Sunday, February 6, 2022
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany / Lectionary 5, Year C
Prayer of the Day
Most holy God, the earth is filled with your glory, and before you angels and saints stand in awe. Enlarge our vision to see your power at work in the world, and by your grace make us heralds of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 6:1-8 Isaiah says, Here am I; send me
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 I am the least of the apostles
Luke 5:1-11 Jesus calls the disciples to fish for people
Title: Prosperity of a Disciple
What becomes of this story of Jesus and the fishermen in the hands of a promoter of the Gospel of Prosperity? And I am intentional with my use of the word promoter and not preacher. If you do not know of the gospel of prosperity, it is a great heresy infecting American Christianity that has been spreading over the last 70 years (or 140 years, depending on who you blame for starting it). And now it is even being exported around the world. In brief, the focus of its message is that God rewards what these promoters call “faithfulness” with material wealth and physical well-being. It is a most unholy marriage of Christ-less Christianity and Capitalism. Some of its most popular current promoters are Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyers, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn. In the past there was Norman Vincent Peale and, New Yorkers may remember, Rev. Ike from the 70’s. And if the personal wealth of any of these folks were a sign of their faithfulness to God, well let’s just say that they must have the kind of faith that can move mountains. However, sadly it is mountains of cash that have moved from their followers’ wallets and purses into the promoters’ bank accounts supporting opulent lifestyles filled with private planes, luxury cars, and multiple mansions. It’s just God’s love in material form, they would insist.
So, imagine yourself in one of their churches and this gospel story from Luke is read. The fishermen, Simon Peter, James, and John have been fishing all night and have nothing to show for it. Jesus tells them to try again. With some reluctance, for they must be dog tired, they follow his directions. And they take in such a catch that their nets are breaking. Well, there it is. They did what Jesus told them, and they were blessed with success in their business. Following this interpretation, there would be, of course, some version of telling the listeners that their contributions to that particular ministry would be the same as the fishermen casting their nets into the sea. And therefore, their own success/reward will come when they cast their contribution into the coffers. All the while, we know whose nets are filling to overflowing. Mixing metaphors, they call it seed money, plant a seed and it will grow.
One of the great dangers of this theological approach to the story and teachings of Jesus is what happens when someone does not enjoy the success that they are promised, and hoping and praying for? What happens when instead of success, illness and hardship come? Tragedy even. Does the person lose faith because God has not made good on the promise that was articulated by one of these prosperity promoters? Or are they racked with guilty thinking they are not deserving of God’s goodness? Or think that they are being divinely punished? Certainly, the prosperity gospel is the most oxymorons of all oxymorons. Gospel meaning good news, there is no good news in the prosperity gospel.
First of all, putting the emphasis of this story on the catch of fish is like hearing Isaiah’s dramatic call event in the Temple (today’s first reading) and thinking that the main point of it is to learn how many wings an angel has. Jesus does not come to bring business success. Take note that the fisherman do not stick around to sell their fish and buy a bigger house or better boat. They leave everything to follow Jesus. Catching the fish just catches their attention and gives Jesus a chance to create a really great turn of phrase – from now on you will be catching people. And this new “fishing career” will confront these fishermen with challenges the likes of which they have never seen, even on a storm-tossed sea. None of them got rich for following Jesus.
Yes, anyone looking for “success and happiness” will be sure to stop at the full nets and not look at the life these folks led because they followed Jesus: sacrifice, hardship, rejection, disagreements, even martyrdom, because they followed Jesus, because they heard the true good news in Jesus, witnessed the true treasure – the priceless new life that is ours in the risen Christ, nurtured the seed of faith that the Holy Spirit planted in them. And for them, it was not just for their own benefit, but for the sake of the world. For our sake even, as we hear their witness and believe.
I find it fascinating that Jesus preambles this calling of the fishermen with a “Do not be afraid.” (A phrase repeated over and over again throughout the scriptures. Certainly not something you need to say to someone when you are promising them great success and total happiness.) Already, in his short life, Jesus certainly knows what a feisty catch people can be. He knows, and will be subject to it himself, how threatening catching people up in God’s powerful reign can be to the earthly powers that be. His perceived threat to the folks seeking their own prosperity through power, will get him nailed to the cross. Speaking of the cross, that is one thing you will not find in the arena that is the performance space of Joel Osteen. Doesn’t really fit into the story that he is telling, the message that he is selling.
St. Paul knew about the cross. He was not there to see Jesus hanging on it, but he came to understand and cherish the priceless salvation that is to be found in it. Anyone who preached a salvation that was absent of the cross and/or relied on works and obedience to the law, these people Paul would call enemies of the cross. Of course, as a persecutor of the church, Paul was one. He was a Pharisee, a strict observer of the law. But then, once a church member and missionary, he saw that there were enemies of the cross even within its ranks. And he was not shy about calling them out and then preaching and teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, whose proclamation was in direct opposition to these enemies of the cross.
Paul’s proclamation, the Corinthians newfound belief, the faith which we continue in today is the gospel of the cross. The God of life and light, through Jesus Christ, turns even a symbol of defeat and an instrument of death into victory and new life. All of which is shared through the Holy Spirit with and in us – even though we be people of unclean lips like Isaiah. And we are called to live into this life of discipleship though we be completely unfit as were those fishermen who were the first followers. It is both the scandal of the cross and the good news of the cross.
This past Wednesday, the Church marked the feast of the Presentation of Jesus. And the old prophet Simeon proved just how prophetic he was as he foretold of this cross-centered gospel that Jesus (then just 40 days old) would be proclaiming. He rejoices that he has lived to see the one who is the light of the world. However, he also warns Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” No promises of comfort and wealth there. Not for Israel, certainly not for Mary.
And of those hugely successful fishermen – Luke reports that they left everything and followed Jesus. They left everything. And in Jesus they gained everything – a peace beyond understanding, a hope that does not die, a new life that knows no end. I’m guessing that none of us will ever leave everything as they did. And yet – the everything they gained is just as much ours to live into through the waters of baptism in which we are joined to Christ – dying to self, counting as nothing all that this world offers, and rising to new life through the power of the Holy Spirit. Everything is ours in that gift, yet the world just sees water.
This morning, we again gather at the table of the Lord for what the world sees as merely a wafer and a drop of wine. Yet, in faith, we know that this is a feast of the everything-given-new-life that is so graciously given by the mercy of God through Jesus the Christ and sustained through the work of the Holy Spirit. So let us “not be afraid,” for the true abundance of God in Christ is ours, this day and forever.
The Rev. Mark Erson,