Jesus And The Average Joe
Isaiah 6: 1-8 Luke 5:1-11
Over twenty years ago there was a school of theology whose motto appeared on a famous cover of Time magazine, asking the blunt question: Is God dead?
It was a question coming out of a time when a war in Vietnam was being fought for unclear reasons with some very questionable methods. The Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, led many to revive the old claim asserted by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche when he said that God was dead. What he meant was that God was not the answer to the myriad of questions of life that so many ascribed God to be. God was no longer to be the answer for questions of modern mathematics, chemistry, medicine, or physics. Again and again it was asserted that God's place did not supersede the disciplines of biology, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, sociology and others.
In other words, the figure of God was no longer a necessary part of the equation of human life and meaning. God didn't matter anymore. What mattered was getting life right, and to do that took human effort, planning, skill, cooperation and vision. But it was difficult at best to have the absence of the holy as a foundational principle for the goal of building a new and better society, and the death of God became a hollow saying in the midst of a public confronting new and different challenges.
Times do change. The death of God theology spoke it's piece for over a score of years, and now it finds itself pass, very much out of step with the thought of the times in which we live.
Much of the world of religious thought has moved passed the disquieting issue of the death of God to begin to pose a new question. In some fashion, the pendulum has swung back towards God.
Again, I cite as evidence a cover of Time magazine.
Just a few weeks ago the cover read: The New Age of Angels; 69% of Americans believe they exist. What in heaven is going on ?ö The article concerns an apparent readiness on the part of thousands of Americans to believe in the presence of angels in our midst. It's described as a grass-roots revolution of the spirit in which all sorts of people are finding all sorts of reasons to seek answers about angels for the first time in their lives. The answers people come up with vary.
From the traditional role of protection and the performance of miraculous healings, angels are said to pull back the curtain on the realm of the spirit. They offer a glimpse, however fleeting, of a larger universe ordered by God and intent on following God's plan- whether we're aware of it or not.
Each of us has a guardian angel, declares one angel watcher in the article, They're nonthreatening, wise and loving beings. They offer help whether we ask for it or not. But mostly we ignore them. This latest fad in claiming a connection to the divine through angels, accompanied by a polling of the American public presumably to establish
some amount of credence to the claims, is one way the media tells us that we are religious. It's accepted by some as one way we can connect ourselves to that of God, while leaving lots of room for our own interpretation on the matter- for our own private contact with angels can be best interpreted only by ourselves.
But this talk of angels is overrated. How many people are really caught up with angels in their lives? How many really care? How many really believe, or think it's at all important to believe in them? Now understand, I'm not angel-bashing here, or casting doubts on their existence. I'm just using this example to bring to mind the issue of God in our common and everyday lives.
The average Joe, or Jane, doesn't ask too many questions about God. The average Joe doesn't take too much time for religion. Religion, like angels, is something beyond our immediate world of knowledge. It is difficult, if not impossible, to control. People are sometimes afraid of the emotions that religion helps to articulate, and in some of the respects that religion is critical of the ways of the world it's regarded as dangerous, or maybe just quaint, archaic and irrelevant. Of all the things that make for faith; sincere prayer, generous giving, attentive study and devotion; hope, love, and caring for others, all these things have little place in the workaday world, and as we live public lives out of touch with the ways of religion we become more and more distanced from it. But that's not all.
We can become afraid of religion because religion interprets life rather than just observes it. Religion doesn't just confirm that there are hungry people in the world; it interprets the hungry to be our brothers and sisters who we watch starve. Religion doesn't merely observe the violence of our streets, but sees the inner and outer sinfulness of us all manifest in their violent acts and lack of control. Religion gives us more than a nightly newscast of the woes of the world, it calls us to participate as healers, as reconcilers, as people who care to do something against the constant tide of the waywardness of humanity. But this isn't easy to do by ourselves, or even together as a church. We've got our work cut out for us. And that's part of the problem. We've all got enough work to do as is. Picking up the problems of someone else is difficult to add to your daily agenda. And, as long as our own life is basically OK, then we don't often want to make life more difficult or complicated than it already is, so remaining comfortably distant from religion is a choice that many make.
Thus, the average Joe asks, why should I get deeper involved in my religious life when things right now are going just fine? The answer is ... because this is the call of the Christian faith... Simon Peter was a witness of this truth, albeit a reluctant one at first.
They were fishermen by trade and had returned from a long and disappointing night's work. Just as the dawn was breaking and they were starting to wash out their nets, tired, frustrated and hungry, they saw a man with crowds pressing in around him who began to approach them. No,
they said in answer to his question, they'd caught nothing. But there seemed to be a note of authority in this man's voice, so Peter reluctantly agreed to set out into the water and let down his nets one more time.
The nets were then filled to the breaking point.
Go away from me Lord, for I'm a sinful man. As he fell to his knees, these are the words Peter said to Jesus. Not exactly the words you'd expect.
But think about it, what would you say?
You didn't know this man, he tells you a way to get something done, something you've been working at for hours and hours, something you're skilled at, you make your living doing this. But you go ahead and it works- better than ever before. You're flabbergasted. What do you say? Your jaw drops. Amazement. Wonder. Awe. Who is this? Who am I dealing with here? Who am I to be around someone like him? This isn't just your average onlooker here, this guy knows fishing and he knows it well. The look about him says that he knows about me, too, and I'm not sure if I like it.
Get away from me. I don't want to be involved. I don't need this. Things were good enough the old, slow, frustrating way.
Peter had seen the miracle, he took part in it. But he had more than doubts about following Jesus.
He wasn't at all ready for what he thought was in store for him. But something obviously changed his mind and his spirit.
Peter's response to the power and knowledge of Jesus wasn't a fisherman's response. He didn't say, Why didn't I know where the fish were? Instead, his response was that of a human being overwhelmed by the presence of the one he now called Lord.
Then Jesus told Peter not to be afraid, and to follow him, and somehow those simple words changed everything.
Peter's fishing skill was no longer the issue, the issue was now his life.
The power that prompted Peter to fall at Jesus' knees was the same power that lifted him to his service.
Was he a magician? Did Jesus put Peter and his co-workers under some kind of mystical spell? Who was this Jesus, anyway?
Peter, like others, might have reckoned God to be as some of the prophets had spoken, but this Jesus was different. He offered something unexpected and greater than what people's hopes had been. Where the later prophets preached grim justice and pictured God as a steely-eyed thresher of grain, ready to cast the unworthy into darkness, Jesus preached forgiving love. Where the prophets had said that people had better save their skins before it was too late, Jesus said it was God who saved their skins, and even if you blew your whole bankroll on liquor and cheap thrills like the Prodigal Son, it wasn't too late. Where strict followers of the law ate carefully prescribed foods, Jesus ate what he felt like and associated himself with those considered questionable by the society folk of his day.
Where the Pharisees and Sadducees crossed over to the other side of the street if they saw a sinner coming their way, Jesus preferred the company of sinners over others.
There was clearly something different about this Jesus, and it wasn't just that he knew where to look for fish. He knew how to read and
understand people. He still does.
He knew how to read Peter like a book. He could stop fishing for fish, Jesus told him. He'd been promoted. From now on people were to be his business. He could start fishing for them. Jesus took a fisherman and made a disciple.
He takes us all, where we are, and brings us to discipleship. Our encounter with Jesus happens in three specific ways.
First, he knows us. Jesus reads us all better than we know ourselves; and more deeply than we feel comfortable with. Jesus accepts us and brings us together into a common family; a family of the church; the body of Christ. He makes people intimate with one another, from all walks of life; close, related by faith, bound by the freedom of God's grace to be a chosen part of God's family.
We, gathered here, are an assembly unlike any other. At no other time and in no other place does a group as diverse as us get together, and yet we are a body as unified as ever a gathering of this number of people can ever be. We sing with one voice, pray the same prayer, and hear the same scripture from the one God of us all.
Yet we hear Jesus' messages differently. They come to us as reactions to what he sees in us, to the arguments we put forth, to what we like to do, and don't like. He allows us to struggle, too. But he doesn't leave us alone with our moody inclinations.
Jesus is someone who pays attention to us, to all of us, and our acceptance of Jesus as Lord in our lives means that Jesus binds us to others; and the acceptance of Jesus 'for me' becomes an acceptance 'for all of us', so that we care for one another out of His caring for us. The second part of our encounter with Jesus has to do with His asking us to break out of our own self-concern to see those around us. More than accusing us of our weaknesses and pointing out our failures, what Jesus does is call us to service in his name. He asks us to get on with life and on with his work sometimes in spite of our inclinations. To honestly struggle with Jesus is one of the healthiest things that can happen to us. It's not easy, it comes and it goes, but it's a sign that we are acknowledging Christ as Lord, and are trying to turn over part of our life to him.
Christ does not restrict our freedom in the struggle, he doesn't try to wrestle the best of us away from ourselves. On the contrary, the more we allow to give ourselves to Christ's will, the freer, the more open, the more friendly, joyful and ready for service we become.
Jesus called Peter and the others to service beyond those who they knew and were comfortable with. He tells us that he loves those who are alien, indifferent, or unattractive to us. In doing so he helps us to behave in a different way, to be capable of talking and listening to others as openly and seriously as we would like them to listen to us and take us seriously, never writing anyone off, never pronouncing final judgment on anyone, always attempting new things in hope. In this way Jesus extends our horizons towards those beyond our normal boundaries and to the greater needs of the world.
The third part of our encounter with Jesus comes as He gives us something to believe in. God is not dead. Christ is alive and with us. America's recent fascination with angels is telling. We get to interpret what they mean. We can put words in the mouths of angels. We can have them say what we want. We can be the special recipients of this custom-made revelation for us that comes in only occasional and magical ways.
But it's not this way with Jesus. Our faith in Christ is reinforced by our knowledge of him in the scriptures, our centuries of Christian heritage, and in our walk with him in our daily lives of faith. Our belief in Christ is a two way street. It's reciprocal.
What the Gospel promises is that God will be with us, at all times, in all places, in all circumstances.
What God expects from us is our constant reciprocation and devotion. The only way our longing for what is good and true and holy in life can be satisfied is through our discernment of the love of God. And this must come through our trust that Christ's power extends from heaven to earth.
Just as the first disciples had to follow Jesus in his earthly life and see his power unfold step by step, so too do we have to look to see that power made manifest. Meanwhile, the testimony to Jesus' life and resurrection continues in our lives, and the nourishment we now receive from God, the daily hope and courage that God gives us, is always enough to keep us going.
Our understanding of religion and the basis of our faith comes in the trust that Jesus is with us, as surely as it is God who has brought us to this place here and now.
God has brought us. We are here. And He is with us. This is our faith. The power that brings us here to worship God is the same power that lifts us to service, as we keep our eyes on Jesus, and strive to keep our lives attuned to Christ as our Lord and our Redeemer. amen. Let us pray: