As we sit here in the sanctuary, my sister and daughter are boarding zodiac skiffs in the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica this morning. They have traveled to 6 continents and wanted to go to the 7th continent to complete their bucket list. Antarctica is actually the largest dessert in the world, with ice instead of sand but you can sightsee on only small parts of it. The video they sent from the tour company website does seem pretty spectacular; small boats, of 10 or so passengers each, float through icy mountains and penguined-penisulas looking for whales and seals, while large chunks of ice fall into the sea. The only thing between my sister, daughter and a polar plunge is an inflatable rubber boat and their guide.
As I imagined my loved ones in the care of a rubber boat in the arctic desert this morning, I am reminded of how boats are ever present in the gospels, and in the bible in general. Boats saved Noah, Moses and Jonah. Jesus gets into boats, out of boats and walks on water towards a boat to preach, teach or to save. Even this sanctuary is shaped like an upside down boat. Today we have the story of two boats in Luke 5.
Here we have Simon Peter, who is later referred to only as Peter, after a long night fishing is cleaning his nets. The day before this, Jesus had come to Peter’s house and cured his mother-in-law of a mysterious illness, so we know that Peter knows that Jesus is a healer and a Rabbi. Jesus gets into Peter’s boat, without asking permission, and asks him to put the boat out a little so that people can hear him, and Peter does so. We have no record of what Jesus says from his boat pulpit, which puts the emphasis in this text on Jesus’ relationship with Peter. After the sermon, Jesus tells Peter to put out into deeper waters and let down their now cleaned nets for a catch. You can hear the exasperation in Peter’s voice, “We’ve already done that. We’ve done everything we can to catch fish and there are no fish to catch.” He calls Jesus Master at this point in the story, which at that time would meant teacher or overseer. Peter does put out his nets again in the deep waters but there is something different this time, Jesus is in his boat. The catch is so big that they need a second boat to haul the nets up.
We could use this scripture as a guide on how to catch people for our church and yet I think we would miss the point entirely. Peter does not know any new things about catching fish than he did in the beginning of the narrative. He realizes this when he sees the net-breaking load of fish and his response to Christ is, “Go away from me, Lord, because I am a sinful man.” Peter has gone from thinking Jesus was a teaching healer to realizing Jesus was the owner of his very life, the creator and Lord of life itself, with dominion over fish and men. It is a moment of absolute grace. No longer is Peter following the teachings of a great rabbi, but encountering the God of the universe in human form. Dr. David Lose says, “I love the idea that however much Peter thinks he knows Jesus, he only now realizes that he really doesn’t know him, that he’s only just beginning to realize who and what Jesus is, and that it scares him a little. It’s easy, I suppose, to attribute Peter’s confession to a lack of self-esteem, or an appropriate confession of sinfulness in the presence of the sinless One. But I think that each time we experience sheer grace, we are simultaneously joyful and a little afraid, struck by how much more we’ve received than we deserve or even imagined. Wondering how such blessings came our way and realizing we are caught up in something so much bigger than ourselves.”
Did Peter ask Jesus to get into his boat? No. He got into the empty boat while Peter was going about his daily net cleaning. Did Peter ask Jesus to give him a haul of fish? No- Peter had already decided for himself that they were done fishing because he could not see any other way to catch any fish. Did the fish respond to a perfectly baited hook? No- these fish were caught in a net while they were swimming along in their fish school. This was net fishing—one minute you’re a fish swimming along and the next thing you know you are being dragged into a boat.
What does this mean for us?
First of all, it means that grace is not a product of your perfect prayers or perfect behavior. Grace is a free gift from Jesus Christ to you, not because of what you have done but because of what Christ has done for you because of who He is. Jesus gets into your boat when it’s empty—not full of you and your plans of how to fill it up. It is when we are out of ideas of how to fill up our own boat that we tiredly say, “I’ve tried everything, God. I guess I let you have a crack at it because this situation is hopeless, impossible, nothing can be done.” Grace is abundant—this catch of fish was so big that the nets were breaking and they had to get a second boat to haul it in.
I have recently had a big dose of this abundant grace in Christ’s net. As you may know, my mother died on January 29th after a very short illness. I had wondered for years how my mother’s passing would happen as she was in her late 90s but still very healthy and with it. In early January, she had a heart attack and broke her arm, resulting in her death from heart failure. I felt absolutely dragged ashore by circumstances but seeing grace show up again and again in the most mundane circumstances and despite my very limited view of possibilities. On one particular night, I felt akin to Peter as I stood by my empty boat, cleaning my nets. One of my three brothers had not spoken to my mother in years and I knew my mother wanted to see him yet he stayed away, not wanting to come to her house or the hospital. My siblings were pressuring me to make it happen, and yet I did not have that power.
When we moved Mom to hospice, my husband Stuart stayed with her for a few hours while we went to get things from her house. This estranged brother showed up at her bedside where they had a reconciliation. Eight hours later, after seeing clouds, flowers, her mother and my father coming for her, my mother died peacefully having seen her son. There is no way I could have asked for that nor predicted that they would reconcile in any way. And yet Jesus put us out into deeper waters and hauled in the net.
Are you despairing of something? Do you feel that you have done everything you can humanly to make something happen, and yet nothing has happened? Is there a situation that you have prayed about yet it seems to either not change or get worse? Jesus Christ has his eye on you but the deeper situation is beyond human eyes to see or human power to solve. We are but a small boat on the large sea of God’s creation, but there is one who is the Lord of all, not just a teacher or healer, but the giver of all things, creator of all things, Lord of life and the universe. That one is Jesus Christ, who like Peter, is more than we have believed, more than we can fathom, gives more than we ask for and before we ask. This Lord of your life is love beyond all understanding and peace for your soul. As he tells Peter, “Do Not Be Afraid,” for He is always with you.
There is a poem by the Episcopal Bishop Campbell Francis Gray that captures this for me,
a coracle on a dangerous sea,
until apprehended by Grace.
We are not the Lords of our fate, but there is one who is. That one is Jesus Christ and He is in your oarless little boat on the dangerous sea of life to apprehend you by grace and reconcile all that is barren in your life to the full and abundant life of grace. Do not be afraid.