“And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished…”
About three years ago it was so hot in the nave that we had to move the 10:30 mass to the undercroft where it seemed to be significantly cooler. You would have thought we had practiced for such an occasion because everyone pitched in and in no time a table was pushed up against the wall downstairs and it was vested with candles, the Crucifix, beautiful flowers and the Chalice. It was transformed into our Altar. Chairs and sofas became pews, a music stand became the pulpit, and the choir and Fiona led us on as we sang our way through the mass. It was not till late Sunday afternoon that it dawned on me that upon the wall and looming over our movable Altar was Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on Galilee.” Rembrandt’s presentation is of a different account is from the Gospel for today that is focused on Jesus’ calling his first disciples, especially Peter – but both of them come together on Jesus’ lordship over nature. Around the week of July 4 we heard a lot about nature – “the laws of nature and nature’s God…” Whatever the phrase “the laws of nature and nature’s God” may have meant to the founders, from a Christian point-of-view it certainly the case that “nature’s God” is not equivalent to the Holy Trinity. And though the Founders thought that the laws of nature could be mustered as proof for the righteousness of the cause of 1776, the fact of the matter is that the application of so-called “laws of nature” is not on the whole always favorable to our well being. Rembrandt shows nature being itself and naturally ripping the sails from the mast of that little boat the disciples were in. The results of the laws of nature come upon us suddenly and leveled big, healthy trees, shake our homes to the foundation and leave us at the mercy of those laws. The phrase “nature’s God” is more troubling and if anything can be said concerning these issues from a distinctly Christian perspective it is that what we call nature was created by God from nothing but his own will and word. By fiat he spoke it into existence out of nothing and it continues to exist only because he sustains it by his own will and power. God is the “God of Nature” only in the sense that he is the Pantocrator; the word used in the Septuagint for Yahweh, which means, the King of the Universe, God Almighty.
If you notice that Rembrandt print in the undercroft you will see that the disciples are waking up Jesus. The Bible says he was “asleep on the cushion.”
“Lord, do you not care if we perish?”
Their cry was out of fear and even anger that Jesus was sleeping soundly while their little dinghy was going down to a watery grave and they along with it. Jesus rebuked and silenced the stormy sea. Jesus did not say a prayer to God requesting seasonable weather, he literally spoke to nature and said: “Be still. Remain quite!” And the wind immediately ceased and a great calm settled on the waters, not because the wind has a mind and intentionality and may obey a command, but rather God’s word is the source of all being.
“For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.” Colossians 1:16,17
Again, according to the text, his disciples were “awestruck.” There is a quality of fear in that word, but it is not the same sort of fear they had experienced when they feared for their lives. A long time ago a man named Rudolph Otto wrote a book titled The Idea of the Holy. It is a book that explores religious experience and in particular he refers to an experience he called “numinous awe.”
What one experiences is the power of a spiritual entity that evokes fear and trembling and the sense that this person or this entity is absolutely other than one’s self and wholly unapproachable, uncontrollable and incomprehensible. That is what is wrapped up in the experience of those men in the boat when the text says that they were frightened and awestruck. Yes, they feared going down in the storm, but once that was past it was an even greater sense of fear and reverence for the person of Jesus: “Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
“And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished…”
What the disciples experienced when Jesus silenced the stormy sea, Peter experienced in a much more complete and profoundly important manner in the event preserved for us in the Gospel for today. Maybe we get a glimpse here into our Lord’s decision to make Peter the leader of his chosen band. What a wonderful man! In many ways Peter is like David, a man after God’s own heart. This is what happened: A crowd was following Jesus and he commandeered Peter’s fishing boat and turned it into his pulpit. After his teaching, he then led Peter and his partners to catch such large a batch of fish that two boats began to sink.
People in a sinking boat have all kinds of thoughts regardless of why the boat is sinking and they are driven to action mostly by self-interest. There is, for example, the kind of person whose whole focus would have been upon his property. This man or woman would not have been able to get the thought of the torn nets and tackle out of his mind. The cost of replacement and the loss of productive time would dominate his thoughts. His desire to save his tearing nets and maybe even his boat would drive all other concerns from mind.
But there is another type of man who would have been energized; he would have experienced extraordinary focus and maybe even increased physical strength at this auspicious catch of fish! The money he would make would more than repair his tearing nets; even buy new ones. This is the kind of unexpected chance, an opportunity that does not come along every day. This is the break that could push a man to the front of the market and pay off all his debts and put away something for the future. Thoughts of enriching himself by seizing this opportunity would drive all other concerns from this man’s mind.
And there is yet another man whose fear of losing life or limb would keep him at the back of any line and as much as possible, out of harm’s way. The fear of mauling a hand or losing one’s step and falling while trying to land this massive, unwieldy, unexpected catch of fish is reasonable enough with such dangerous work. This man would have experienced all the original fear of the men who were in the storm-tossed boat with Jesus that Rembrandt presents. “I may lose my life!” This man can think of nothing worse than losing his life and that makes him the saddest of all. There are worse things in life than dying. Living a lie is worse than death. Some people move through life merely existing and never really living. What all these people have in common is that they are captivated by the empirical. It is a good thing that they were attentive (who couldn’t be under the circumstances?) but what distinguished their response from Peter’s response was that they were enamored by the empirical, by the experience, and they did not get it. Motivated by fear or character flaw, by bias they failed to grasp the meaning of the empirical – of this great catch of fish.
But Peter response was entirely different:
“When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished.”
Peter was not so entranced by the empirical and for whatever reasons, he was not distracted by fear of bodily harm, death, or greed – and he grasped the intelligibility of the empirical event, he had an insight into the meaning of this great catch of fish that pretty much literally knock him off his feet. Peter fell down on his knees before Jesus and he asked Jesus to go away. “Please go away from me!” The reason he asked Jesus to leave was Peter’s sudden realization that this Galilean was powerful beyond anything he had ever seen in his life. But this is not only power. Peter also connected Jesus’ miracle working with the Being of God and Peter was immediately overwhelmed by the experience of holiness. Whatever Peter realized about the identity of Jesus at this point, this much is true: not only did Peter know that Jesus was a miracle worker, but he was working miracles that only God could work according to the Old Testament. Peter instantly connected the holiness of God to the empirical miracle of the catch of fish. I want you to see this: this miracle was not a matter of Jesus seeing the fish that the other fishermen missed – Jesus created the fish by fiat and Peter knew it. At that point, at his first real encounter with divine Messiah, Peter grasped deep within himself that God in some manner was manifesting himself through this Galilean. And if he can create a load of fish right in front of you, you can go away and Peter wished that he would go away because God’s holiness is an unbearable sight to behold. And in fact the text indicates that though Peter was the spokesman, his partners, James and John had experienced the same presence of the power and the holiness of God in Jesus. Regardless of how other people may have experienced this miracle, for Peter and James and John it changed their lives. When they finally got their catch to land, the three of them turned their backs on the boats and nets and tackle and on the best catch of fish they had ever seen in their lives. The Bible says, “they left everything and followed Jesus.” And that is the difference between remaining enamored with the empirical and grasping the intelligible, grasping the meaning. That is the difference between merely existing and really living. Regardless of how it may appear, we are not at the mercy of nature nor are our lives charmed by good luck or cursed by bad luck. Life is not ruled by chance. The meaning of my life is not the sum of all my good choices weighed against the sum of all my bad choices. Life is the gift of God, a holy God, and God Almighty, who loves us and sent his own son Jesus to fetch us all home. The empirical is the beginning of all knowledge, it is of first importance, but you have to leave the empirical behind. You have to grasp its meaning and having grasped its meaning you have to live responsibly in light of that meaning. Would you leave everything for him? If you have never consciously and intentionally resolved to follow Jesus with all your heart, when you come to the Altar of God this morning, why not make today the day you give him your whole life?
“Jesus said to Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him.”