Sermon Ideas For Luke 5:1-11 Part 7
Dr. Horace Allen once delivered a sermon on our Lukan passage to the congregation of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, as part of a series of sermons on highlights from Luke's Gospel. The sermon was titled Jesus In a Boat.
Dr. Allen considers the Lukan account to be the moment in the ministry of Jesus when he "went public," with his ministry. The boat into which Jesus stepped is not to be confused with the more famous boat, the one of the story of the fear-filled disciples with a sleeping Savior on a storm-tossed sea. This is Simon Peter's boat, just returned from a futile night of fishing. In spite of their lack of success in the water, the men were doing what fisherfolk must constantly do, they were mending their nets.
Then, Jesus, "fresh from the formalities of the synagogues of Nazareth and Capernaum…takes for his pulpit a boat! Does God come that close?" asks Dr. Allen. "Does the Lord God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, actually come so close to us to be found sitting in a boat where fishermen gather to grumble about the poor catch of the night and run their hands along miles of frayed, wet netting to tighten knots and take in the slack of frayed cord?…Does God come that close to our human scene?"
Many may prefer today's Old Testament scene from Isaiah1 in describing God: The temple filled with smoke; God high and lifted up; the angels ministering to him. "That's infinitely more convincing than Jesus in a boat," says Allen. Yet, Allen finds that the Luke passage bears astonishing similarities to the Isaiah reading. In both texts the Lord appears dramatically, accomplishes some attention-getting feat, and the person on the spot is moved to confess their sin and inadequacy (Isaiah's "woe is me," and Peter's "Go away...for I am a sinful man"). To Isaiah the response is, "Go and say..." to Peter and the others it is, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." And Isaiah—as well as Peter and Andrew and James and John—left everything and followed.
Both passages are saying the same thing: "God comes close and calls us. Sometimes in mystery and other times in the ordinary...Temples are fine, but boats will do for our God."
In a then-radical, now-classic interpretation of the Lukan passage, Rudolph Bultmann preached a sermon in Marburg, Germany, in 1941.2 He began by recognizing that many who turn their backs on Christian faith often do so because they are no longer able to sustain a belief in the miracle stories. So his central declaration addresses this need: "To regard the New Testament's miracle-stories as true is certainly not what Christian faith means! Christian faith does mean: faith in the grace of God as it presents itself to us in Christ. The real work of Christ, as Luther said, was that he conquered the Law and death."
Dr. Bultmann goes on to reject the idea that once we allow God to take captive all our will, we must allow our thinking to be sacrificed as well. This will hold back folks from faith not because they are evil but because they persist in being honest. But honesty, like all the other items on Paul's list in Romans 8, "cannot now or ever separate them from Christ...on the contrary, honesty is intrinsic to Christian faith."
Bultmann goes on to say that there is truth in the idea that we let God take our thinking captive, but we must ask what such captivity means. It cannot mean that we are to give up thinking altogether, to choke truthfulness to death. Surely we may say about miracle stories what Paul said about meat offered to idols. But we must as clearly say that Christian faith is based in wonder.
So we do not debate whether the story is an"actual"occurrence. Whether it is the report of an historical event or it is a poetic creation, in either case does it teach us what it intends to teach? The essential point "is not that Peter made a miraculous haul, but that Peter is called to be an apostle, a proclaimer of the Word...The true wonder (yes, true miracle) is Peter's effectiveness as an apostle...this wonder is just what the symbol of the wondrous catch of fish is intended to display."
Barbara K. Lundblad, in her sermon, Out On Our Own Recognizance,3 centered her interpretation of the story of the call of the disciples on the issue of repentance. She declares that "true repentance is born not out of coercion but out of mercy. Repentance comes when…we sense that there is more to life than we had assumed. When we catch a glimpse of meaning which had long been buried under piles of work on our desks or hidden behind our attempts to put our best foot forward…The dawn is breaking in upon you; you can take up your life and walk."
The disciples discovered what any of us may be discovering too: that Jesus is the one we are free to follow or not to follow…the one we come to know fully only by following before we are ready. As Frederick Buechner reminds us, "the voice that we hear over our shoulders never says, `First be sure that your motives are pure and selfless, and then follow me.' If it did, then we could none of us follow." Closing with a line paralleling Dr. Allen's thinking, Lundblad declares, "God, who seemed far off, has come very near. The kingdom of heaven, which seemed only future, is breaking into the present tense of your life."
1. Reproduced in Mühlberger, The Bible in Art: The New Testament, p. 63. For a different "look" at this episode, the reader may want to look for-and look at-Raphael's Miracle of the Fishes.
2. The translated sermon was excerpted in Theology Today, October, 1979, pp. 341-343.