The famous baseball player and philosopher, Yogi Berra once exclaimed, “It's like déjà vu all over again.” Déjà vu is that feeling that, even though you are experiencing something for the first time, you feel as though you have experienced it before.
I wonder if the disciples experienced a little déjà vu during the events described in today’s Gospel. After all, the events in today’s Gospel are very much like the great catch of fish when Jesus first called the disciples to follow Him.
Luke the Evangelist recorded this earlier catch. Jesus was becoming very popular, and He was teaching near the shore of the Sea of Galilee. In order for the crowd to hear Him better, He got into Simon Peter’s fishing boat and had Simon take Him out onto the water a little bit. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 5And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” 6And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish. (Luke 5:4–6)
There you go! This first catch of fish is very similar to the catch that we heard about in today’s Gospel. In fact, this earlier catch is part of one of the Epiphany Gospels for this year. You would have heard it on the fifth Sunday of the Epiphany if Easter would not have been so early this year.
Although many of the details of these two events are the same, there are a few differences. In the first great catch, the nets began to break. In this second catch, the nets held. In the first catch, the fishermen signaled their partners to bring out a second boat for help. In the second catch, the boat was close enough to shore that they decided to drag the net to shore and then pull it in.
The really important difference, though, was the reaction of Peter. The first time, he reacted in terror. He fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5:8) The second time, he responded by getting to Jesus as quickly as possible. When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. (John 21:7) Simon wasn’t about to wait for the boat pulling that net. He decided to swim to the shore.
What makes the difference? Why does that early encounter with Jesus produce such terror? Why does the encounter in today’s Gospel produce such enthusiasm?
Well, a lot has happened since that first encounter. During the first encounter, Peter didn’t know Jesus very well. Jesus was this popular rabbi. John the Baptist had pointed Him out as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus was sort of a celebrity. Peter knew of Jesus, but He didn’t know Him personally.
By the time we get to the events in today’s Gospel, Peter had three years of seminary training with Jesus. He had experienced the teaching, the healings, the casting out of demons … He had even seen Jesus raise a few people from the dead. More recently, he knew that Jesus died on a cross and was a dead body lying in a tomb, and now, of course, he saw Him risen from the dead. Peter had come to know Jesus as a belovéd mentor and savior. There was still much for Peter to learn, but he was no longer afraid of Jesus.
There are a lot of people in the world who are afraid of Jesus. There always have been. This fear actually began long ago in Eden. Adam and Eve heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:8)
Ever since the Fall in Eden, the holiness of a just God has been terrifying to humans who understand that they are sinful beings. We humans naturally believe that if we have broken something, then it is up to us to fix it. We know that our sin has broken creation, and we know that we cannot fix it. Our only alternatives are denial or despair. God’s holy presence only highlights our failure and so we are terrified.
We are victims of something that I call the “one-two punch” of evil. The devil, the world, and our own sinful nature tempt us with all kinds of lies. “No one will find out about it.” “Everybody’s doing it.” You won’t get caught.” “It’ll be fun.” “This will make you … more attractive, richer, more powerful, more popular …”, and on and on and on. While there is only one truth, there are unlimited ways to lie, and the ways to rationalize sin are without number.
Then, after you sin, the devil stops being the tempter and starts being the accuser. “Ohhh … look what you have done. “You’re in big ‘truh-bullll …’” “God’ll get you for that!” “There is no forgiveness for what you have done.” The devil has the equivalent of a “tenth degree black belt” in guilt, and the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature want us to believe that the only thing God has for us is punishment.
Take some time to examine the false religions that flow from the human imagination. Every one of them assumes that you feel guilty and want to do whatever it takes to make things right. Over the centuries, human beings have sacrificed their time, their work, their wealth, animals, other human beings, and even their own children in order to please whatever god it was that they worshipped.
Even today, some in our culture sacrifice their children before they are even born. Those who worship the god of wealth convince mothers to sacrifice their own babies and call it reproductive health. We think we are so advanced and yet we kill our own babies. Is it any wonder that both mental and emotional counselors of all kinds report that guilt is at or near the top of the list of their patient’s problems?
So it is not surprising that the first reaction to God is fear. When God reveals Himself to us, our first impulse is to revert to the law and the law takes to despair. After all, here is the Almighty God who is holy and just. His justice shines the full light of His law on us and reveals the utter depravity of our sin. Isaiah expressed this very well when he said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)
We would be lost forever in this fear if God did not do something that the natural human would never expect. God the Holy Spirit must enlighten with the Gospel.
The natural human being does not even have capacity to perceive the Gospel. The Apostle Paul wrote “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14) This is the reason that it is God who must bring the Gospel to us.
The Gospel teaches us that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17) Jesus Himself said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) The Gospel teaches that God does not come to punish, but to save.
The first time Jesus blessed Peter with a miraculous catch of fish, Peter did not yet understand that Jesus is God in the flesh who has come to save from sin. All Peter realized was that he was a sinner in the presence of the divine. All Peter could think was that he deserved punishment for his sins.
In the Gospel we just heard, Peter understood that Jesus has actually died for him and risen from the dead. The Holy Spirit enlightened him with the Gospel. The Holy Spirit gave him the faith that believes in Jesus as savior from sin. Through that faith, Peter wanted to be with Jesus.
The Gospel is not just for Peter. It is also for you. Jesus lived a perfect life in your place. He died on the cross and took the punishment for your sin. He rose from the dead for you. In Jesus Christ, the way to everlasting life is open for you.
Our sinful nature wants us to be like Peter the first time Jesus stepped into his boat. Our sinful nature only wants us to see God as the judge who condemns our sins. Our sinful nature wants us to be afraid.
The Holy Spirit enlighten us with the Gospel and gives faith to us … the same faith that Peter had … the faith that receives the gifts that Jesus earned … the faith that looks to Jesus for forgiveness instead of judgment. We have no need to be afraid. Instead, Jesus comes to us with His gifts and we want to be with Him. Amen
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