“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…”
Several years back, on Trinity V, there was a heatwave and the air conditioner stopped working and it was so hot in the nave that we moved the mass to the undercroft where it was cooler. You would have thought we had drilled for such an occasion because everyone pitched in and in no time a table was transformed into an Altar, vested with candles, the Crucifix, beautiful flowers and the Chalice. Chairs and sofas became pews, a music stand became the pulpit, and with the choir as our guide we sang our way through the mass. Upon the wall, looming over our movable Altar was Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on Galilee.” Jesus spent a lot of time in boats. Rembrandt’s is one narrative & the Gospel’s is another. Two different accounts of Jesus working a miracle in a boat and both of them are about Jesus’ divine lordship over nature.
Around this time, July 4, we heard a lot about nature – “nature’s laws and nature’s God…” Whatever the phrase may have meant to the founders, from a Christian point-of-view the God who is God is the Blessed Trinity, the creator of heaven and earth. And though the Founders thought the laws of nature proved the righteousness of the cause of 1776, the fact of the matter is that the application of so-called “laws of nature” are 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 laws of nature can come upon us suddenly, uprooting big, healthy trees, leveling our homes to the foundation and leaving us at the mercy of those laws. If anything can be said concerning “nature’s God and nature’s laws,” it is that what we call nature was created by God from nothing but his own will and word. God spoke what is 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 Septuagent 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?”
Jesus was sleeping soundly while they and their little dinghy were going down to a watery grave. Jesus woke, he rebuked and silenced the stormy sea. Note that Jesus did not say a prayer to God the Father 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
The text says 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 drowning.
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 in the numinous is the power of a spiritual entity or a mysterious event that is terrifying and fascinating at the same time. It is the experience that a person or an entity is absolutely other than one’s self and wholly unapproachable, uncontrollable and holy. 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.
“Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
The Gospel for today takes us even further:
“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…”
Maybe we get a glimpse here into our Lord’s decision to make Peter the leader of his chosen band. This is what happened: A crowd was following Jesus and he commandeered Peter’s fishing boat and turned it into his pulpit. After his sermon, he took Peter and his partners fishing and all at once they caught such a load of fish that two boats began to sink.
People in a sinking boat have different thoughts regardless of why the boat is sinking and they are mostly driven to action by self-interest. There is, for example, the kind of person whose 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. There is nothing worse than losing property.
Another type of man 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. There is nothing worse than loosing an opportunity.
And there is yet another man whose fear of losing life or limb would keep him at the back of any line, out of harm’s way. The fear of slipping and losing one’s step and falling while trying to land this massive, 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. 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. Living someone’s else life is not living at all. Some people move through life merely existing and never really living. It is a good thing that they were attentive, but what distinguished those responses from Peter’s response was that they were enamored by the empirical, by the experience, but they never understood it. Motivated by fear or character flaw, by bias, they fail 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 — a sudden flash of insight into the meaning of this great catch of fish that changed Peter’s world.
“Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished.”
The reason Peter felt an immediate need to get away from Jesus was his sudden realization that this Galilean was powerful beyond anything he had ever seen in his life. But not mere power. Peter saw that Jesus’ miracle working was tied to the very Being of God and Peter was at once 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 on the spot connected the holiness of God to the empirical miraculous catch of fish.
I want you to see this: Peter had seen men spot fish before. He did not fall down on his knees because Jesus was an extraordinary fish finder. This miracle was not a matter of Jesus seeing the fish that the other fishermen missed. Be attentive to the text. Be intelligent about the text. Being intelligent is not all that complex; all you have to do is to ask a question: “What is it? What does this mean?” And this is the intelligibility, the point, the meaning: There were no fish there when Jesus said cast your nets for a — Jesus created the fish by fiat and Peter knew it. At that point, at his first encounter with divine Messiah, Peter grasped deep within himself that God was manifesting himself through this Galilean. Peter wished that he would go away because God’s holiness is an unbearable sight. 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. 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 of the empirical. 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 God’s gift, a holy God, and God Almighty, who loves us and sent his own son Jesus to fetch us all home. Being attentive to the empirical, to experience, is the beginning of all knowledge. Attentiveness it is of first importance. But you have to ask “What is it?” What does this mean? You have to grasp its meaning and having grasped its meaning you have to live responsibly in light of what you have come to understand. Do you believe that Jesus is the God who is God? Do you believe he died for you and is risen from the dead? Do you live responsibility in light of the one who said he is the way, the truth, and the 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.”