Fifth Sunday after Trinity
July 20, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is a name you probably haven’t heard of, but probably should hear of. He was a son of a Lutheran pastor in 18th century Germany (as most good heretics are in history). Among some of his more wild ideas, he was responsible for what’s become known as Lessing’s Ditch: “the accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason.” Now for those of you who don’t speak philosopheeze, what Lessing means is that since I don’t see any miracles happening in my experience, which I can verify for myself, then the accounts of miracles in Holy Scripture are untrustworthy. “The problem is that this proof of the spirit and of power,” he writes, “no longer has any spirit or power, but has sunk to the level of human testimonies of spirit and power.” Just a story. This is the “broad, ugly ditch” that he could not cross.
I doubt that most moderns and post-moderns know that they have a Lutheran pastor’s kid to thank for the way they look at the miraculous in Holy Scripture. Accounts such as the miraculous catch of fish, they just laugh away. Myths and fables created by the Church to delude and control simple followers. Now, if there were miraculous catches of fish happening every so often, you’d have to give this story from Luke 5 a second consideration. But as it stands, it’s simply too fantastic to believe.
Which gets Christians all riled up. How could anyone not believe in miracles? We rally to defend God’s power, His miracles. We hone our apologetics in order to prove our theological enemies into submission. It’s in the Bible! And we just expect them to say, “Well, if it’s in the Bible…”
Truth is, they have a point. The miracles of Jesus are pretty unbelievable. And it’s not just for our side of Lessing’s Ditch. When [Jesus} finished speaking, He said to Simon, “Put out into the deep, and let down your nets for a catch.” And answering, Simon said, “Master, although we labored throughout the whole night, we got nothing; upon Your words, I will let down the nets” (vv 4-5). Hear the doubt in Peter’s voice? Hear the hint of sarcasm? “Well, Teacher, we’re the fishermen, see. We do this sort of thing all the time. We fished all night. We pulled out every trick in the book. Still nothing. But at you word, we’re going to catch some fish? Ok. I’ll throw out the nets, but don’t be disappointed when you’re wrong.”
And then, when they had done this, they enclosed a great number of fish, and their nets began to burst. And they motioned to their partners in the other boat to come to take hold with them; and they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink (vv 6-7). Not only did they catch some fish. Not only did the catch a haul of fish. It was a record-setting catch. Their boats began to sink. All night long the fish avoided their nets, but at the Word of Jesus, the swarmed to the fishermen’s nets. This wasn’t luck, coincidence, or some secret, killer lure Jesus had discovered. A bona fide miracle.
And what was Peter’s reaction? Wow, that’s really impressive Jesus? Let me follow you? No. When Simon Peter saw, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, because I am a sinful man, Lord.” For all who were with him were also seized with amazement upon the catch of fish that they got (vv 8-9). This miracle drove Peter to the ground confessing his sins. He fell down at Jesus’ knees because this miracle, this magnificent display of power, forced him to reckon with his own powerlessness in the presence of God.
And that’s what we need to understand about those who reject the miracles of Holy Scripture. They don’t disbelieve them because they are so irrational. Rational people believe irrational things all the time—you just need to find out where their irrationality lies. It’s that accepting the miracles of Scripture would force the skeptics to reckon with their own powerlessness before God, with their own sinfulness—and that’s the real barrier to believing the miracles of Jesus. The skeptics loathe getting down on their knees and saying, “I am a sinful man.” Because that confession is more contrary to our sinful nature than fish miraculously jumping into nets is to the laws of nature.
The Word of Jesus—His Word of power—strikes us down as dead men on account of our sin. That’s the point of Jesus’ miracles—they never convince anyone to believe.
It’s what comes before the miracle that creates faith. And it happened that the crowd was pressing in upon Him also to hear the Word of God; and He was standing by the lake of Gennesaret. And He saw two boats standing still by the lake, but the fishermen had gone away from them to wash the nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, He asked him to be put out a little from the land. When He sat down, He began to teach the crowds from the boat (vv 1-3). It’s the preaching of the Word of God, the teaching of divine Wisdom that creates faith. When Jesus commissioned His Apostles, He doesn’t send them to perform miracles. He sends them to preach, and then gives them accompanying signs. Divine power will drive the faithful to repentance—as the catch of fish did to Peter—or it will confirm unbelievers in their unbelief.
When Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee left everything to follow Jesus, it wasn’t because of the miracle. The miraculous catch only set the stage. Likewise, also James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were colleagues of Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not fear—from now you will be catching men alive.” And bringing the boats to land, they left everything and followed Him (vv 10-11).
These three fishermen, who also became Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, followed Jesus at His Word—“Do not fear.” That’s Jesus’ absolution. “Do not fear, Peter, your powerlessness in my presence is a good thing, for My cross is weakness in the eyes of the world. But it is the power of salvation. Do not fear, James and John, you thought My Word was foolish—and it is. But My foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of men. You ask Me to depart from you, because you are a sinful man? That’s precisely the reason I became Man. To be found among sinners.”
The task that Jesus calls these fishermen to is catching men. But there’s a few ways to catch things. The word Jesus uses is “to catch alive.” When you go fishing, you want to keep the fish alive as long as possible; the smell of dead fish is one you can’t get rid of. And that’s what Word of Christ also does—it catches men alive. His Word of grace, His Word of forgiveness catches men struck dead by His power and raises them to life. His, “Do not fear,” is an absolution that catches men in life.
There is certainly a ditch between us and the miracles of Jesus. But it’s not so broad and ugly as Lessing thought it was. That ditch is bridged by the Word of Jesus. The account of the miraculous catch of fish is indeed man’s testimony, but it is the testimony of men who were called and sent by the One whose Word caused the seas to swarm with fish in the beginning, whose Word sent swarms of fish into the nets, whose Word brought Peter to his knees, whose Word raised him up again and caught him in life.
And so this account of the miraculous catch of fish is also for you. Not simply that you would believe that Jesus is able to do unbelievable things. But so that you would believe, like Peter, that you are a sinful man, a sinful woman. That you would bend your knees in confession and recognize your own powerlessness in the presence of God. And that you would hear His gracious, “Do not fear.” These are words of forgiveness, words that catch you in life.
Just like the fish in the lake of Gennesaret,
The Word of Jesus Catches You Alive
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard
 Lessing’s Theological Writings. tr. Henry Chadwick. Stanford University Press, 1956, 53
 ibid., 52