Caught Alive by Jesus
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Our text is the Holy Gospel from Luke 5.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, when you go fishing, you catch fish alive so that you can kill and eat them, or in some cases you might catch and release the living fish back into the water. We almost never catch fish just to keep them alive. But the fishing in God's Kingdom is different. In our Gospel reading Jesus gives Peter the promise, "From now on you will be catching men alive." Now to be clear, that word "alive" in the phrase "catching men alive" isn't there in your bulletin or in almost any translation you may find, but it is there in the Greek text of the New Testament. The Greek word (ζωγρῶν) used by Jesus means to capture something alive rather than dead. It is the word for catching a fish with a net, not with a spear. So what Jesus means by using this word is that He wants His Church to catch sinners alive by God's Word so that He can give them everlasting life through the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.
In our Epistle, St. Paul says that the message of the cross is considered foolish by those who are perishing from unbelief, but for everyone who is being saved through faith in Christ's sacrifice on the cross, this message is the power of God. In Romans St. Paul says that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. This Gospel is a life-giving Word, powerful because it is the voice of God who spoke the world into existence and who now speaks to declare those who were dead in sin alive for the sake of Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection. Your Lord Jesus Christ lived perfectly according to God's Law so that He could present His innocent life to God the Father in the place of all you sinners, and then on the cross He died an innocent death under God's wrath in the place of all you sinners, so that He could reconcile you to God, cancel all your debts, and not count your trespasses against you. Jesus rose from the dead on the third day so that He could deliver to you the benefits of His death, and in exchange for the eternal death you deserve for your sins, give you everlasting life in heaven.
But this salvation Jesus won on the cross needs to be delivered to us sinners today, otherwise we would perish without it. So Jesus arranged for the delivery of the Gospel, which catches sinners alive and preserves them for everlasting life. To His apostles Jesus gave the commission to go out and preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name; He told them to teach His Word and baptize in order to make disciples from all nations; He told them to proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation; He told them to forgive the sins of repentant sinners through Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord's Supper, but to withhold forgiveness from those who refused to repent and believe the Gospel. And by these commands, Jesus gave to His fishermen the authority and the means by which to catch people for eternal life. And those first fishermen were His apostles and then later the fishing would be done by those who would follow in the public ministry of the Church, the Office of preaching the Gospel.
Dr. Martin Luther explained the fishing in our Gospel reading this way: "Herein is represented the spiritual rule of the Church, which consists in the office of preaching. The sea, or the water, represents the world, the fishes represent men, while the outward office of preaching is represented by the hand and the net by which the fishes are caught" (Luther, Sermons, vol 4, 164, quoted in Just, 210). We saw a wonderful example of this fishing and catching men alive by the Gospel on Pentecost Sunday. Peter stood with the other eleven apostles and threw out the net by proclaiming the Good News about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The apostles dragged people into the Church by Holy Baptism. These fish that were caught alive were kept alive by the "apostles' teaching and fellowship" and "the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). In other words, the caught-alive-disciples continue to thrive on the preached Word of Jesus and feast on His true body and blood in the Lord's Supper, which is also known as "the Breaking of the Bread."
This fishing trip continues today wherever the Christian Church preaches Christ's Word rightly and administers the Sacraments according to Christ's institution. Through the apostolic Word and Sacraments that flow out into the world from the Christian Church, the Holy Spirit calls sinners to faith by the Gospel, He enlightens them with His gifts, He sanctifies and keeps believers with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. As St. Paul says, "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ." So if you want your faith to be nourished and strengthened and kept alive, come here to church to hear the powerful Word of Christ, confess your sins and hear Christ's Word of Absolution that declares you forgiven, come to this Table to receive Christ's life-giving true body and blood in the Lord's Supper. It is only the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins and risen for the justification of the ungodly that has the power to catch men alive and then preserve them in faith for an indestructible life with Him, and that Gospel is the focal point of everything that is taught here at Grace Lutheran Church. And you and I should rejoice that we have been gathered here in the saving boat of the Christian Church by the Holy Spirit's work through Christ's Means of Grace.
But as we heard a couple weeks ago, Satin is a prowling lion who loves to devour little Christian fishies, and one way the devil tries to catch and kill you is to place you back under the Law through churches that do teach the Gospel rightly when people join their church, but then they neglect to make the Gospel the primary message spoken to the faithful members who are in the pew week in and week out. Instead, they focus mostly on teaching their members how to lead a sanctified life according to God's Law or how to do evangelism. Now thanks be to God, this has not been the case at Grace Lutheran Church, but it is still something that we all need to be on the lookout for. Throughout the Missouri Synod there has been a lot of bad teaching and preaching in this vein that ends up killing Christ's little fishies by placing them back under the Law rather than letting them remain in the grace of Christ through the Gospel. And a lot of it has to do with how we are to properly understand today's Gospel reading.
Perhaps you have come across a congregation here or there named "Fishers of Men Lutheran Church," which would imply that every member of the congregation has to be a fisher of men. Or perhaps you have been told that when Jesus talks to Peter about catching men alive, he is directing that message to every Christian. Or perhaps you have heard a sermon about the so-called "Great Commission" from Matthew 28 that ends by saying, "Jesus has commanded us to make disciples of all nations; now you need to get out there and get busy making disciples." Sermons like this give you the impression that if you are not constantly out knocking on doors, if you are not constantly involved in doing some form of evangelism, then you are sinning and failing your Lord.
In fact, sermons like this give the impression that we are wasting our time gathering in the Divine Service, but instead we should be out sharing the Gospel. So if you have ever been beaten over the head by a sermon about how you haven't done enough to save the lost, then you are in need of hearing this Good News today: there is nothing you and I can do to prevent all of God's elect from being saved; Jesus has done and is doing enough to save the lost, and He has arranged for the means of catching men alive by His Gospel and Sacraments in the Christian Church; and along with that, just as not everyone in this life has been called to be a professional fisherman, so also not all Christians have the calling from Jesus to be full-time fishers of men.
It is obvious that in our day to day lives not everyone can be a trained and full-time fisherman. Honestly, that is a calling that would suit me very poorly, since I am a terrible fisherman and there is no way that I'd be able to make a living doing it. Besides, how many other necessary jobs in the world would not be filled if everyone decided to be a fisherman? But in fact, God has blessed each of us with various gifts to be used in various vocations. All lawful and honest vocations are pleasing to God when they are done by a believer in Christ. Jesus doesn't use most of us as fishermen, but uses sinners like us as mothers, fathers, grandparents, students, and workers; whether you are a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, a fisherman, or serve in any other calling, you are actually doing the Lord's work by helping your neighbor.
Now it is true that Jesus does use all of us at various times to share the Gospel with others. In the context of your vocation, you will come in contact with those who don't know Jesus, those who are not connected to Christ's life-giving Word and Sacraments in a faithful Christian Church. And when you do have the opportunity to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with your neighbor, then you are certainly free and encouraged to do it. St. Peter tells us that we should always be prepared to give an explanation of our Christian hope. It also is important to remember that whether the Word of God is spoken by a pastor or a layman, it has the same power because it is the Word of God, not the word of sinful men. And we should always feel free to invite our friends and families here to Grace Lutheran Church, where the life-giving Gospel is preached week in and week out. But you may do this not as something you have to do to make God happy with you, but as something you get to do out of gratitude for the salvation you have already received.
When you have been to a restaurant that you really enjoy, you don't go out and recommend that restaurant to someone else because the manager of the restaurant has told you to, but because you think the restaurant has something special to offer and you want your friends and family to enjoy it the way you have. Recommending something that you enjoy to other people happens spontaneously; it's not forced. How much more, then, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ something worth telling to the people in our lives who don't believe in Jesus or who hold to false doctrines. Telling other people about what Jesus has done for you is a form of praising the Lord, because you are praising His goodness to you, and you are praising the gracious forgiveness that Jesus has won for you and for all people. Yet we do this not foremost out of obligation, but out of thanksgiving to the Lord and out of love for those who are stuck living under the Law and not enjoying the peace and joy of the Gospel.
But that occasional opportunity for fishing isn't your full-time calling, otherwise you would have to neglect all your other callings, which the Lord doesn't want you to do. And so in our Gospel reading, Jesus is speaking directly to the apostle Peter and by extension to the other apostles when he is talking about "catching men alive." Jesus raised up those first apostles to be fishers of men, to go out and catch men alive with the Gospel and Sacraments, and then He has preserved the Office of the Holy Ministry in every generation of the Church's life to continue the ministry of preaching Christ's Word and delivering His Sacraments.
But not everyone is called to be a pastor, just as not everyone is called to be a fisherman. First of all, the Lord has dictated that only men be called into the Office of the Holy Ministry (1 Timothy 2:12, 3:2), and then out of all men, only a few meet the Lord's criteria and get trained, examined, ordained, and called to serve as pastors. And being a pastor is not a holier calling than any other vocation, but it is a uniquely instituted Office in the Church, instituted by Jesus Christ Himself. And it is to this Office of the Ministry that the specific role of preaching the Word of Christ and administering the Sacraments has been given. The Word and Sacraments are the net that is cast out to bring in sinners and save them.
Now, because the Word and Sacraments come from Jesus and belong to Jesus and don't belong to apostles, pastors, or laypeople, it reminds us that the task of catching men alive really belongs to Jesus Himself and not to us. In our Gospel reading, the fishermen caught nothing by their own efforts during a long night of fishing, but then when Jesus told them to put their nets out in a specific place, they brought in more than they could have imagined. Jesus Himself brought about that miraculous catch by His wisdom and power. In fact, the Greek does not say that the fishermen "caught" the fish, but that the nets simply "enclosed" them. It was not an active accomplishment on the part of the fishermen.
And this tells us something very comforting about the mission of the Christian Church. Jesus Himself builds the Church. He does it all. Certainly, He uses people to throw out the nets and haul the fish in, but it is comforting to know that not a single fish that Jesus chooses to catch will be lost. When we are tempted to despair because the Church is losing members or does not seem to be growing as rapidly as we would like, we should remember this story. The catch is the Lord's, not ours!
And for all of us who have been caught alive by the Gospel in the Christian Church, Jesus doesn't want to place us back under the condemnation of God's Law, which always exposes us as unworthy of Christ's presence, but wants us to rest in His forgiveness and love. In our Gospel reading Peter finds himself ashamed and guilty before Jesus after he doubted the command to let the nets down. Peter realizes that he is in the presence of Holy God, and that Peter is a poor, miserable sinner. But what does Jesus do? He doesn't lay another guilt trip on Peter, but while Peter is gripped with terror over his sinfulness, Jesus tells him, "Do not be afraid." This absolution gave him the confidence to stand before the holy Jesus as a forgiven sinner, confident in Christ's mercy. And in Peter's case, it gave him the strength to take his calling from Jesus and do it.
We learn from Peter's example that while Holy God cannot tolerate sin in His presence, He loves nothing more than to forgive the repentant sinners in order to restore, lift up, and enliven them. The Son of God became incarnate not to condemn sinners, but to save them. Though we are poor, miserable sinners and have failed our Lord in so many ways and so cannot bear the holiness of His presence, the Lord constantly stands at the ready to absolve us, too, and catch us alive once again to be with Him forever. And then, once He has caught us alive by the Gospel, no matter what our callings in this life, whether fisherman or fisher of men, whether layperson or pastor, whether father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker, He will provide us with the strength to serve Him through these callings as well. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.