke’s writings. I’m not entirely sure as to why Simon becomes Peter, just as I’m unsure why Saul becomes Paul!*
However, what I am sure of is that Luke has written it this way intentionally and that this moment where he is called ‘Simon Peter’ is a turning point, a moment of great significance where everything changes for him.
Simon Peter reacts by dropping to his knees and saying to Jesus ‘Go away from me, Lord! For I am a sinful man”. This was because he was astonished by the catch of fish, he knew the significance. It should not have happened. It doesn’t happen. It’s not luck, that would be even more incredulous than the reality! This was Jesus demonstrating his total authority over creation, an authority which belongs to God alone.
The commentators are divided about whether or not the sure of the word ‘Lord’ here is simply a mark of respect like saying ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr’ or whether or not it actually refers to God, like it does sometimes in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. However it doesn’t make much difference; Simon Peter’s entire reaction, from dropping to his knees to asking Jesus to go away because he is a sinful man, strongly echoes the experience of the Israelites throughout the Old Testament when the encounter the presence of the Lord! In Exodus the Israelites are so afraid of the presence of the Lord that they fear they may die because of the power of his holiness and their sinfulness before him, so much so that they asked Moses to act as their representative and to stand in the presence of God alone on their behalf! It’s interesting too that often people throughout scripture have similar reactions when Angels appear.
Jesus says to Simon, “Do not be afraid! From now on you will fish for people.”
And so Simon and those with him pulled up their boats on the shore, left everything and followed him.
This moment on the boat changed everything for Simon Peter.
As we here in Emmanuel worship this morning in a country whose future is uncertain it can be easy for us to be afraid, for us to be worried about what is going to happen. This morning, the Jesus who showed Simon Peter that he is the Lord of all creation reminds us that he is our Lord. As we come to take communion, we come as an act of faith – not believing and trusting that a particular set of circumstances will come to us and to our country but rather as an act of trust in who Jesus is.
This Jesus says to us ‘Do not be afraid’.
It was daunting for the disciples to leave everything behind, and through the rest of the Gospels we read of the difficulties they faced and of their despair and heartbreak when Jesus was crucified. It can be daunting for us as we walk forwards as a country into the unknown but we as Christians are to remember our own weaknesses and inadequacies, knowing, like the disciples, that our strength comes not from our own understanding and abilities but from the power of the resurrection and the love of Christ for us.
May the Spirit of the Living Lord be with us in two turning points.
Firstly, may we have the wisdom to act wisely as a country following Thursday’s referendum,
but secondly and more importantly may we day by day trust in Jesus personally as our Lord and saviour, from this day on and into eternity.
*Following preaching this morning I had a great conversation with the Curate who explained that name changing in scripture is often a sign of changing dominion. Other great examples in Scripture include Abram becoming Abraham and Jacob becoming Issac. Apparently in some traditions it is common for people to be given a new name when they become Christian and are baptised. And so when Simon becomes Peter and Saul becomes Paul what’s implicitly being recognised is that they have now come under the authority of Christ in a new and identity altering way. I would love to read up on this sometime in the future.