The Fifth Sunday in Epiphany, February 10th, 2019
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Ok, so I’ll admit this gospel story has always bothered me. It’s so untidy. I’m always after my kids to clean up after themselves, put away the stuff they were using, take that sweater back to their room. But in the gospel, Simon Peter and James and John drag in a whole lot of fish to shore and then walk away and leave it all, boats, nets, dead fish, everything. It’s so messy. What kind of Messiah lets them leave all that there for other people to deal with? I can just imagine Zebedee yelling after them, Boys! you come back here and clean up these fish!
But of course their walking away from it all is exactly the point. Not to establish them as careless and messy people, but to make it clear how compelling the call of Jesus is. Even with the biggest catch of fish they’ve ever had in their careers, following Jesus is irresistible. Right at the moment they secure utter success and wealth in fishing terms, they leave it all behind – Jesus’ call is better than all of it. It’s one thing to follow Jesus from a place of poverty and need – when you have nothing, Jesus’ love is so clearly everything. But it’s a whole ‘nother thing to come to Jesus from a place of ease and abundance. You’ve got it all, so why give it up? And yet something about Jesus’ call means more to those fishermen than anything they’ve ever experienced.
I wonder just when it is in the story that they realize what Jesus has to offer. Crowds are following him, so hungry to hear the word of God that they press him right up to the shore of the lake. All these people have already begun to receive his teaching and want to hear more, bringing others along with them to listen. Simon and James and John just happen to be there in their boats, it seems, and they and their boats get chartered by Jesus for a simple purpose, to give him space to talk to the crowds. But they must listen to him, along with all the crowds onshore, and when he finishes teaching and tells them to drop the nets in again, they comply, even though they think it’s useless. And then, struggling with the huge catch, straining to bring it into shore, something shifts inside them. And it’s not just to think that this Jesus is a really first rate fish finder and they ought to hire him right then and there for their business. It’s that something else entirely is going on, and what he’s offering is what they have longed for all their lives. And they up and go. Just what is it they’re looking for?
This season many of us are reading the letter to the Romans, along with many in the national church (raise your hands if you’re doing so – just curious). Some of us are also taking part in the online class taught by the Rev. Jay Sidebotham, either in our own time or here together on Wednesday nights. Romans is a dense, complex letter, and has formed much of Christian doctrine and teaching over the centuries. It was particularly significant to Luther and the Reformers, and a lot of how we understand Romans today is, I think, colored with the interpretation of Reformation theology. In the first class Jay offered some introductory definitions of all the weighty theological words Paul uses in the letter, words like justification, salvation, sanctification, righteousness, grace. Some of these are so dense that we’ve gone down all kinds of wrong tracks in trying to understand them – we need to understand them anew in order to get the meaning of Paul’s argument.
Salvation is one of the biggest of those words. Jay pointed out that when Paul talks about salvation he is talking about deliverance from what binds us – freedom from what enslaves us – here and now. We haven’t always understood that, exactly – we’ve too often mistaken salvation as a kind of golden ticket to heaven, the thing that will wipe our slates clean from all our many sins and get us into the sweet hereafter. A kind of transactional understanding, that there’s a deal being offered, an arrangement to be made, a thing to do to secure some other thing. Accept Jesus, say the prayer, and be saved. But Jesus isn’t about transactions. Jesus doesn’t come along to the fishermen and say, hey you miserable sinners, I’m your ticket to heaven and the afterlife – sign here. Although that is Simon’s first instinct, isn’t it – he protests that he’s a sinful man, that he doesn’t deserve admission to whatever Jesus is inviting him into. Jesus just brushes that away – and says follow me, don’t be afraid. I have a whole new life for you. Come and help me spread the word. It’s all grace. You’re free.
No wonder they leave it all. Freedom – oh, freedom. There’s something about the very word that lifts me up. Following Jesus freed them from those fish, all that hard work, living every day with the fear of scarcity and hunger. But it also freed them to live differently – to see the world through different eyes. It took a while for them to live into that freedom – it took a while for them to begin to live as if the kingdom of God is already here. But they were set free, with a freedom Jesus offers all of us.
Those fishermen thought that day that they were just there to fish, and then everything changed. So what about us? what do we all think we’re here today to do? What’s the freedom Jesus is offering us? What would make us up and leave the mess there and step into a new life? what would take us away from security and abundance to follow into the unknown?
Because I don’t think we’d be here if we weren’t longing for that. You’re here, pressing in quietly in your pews to hear the word of God. You’re here because you want to be free. Don’t you?
Because wouldn’t it feel great to be free of all that chatter inside your head? the endless arguments with people who aren’t there, the relentless listing of tasks yet to be done, the moody repetition of everything you’ve done wrong this week? I think it would.
Wouldn’t it feel wonderful to be free of the way people look at you as you walk down the street because of the color of your skin, the way they dismiss you because of your gender, the way they brush you aside because of your accent or grammar or the shape of your body? Yes, it would.
Wouldn’t it be glorious to be freed from the rat race of work, the jockeying for position and recognition, the financial worries, the hours spent away from people you love doing things that don’t really feel like they matter in the long run?
Wouldn’t you want to step away from the gnawing loneliness, the grief and sadness, the ache in your heart?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to feel yourself right now, right here, in the enveloping presence of love that knows you through and through, that is working out all the stuff of this world for good? Just stop and feel that, imagine that, for a moment…
And now imagine Jesus standing there in front of you. All the mess of what binds you drops to your feet, all the stuff that you have been preoccupied with falls away, none of it can grab hold and claw you back. Don’t be afraid, Jesus says. Come and be part of my work. Come and be free. Why on earth would we say no? as if all those dead fish were so great.
But oh, my friends, we just keep saying no. All those voices in our heads just won’t shut up, and we argue over doctrine and get swept back into our to-do lists and resist, resist, resist the gift. It’s too great to accept. We’re used to the fish. And we don’t want to let go and follow – maybe because we think that somehow we’ll lose too much control. Just this week some of us at St Michael’s found ourselves in a heated discussion about whether we could call ourselves ‘Jesus followers.’ It felt so much safer to say that we try to be ‘Christ-like’ – not followers, not of Jesus, but Christ-like, language that keeps our distance. We want to keep our options open. We want to be in control of what we do, not just follow. Or at least, we think we’re in control. We think we’re freer when we’re really staying in our cage. Those fish have a way of keeping a hold on us, it seems.
Our opening prayer today begs God to set us free – to give us the liberty of the abundant life in Jesus. We so long to be free. We tie ourselves in knots of our own devising and do what we would rather not do and find ourselves boxed into corners and sometimes, when it all gets too much, we cry for help. And Jesus shows up for us, over and over again, patiently putting out his hand and saying, don’t be afraid. Follow me. Come and be free, and help me set the whole world free. Not just someday, but right now. That is salvation: to live as free children of God, to care for others as free children of God, to tear down what enslaves and binds all God’s children in this world. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. We can let all the rest of it go. Today, again, step into that freedom. Live that abundant life. Don’t be afraid.