Upon Your Word

by David Baer, February 10, 2019

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Text: Luke 5:1-11

We were talking with some of our family this weekend who hadn’t watched the Super Bowl. I thought missing the Super Bowl was illegal or something, but apparently it’s not. It seems like everybody watches, and plenty of people who don’t care about football watch it for all the new ads.

So today I’m thinking about the Pepsi ad, the one where a customer asks for a Coke, and Steve Carrell steps out of a restaurant booth to give the waiter a hard time for asking her if Pepsi is “OK.” “Are puppies okay?” he demands. “Is a shooting star okay? Is the laughter of a small child okay?” He flips it over to rapper Lil Jon, who says it with feeling, not “ok,” but “OKAAAY.”

Sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it.

“If you say so, I will let down the nets,” says Simon Peter to Jesus. Everything hinges on how you hear those words.

“If you say so!” Is Peter being sarcastic? He’s got every right. Jesus knows jack squat about fishing. He’s the son of a carpenter, and he comes from a dusty hill town, whereas Peter is a professional fisherman, who makes his living out on the lake, who knows the winds, the currents, and where the fish are and where they aren’t. And he knows that right now, in the heat of the day, the fish all retreat to the cool waters of the lake bottom, beyond the reach of his nets. What Jesus is telling him violates every bit of wisdom Peter has earned in his life as a fisherman. “Hey, boss,” Peter says, “we were at this all night, from sun down to sun up, but sure, if you say so, we’ll let the nets down and see what turns up!”

Or do you hear it a little differently? I do: “If you say so!” One thing you’ve got to realize is that this isn’t the first time Peter has met Jesus. Jesus came for Sabbath dinner at Peter’s home, and he found Peter’s mother-in-law sick with a fever and healed her. Peter has seen first-hand that Jesus has amazing healing powers, and he’s watched Jesus hold the crowds absolutely spellbound with his teaching. Peter isn’t yet a follower of Jesus, but he knows Jesus. He knows him well enough to lend him his boat to speak from, at least. So there’s a relationship with room for trust. “Master,” Peter says, “we’re beat, we came home emptyhanded last night. The last thing my men want to do right now is go off on a fool’s errand. But I know you. I trust you. And if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

Net practice.
“Net practice.” Photo courtesy of Naveen L. Reddy. Used with permission.

“If you say so…” The literal meaning of these words in the Greek language is, ἐπὶ τῷ ῥήματί σου, “upon your word.” It makes me think of the story Jesus tells about those who hear his words and obey them being like a man building on solid rock. It makes me think of another time when Peter is out on the sea with Jesus and takes a step onto the waves. Jesus’ word is solid. It won’t let Peter fall. “If you say so,” “upon your word…” It’s Peter’s faith that opens the way to the miracle that comes next, an astounding catch of fish that is so massive it begins to break Peter’s nets and sink his boats.

What’s going on here? I think Jesus is trying to show Peter, and us, what it means to be a disciple. Jesus is going to ask his friends to do things that don’t make any sense. He’s going to ask them to leave their livelihoods and families and follow him. He’s going to ask them—to ask us—to forgive seventy times seven, to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. On his way to the cross, he’s going to ask us to trust that death isn’t the end, and that with God there’s hope yet even in the grave. And so here, on the Lake of Gennesaret, at the beginning of it all, Jesus wants to demonstrate a pattern. He asks something wild and nonsensical of us.

And it seems to me that there are a couple of promises he wants us to be able to hold onto, when we trust him, when we do something because he says so, when we take a step in faith out upon his word.

The first is that trusting Jesus brings an abundance that would not have otherwise been possible. There is no natural explanation for Peter’s miraculous catch. The only thing that made it possible was that he let down his nets when and where Jesus told him to. But followers of Jesus in our own modern time also bear witness to things that are possible only through trusting in him. Corrie ten Boom, a member of the Dutch resistance during World War II, who sheltered Jews in her home, was interned at a German concentration camp, and she wrote about an encounter, many years later, with one of the guards who had tormented her. The man approached her and extended his hand. In that moment, Corrie prayed to God for the power to forgive him, and she said she felt that power, coming from outside of her, traveling down her arm: “For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”1 There was a richness of grace that Corrie would never have experienced, unless she had been willing to cast her own net into the deep water, forgiving an enemy.

The second lesson Jesus wants us to learn is that when we make the hard choice to put our trust in him, we’re not alone—no, more than that, we can’t and shouldn’t be alone! Peter has to call over his companions to help him, because the catch of fish is so abundant, so massive, that it begins to break his nets and swamp his boat. Following Jesus in trust is not a way of life we’re capable of undertaking on our own. God’s grace is so massive, so overwhelming, that we need companions to share in the work and in the reward.

Yesterday I was at a meeting in Connecticut for my other job, and the presbytery there is engaged in a study about racism. These are difficult conversations to have in the church, because people coming from different racial backgrounds have very different experiences. In particular, there’s this idea circulating that racism exists because certain individual people are racist and act out their hate, when the reality is that there are political and economic and social and even religious systems that are set up—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not—in ways that advantage people of certain races over others. And so one of the obstacles to examining how we move through those systems, participate in them, even benefit from them, is that we don’t think of ourselves as bad people who are intentionally trying to hurt others. It’s difficult. But I think the church is one place we can have these kinds of conversations in a way that is transformative. Because, as someone said yesterday, those of us who trust in Jesus know that what makes us worthy and valuable in God’s eyes isn’t that we’re a good person, but that we’re loved unconditionally by God. We don’t have to convince others, or God, or even ourselves that we’re good, because we’re loved, treasured, valued as precious children by our Creator. That’s given, that’s promised, that’s God’s unshakeable embrace of us. And if we trust that promise, we can speak and hear difficult truths to one another. So there were some hard truths spoken and heard, but also someone who said this, “I really believe that our church can change hearts, and begin to transform our world.”

That’s grace, but it’s not grace you can receive on your own, apart from the community of God’s people. It takes relationships where people trust that they are loved and accepted, and yet able to share and receive the truth spoken in love, and to respond in ways that bind up wounds. And all of it rests on a promise that we have to hold in faith—that we can stop trying to defend and justify ourselves, because we’re already loved and forgiven in Christ.

Jesus calls us to do things that are difficult, that cut against the grain of our worldly wisdom. But in this story he demonstrates that when we trust him, when we join together with others in faith, there is abundance far beyond our imagining. The deep waters are calling. It’s time to fish for people! Amen.

Footnotes

  1. Corrie ten Boom, Tramp for the Lord. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974. Quoted in “Corrie ten Boom.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 28 Apr 2009, 13:41 UTC. 10 February 2019 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Corrie_ten_Boom&oldid=286644151>.

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