Do Not Be Afraid!
Sermon for PLTS Chapel—February 11, 2004
How easy it seems at the end: “They left everything and followed him!”
However, I don’t know how easy it was because the story moves very quickly and Peter seemed very agitated at some points here. He was doubtful when a carpenter was telling him, an experienced fisherman, what to do with the nets, and he was probably even afraid. Peter certainly experienced some kind of fear when he saw the super catch of fish that almost sank the boats, and he certainly experienced fear when he realized he was in the awesome presence of the Holy. “Oh, go away Lord, I’m just a sinful man! Just a mere human!”
Peter never literally says that he is afraid, but Jesus still says “DO NOT BE AFRAID.” Why would Jesus say that? Did Jesus know that he (and us) would be afraid at leaving everything behind? Did Jesus know that Peter (and us) would be afraid at making people captives of God? Because in the Greek it is “taking people alive” (zogreo) —taking live captives—and not taking a catch of fish (agra ton ichthuon lambano) to kill them and eat them. Luther knew he was a live captive of the Word of God and so he says before the famous phrase, “here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” He said first, “my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” CAPTIVE as when we cannot do otherwise with our lives.
Jesus commissions Peter and us to bring live people, real people, not people in the abstract, in to him. We don’t give them faith—God does that, a “gift” we say. But we are commissioned to bring people in: to meet the Lord; to experience the amazement of the Holy; to experience the amazement of the forgiveness of our sins; and to be open to experience God’s Grace and to experience the abundant life that God has meant for us. We are commissioned to get people in the net of the church, in the net of the body of Christ and to keep those who are in, in. We are commissioned to take people captive “of the Word of God” as Luther says: so people realize their need for the Holy; so people reach out with God’s gift of faith for their salvation and life with a capital “L”, so they want it; and so they make theirs Jesus’ words: “this is my body, given for you, this is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
And, I do not know about you, but Peter could have been afraid of catching nothing, of not being able to take anyone captive (as he had not caught any fish after working hard the whole previous night). Maybe we also could be afraid of knocking at doors to do some evangelism and catch nothing. Maybe we also could experience some fear when we are called amidst hopeless situations to talk about HOPE in God. We can hear people saying, “Get Jesus out of here, please, this is totally a human mess.” Maybe we could experience some fear when we are called to dig in the deepest, often the darkest recoils of people’s souls. We may be afraid sometimes to proclaim the very illogical story (according to someone’s logic) of God on the cross and a resurrected human God. Or to talk about sin and forgiveness in a culture that is hungry, but just for “nice” spirituality—light food… instead of for the meal of forgiveness for our ugly sins (individual and corporate). We ultimately may be afraid sometimes, as Peter was, of our smallness and sinfulness in the presence of the awesomeness of the Holy One who kills death and resurrects life. And even maybe we may be afraid that that awesome God calls us to be the disciples of Jesus, the Son of the Most High.
But, the words of Jesus come back to us, “DO NOT BE AFRAID.” I am the One who commissioned you and the One who sustains you in prayer, in sacraments, and in fellowship with the body of Christ. I am the One who gives you back what you leave behind: when you come to seminary; when you go on internship or your first call as a pastor or a deacon; or when you go to a still vague place to live your vocation as a lay faithful member of the body of Christ. You leave a community but you find another community, which you are called to help nourish with the Word of God, but one that is also going to nourish you with the Word and the love that is already in it.
However, the time of travel from one place to another could prove to be quite scary. “DO NOT BE AFRAID” of that Systematics or Homiletics class or the Liturgy syllabus or the Contextual Education Director that’s going to sent you to gang-infected inner city LA or a little igloo in Alaska! “DO NOT BE AFRAID,” you will be catching people. What confidence in us! It doesn’t say: if you do this or that well, you will…or if you pray enough, you will…or if you get a 4.0 average, you will…or if you never bomb a sermon in your internship, you will…or if the paper does not tremble uncontrollably in your hands when you are up in front leading liturgy in your teaching parish, you will…even if you tremble at the awesome calling and privilege of making people captive for God “DO NOT BE AFRAID,” says Jesus.
Again, Luther knew the human limitations, he prayed:
Oh God, You have made me a pastor and teacher in the church. You see how unfit I am to administer rightly this great and responsible office: and had I been without your aid and counsel I would surely have ruined it all long ago. Therefore, do I invoke you. How gladly do I desire to yield and consecrate my heart and mouth to this ministry! I desire to teach the congregation. I too desire ever to learn and to keep your word my constant companion. Use me as your instrument in your service. Only do not forsake me, for if I am left to myself, I will certainly bring it all to destruction. Amen.
And Jesus says to Luther and to us: “you will.” Yes, you mere human, even with your little or great imperfections. “You will.” It’s not even an invitation—it’s not, “would you catch some people for me?” No: “you will.” But, “why me, oh God? Why am I even here, on the road to go out and captivate people with your Word?” You know, Peter was not only commissioned to captivate people, he had to be captivated first by Jesus. He experienced the Holy in him. He experienced the miracle. He was captivated! Only then, he and his fishing buddies left everything and followed Jesus (and then it seemed easy), with some trepidation perhaps, but without being afraid. We know Peter had his moments though: he denied Jesus—more than once, he hid, but he was still captive in the net and he stayed in it and a church was built on him.
You see the grammatical form of the command “DO NOT BE AFRAID” does not make sense outside of a context of fear. We do have to be afraid to activate the imperative, “DO NOT BE AFRAID.” We are not afraid sitting on our living room sofa, reading by the fireplace until the earthquake comes and shakes our sofa and fireplace. Then, someone can come and tell us, “don’t be afraid, the house is bolted down and retrofitted, it won’t fall down on you, don’t be afraid.” Outside a context of fear, the reassurance, “DO NOT BE AFRAID,” simply does not make sense.
So Jesus tells Peter and us precisely when we are afraid, “DO NOT BE.” I have captivated you already. You will captivate others for me. And if Jesus says, we will…