Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 02/10/2019

For anyone who reads the Bible regularly and has been doing so for a long time, one of the things you notice is how a story or a verse that you’ve read many, many times can suddenly strike you differently as you notice something in the text that you had never noticed before. It’s part of the beauty of reading and studying the Bible actually; you never master it, you’re never done, there are always new insights to be found. Anyway, that’s what happened to me relative to today’s gospel. It occurred to me that this is the only calling of disciples story that has a miracle attached to it. In all the gospels, most often when disciples are called, it’s Jesus encountering someone, saying “Follow me,” and off they go. In this one though, the great catch of fish is attached to the call of Peter, and also to that of James and John.

Those who wrote the gospels had choices in how they organized and sequenced the stories that were out there. For example, John has a very similar great catch of fish story in his gospel but it’s toward the end as part of a resurrection appearance which could give it a very different interpretation. In the case of Luke, placing it where he does, it seems logical to think that he intends this as commentary on or as an insight into what it means to be called as a disciple of Jesus so let’s think about that.

From a Lutheran perspective, one way to think about discipleship, and I think it’s the most common way, is to see it as our response to the gift of grace we’ve been given. It’s the “God’s Work; Our Hands” thing. We are justified by God’s grace, by what has been done for us in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, so we don’t have to earn our way; that’s at the heart of Lutheran theology. But we are called to respond to that gift of grace; we’re called to continue the ministry of Jesus in whatever ways we can as we love and serve the neighbor in, what for Jesus is a pretty large and inclusive neighborhood.

Discipleship then is caring for the sick and lonely, feeding the hungry, providing for the poor and neglected, welcoming the stranger and the list could go on. Also included in our understanding of discipleship is church activity. It’s worship for one thing, but also what we would call stewardship of time and talents. It gets back to what we heard a couple of weeks ago in Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ with each member of the body having a role to play. Those roles are different, but all are important and that too is discipleship. Again, none of this is understood as a way to earn points to get us into The Good Place, but to respond to the assurance that our ticket there has already been bought and paid for.

But what about the great catch of fish? It is sometimes interpreted as illustrating the rewards of discipleship or a prefiguring of the growth of the church. That did happen; led by that unlikely group of fishermen disciples along with Paul and his associates, the post-resurrection church did grow beyond what anyone could possibly have expected. Seen that way, the great catch of fish is kind of a miraculous object lesson pep talk for those first disciples as Jesus sent them out to fish for people. That’s not a bad interpretation and once upon a time it would have satisfied me; these days though, I want to go deeper and with that we do have the deep water reference.

“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” is a key verse in this text and staying on the theme of discipleship, in today’s context that deep water might be seen as the need to think and move outside the box in how we approach what we do as disciples. These days, we don’t experience the kind of growth the early church experienced; quite the opposite actually. We could say that the shallow waters have been fished out, that in 21st century discipleship there is a need to find ways to go deeper and…that we shouldn’t be afraid of those deeper waters however they’re defined; cautious yes, but not afraid.

St. Ambrose, a voice from the early church provides another angle on this verse. He sees this command as an invitation to give one’s life over to “the deep mystery of the knowledge of the Son of God.” That represents a somewhat different slant on discipleship, one that is less about responding to the gift with activity, more about engaging the mystery of faith. Peter’s response of awe in the presence of Jesus indicates that St. Ambrose was on to something. The journey of discipleship isn’t just a list of things to do; that’s part of it, but Luke indicates that discipleship includes entering into the deep waters of the deep mystery of the God revealed in Jesus.

Some people are doers, hands on people for whom discipleship is about being active, serving on committees, volunteering in the community, doing what needs to be done. For some people that’s the beginning and the end of their discipleship, it’s the focus of their faith journey and that’s OK, in fact, it’s good, it’s a gift and a blessing as we need those people, the church needs those people.

Others though may long more for the deep water of the mystery, the deep water of an encounter with the holy. That’s what Peter experienced. It wasn’t what he was looking for or longing for, but that’s what he got. Witnessing the great catch of fish Peter became aware that whatever he had heard about Jesus prior to that, Jesus was more; more than a teacher, more even than a miracle worker. Peter became aware that he was in the presence of the holiness of God and he also knew that he wasn’t worthy to be in that presence.

In discussions about the contemporary church you hear a lot about the “I’m spiritual but not religious” people and while for some that might just be an excuse for not going to church, for some it undoubtedly is a reflection of that longing for an encounter with the holy, part of a belief that there is more to life than what our senses can perceive, more than what logic and reason can explain. It’s a longing for deep water. It’s clear however, that many of these spiritual but not religious folks are pretty sure they are not going to find it in church.

What we have to ask is, as a church, in our worship, are we offering that deep water encounter with the holy? In honesty, we have to acknowledge that such an encounter has often not been the strong suit of the Lutheran church and it really goes back to Luther himself. His focus on the Bible and on preaching caused him to view worship as a means of teaching the faith and through the years that has been an important strength of the Lutheran church, probably an important part of why many of us are here. We appreciate the permission to think the faith, to not have to check our brains at the door on Sunday morning, or any other time for that matter, even if it sometimes means wrestling with God like Old Testament Jacob. But…does that thinking and wrestling lead to knowing about God, but not really knowing God?

Important to remember as we think about what our worship offers is that while he was very focused on scripture and preaching, Martin Luther also endorsed the traditional worship of his day. He retained the established structure of the Catholic Mass, and while he did translate everything into German so people could understand it, he still saw value in the Latin Mass. Other reformers were out to abolish worship as they knew it, but not Luther. It’s a reminder to us that liturgical worship is a part of our Lutheran heritage and it too represents deep water.

The various part of the liturgy are there for a reason and it might be in those parts of the liturgy that are repeated week after week that the holiness of God is experienced as the thinking part of our brain slows down and the imaginative, emotional part takes over. The music and hymns that Luther made more prominent are related to this as music also involves that other side of the brain and can make us more receptive to a sense of the holy other.

Luther’s understanding of Christ being truly present in the bread and wine of Holy Communion is yet another part of the invitation into deep water. In the Communion liturgy we hear the words that echo Isaiah’s words when he encountered God in the temple, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.” Those are not throw away words; they are a high point of the liturgy that reflect the awe and wonder of the holy encounter into which we are invited as we approach the altar to experience the real presence of Christ.

Lutheran worship done well and reverently is deep water worship. At its best our worship is more than an invitation to think the faith, although that will always be an important part of Lutheranism. Done well, our worship is an invitation into the mystery of holiness for those longing for that as a part of their discipleship. It can lead to an encounter with the holy. As was the case with Peter though, we are not worthy of such an encounter except…Christ makes us worthy. He invites us into his holiness, a holiness which makes us holy.

So…if you know any of those “spiritual but not religious” people, you might tell them that if they’re serious, we do have deep water for them.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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