Preaching Luke 5:1-11
Luke's account of the calling of the disciples is well-suited to the Epiphany season, centering as it does around the manifestation of Jesus to Peter, James and John. Questions regarding how Jesus is disclosed in the lives of Christians, and what such a disclosure means, could well serve as central themes of the sermon.
It is interesting that Peter, James, and John do not appear as religious seekers in this story--in fact, just the opposite is the case. While the crowds press in upon Jesus to hear his preaching, these fishermen are off in a corner away from the action, preoccupied with the business of washing their nets after a hard night's labor. Christ comes unexpectedly to Peter in the midst of the latter's ordinary work day routine. Jesus does not, as the church is often tempted to do, limit his witness to those who have come seeking it on their own initiative.What are Peter's qualifications for discipleship? What has prepared the way for his recognition of the Lord's presence in his midst? The answer is almost comical in its simplicity--Peter has a boat! The working tools of Simon's ordinary vocation are enlisted into the service of Christ's work. There is a kind of initial obedience here in Peter's willingness to place his property at Jesus' disposal. And note how in responding, Peter calls him "master." There is something suggestive here for people who find themselves on the fringes of the Christian community, struggling with questions of faith. Peter's experience suggests that the road to Christian discipleship may sometimes have its beginnings not with a quest for faith, but with concrete obedience. The best starting point for would-be disciples may be one of hands-on support for Christ's work in the world, rather than inward spiritual seeking. Perhaps one of the most important challenges which the church can put before the seekers in its midst is the question, "Where is your boat? What practical gifts and resources do you have available which you can place at the Lord's disposal?" As in Peter's case, the would-be disciple may find that faith follows on the heels of obedience, rather than vice-versa.
It is significant as well to note that there is a continuity in Peter's calling. His recognition of Jesus and his becoming a disciple involve the transformation of his ordinary gifts but not in such a way that they cease to be recognizable for what they are. The miraculous catch of fish illumines Peter's worldly vocation with divine significance and points the way toward what will come after. Peter will still be a fisherman, but now in a way that is imbued with divine significance: "Henceforth you will be catching men." Christ enlists the endowments and the gifts which Peter already has in the service of the Kingdom.
This speaks powerfully to the rather unimaginative and restrictive concept of sainthood which one finds so often among ordinary churchgoers--as if the only people who were really serious about serving Jesus were the ones who come across like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, Jr., or at the very least a devoted member of the clergy. Jesus' enlistment of Peter's secular vocation in the service of the Kingdom provides an opportunity to address from the pulpit some themes regarding the sanctity of the common life: Our calling to serve Jesus comes in the concrete context of our daily existence, no matter how humble. We give service and witness to Christ by the way we fulfill our duties as teacher, farmer, banker, housewife, child, parent, lawyer, mechanic, etc. Here the preacher might describe some instances in his or her own experience of persons who in a particularly noteworthy way have given witness to Christ in the context of a "worldly" vocation.
Peter's reaction to the miraculous catch of fish provides a mirror of our own response when faced with the suggestion that our own humble endowments might be the instruments of Christ's work: "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." I am not worthy! I am not sufficiently qualified! I am no Mother Teresa! The simple "Fear not!" which Christ pronounces speaks powerfully to our doubts and anxieties and feelings of inadequacy, for it is the Lord himself who supplies the means by which our gifts are rendered worthy. The preacher might think about some of the concrete forms which these feelings of inadequacy assume in the Christian community. One which comes to mind for this author is the tendency of many smaller churches to develop an inferiority complex as they compare their relatively modest programs and resources with those of the "big church" down the street. Christ's response to Peter's feelings of inadequacy speak powerfully to such a situation.
Another theme which might be brought into the sermon develops out of the last verse: "And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him." It is very clear here that recognizing Jesus for who he is involves much more than factual knowledge and verbal confession. To recognize Jesus is to be confronted with a Lord--one who presents us with a task and a claim and a mission. To recognize Jesus means by definition to have all the other loyalties, claims and obligations which impinge upon us reduced to secondary status. While the literal step of "leaving everything behind" has generally been understood as part of the vocation of an apostle, it is nevertheless surely the case that even for ordinary Christians, recognizing who Jesus is leads inevitably to a sweeping revaluation of all the elements which comprise our everyday life. The things previously at the center of our life's orbit--things like wealth, status, success, power, and personal prestige--now cease to be the ends in themselves which they previously had been, while other seemingly less significant things--goodness, kindness, service, hope, gentleness, self-control, modesty, faithfulness--assume a value which they did not previously possess.