Sermon by Burton Cooper
Isaiah 6; 1 Cor 15; Luke 5:1-11
Simon Peter fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying,
“Go away from me lord, for I am a sinful man.”
For he was amazed at the catch of fish they had taken;
As also were James and John … partners of Simon.
Then Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Do not be afraid;
From now on you will be catching people.”
When (James, John, and Peter) had brought their boats to shore,
They left everything and followed (Jesus)..
They left everything --- James, John and Simon Peter. Everything. They left their way of life, they left being fishermen, being family men, being village folk. You can even say, they left their identity, took on a new one. When they put down their fishing nets and began to follow Jesus in and out of the villages of Judea, they could not know what lay ahead of them; they could not know who or what they were becoming. If someone now asked John or James or Peter, “Who are you,” they would no longer say, “I am a fisherman.” They would say, “I am a disciple of Jesus.” Later, after the crucifixion and appearances, they would say, “I am an apostle of Christ, one of the twelve, a witness to his resurrection, a proclaimer of the gospel, the good news. And they would live out that new identity even to their imprisonment and death.
It’s mind-boggling. Why would these three fishermen leave everything to follow Jesus? How could they be capable of such a radical turnaround, to willingly give up everything, their way of life, their identity, put it all behind them, take on a new way of being, a new life, a new identity? At least the beginning of an answer can be found in this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter, an answer in a single word, a word, I fear, that in our time, for so many of us, it’s a word that has lost much of its resonance, and perhaps even its meaning. I am thinking of Paul saying, “I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news through which you are being saved.” Being saved. Peter, John and James leave everything and follow Jesus to be saved, to find salvation. And the concept that the gospels employ to give content to the word salvation, the one that Jesus preaches throughout his ministry, is the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is coming, Jesus says, sometimes he seems to suggest it is already here, and he calls people into participation in the life of God’s Kingdom. It’s an invitation, an elicitation, and Jesus preaches it with confidence because, as he tells his listeners in one of his parables, the Kingdom of God is like a pearl of such great price that we would give up everything to gain it. There it is again, that word, “everything.” There is something for which, Jesus says, which is of such great price that we would give up everything for it. The gospels assume this statement of Jesus, the whole New Testament assumes it, Christian faith assumes it, one can almost say the truth of our faith depends upon that assumption, which is this: that amongst the many things of human existence, there is a great qualitative difference between the one thing for which we would give up everything, and all the other things in life we are concerned about. How shall we signify that difference; how name it? Paul Tillich, an existentialist theologian, comes to our help here. He tells us that what characterizes human existence is that amongst the many concerns of our existence --- and there are many --- concerns about our health, our parents’, our children’s health, our work, our success in life, whether we have enough money, whether anybody needs us, whether we are loved, whether we have friends, whether our society is just, whether our computers are working, whether our furnaces need servicing, whether there is ice on our roads and driveways … I could go on, of course; we have a plethora of concerns --- Tillich’s point is that amongst these many concerns lies one that is an ultimate concern, ultimate because it’s a matter of life and death to us, not in a literal, physical sense, though it can lead to that, but in a spiritual/psychological sense, a matter of life and death to the human spirit, to our soul. For what we need, what our soul needs, is meaning; a life without meaning, without purpose, is a real killer: it kills our vitality, it kills our zest for life, it kills our soul, our spirit, our inner life. In that sense, we would give up everything to have meaning, to have a meaningful, purposeful life, for only so can we live vitally, zestfully.
Let’s admit that the expression, ”giving up everything” is hyperbolic, an exaggeration, but it serves the purpose of pointing to us an ultimate concern, to life’s need for meaning, for our need for a life grounded in meaning, a meaning that cannot be lost. Dare I say now that for our life to be grounded in meaning, that life in itself must be meaningful, that we find life coming to us with meaning, so that we are moved to affirm a metaphysical, transcendental ground for meaning. In this secular, positivistic age of ours, I almost feel I must apologize to use such words as metaphysical and transcendental, let alone for my earlier use of the word soul. Nevertheless, faith needs those words, and we give them up at our peril, for we need them to express what we people of faith know to be true about reality, that meaning is not simply something that arises with the evolution of a rather large brained species conscious of its self-interest, that meaning is not simply something that we human beings project upon life, but that meaning, purpose, is given with life, given as a great gift, given, as it only can be given, by a gracious, transcendental ground of meaning, a living reality whom we call God; and the fulfilled life, the one we call the “saved” life, is one that opens itself to this living reality, this ground of meaning, opens itself to the very purpose in which life itself is rooted, giving itself to this meaning, participating in it; and when we do that, when we do that, we are participating in what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.
When Peter, John and James answer the call to follow Jesus, they discover in that following, bit by bit, just as we discover in our following, bit by bit, the nature of that ground of meaning. For by a great and wondrous leap of faith, we affirm, or, rather, we confess, that Jesus in his life, in his words and acts of love, compassion, mercy, concern for all, in his judgments, in his forgiveness, in the respect he shows those whom society has marginalized, subordinated, in all this, Jesus reveals the very spirit of the ground of meaning, for the spirit of Jesus is at one with the spirit of God. It is not for nothing that we say that Jesus is God’s Word Incarnate.
In our own life, with its concerns for our family, our financial situation, our work, our concerns for the good of the groups we belong to, for the good of our political party, for the good of our nation, in all these concerns, these rightful concerns, we sometimes find ourselves in irreconcilable conflict with the spirit of Christ, and we cannot find a good way out of that conflict, and our soul has to live with that agonizing contradiction. Even worse, we followers of Christ remain finite, limited, anxious, creatures, given to tribal and self-interested impulses. And we mess up, sometimes terribly. There’s no need for me to enumerate the messes we make; we just need to listen to the daily news any day of the week. And we feel God’s judgment upon us for the mess we have made not only of human relations but the mess we have made of the very planet on which we live, God’s creation. Even so, sisters and brothers in Christ, God’s last word to us, even though we don’t know how that could be, God’s last word to us is not judgment but mercy, God’s last word to us is not death but life.
Thanks be to God for that. Thanks be to Christ. Amen.