February 6, 2022

Luke 5:1-11
1 Corinthians 15:1-11

“Unworthy Apostles”

Have you ever had the feeling of being unworthy or ill-equipped to do something that you were being asked to do? Perhaps you felt like that when you found out you were going to be a parent for the first time, or when it fell to you to deliver the eulogy for someone you loved. Maybe you remember being interviewed for a position of new responsibility or leadership at work, or letting your name stand for a role in the church or another community organization that stretched you beyond your comfort zone.

I think that’s what was happening with Simon in today’s Gospel story when Jesus began to prepare him to take on the role of Apostle on Jesus’ missionary team.

The way Luke tells the story, Simon wasn’t meeting Jesus for the first time on that day of fishing out on the water. Jesus had already stayed at Simon’s house and healed Simon’s mother-in-law from some kind of illness. Likely, Simon had also witnessed Jesus healing other people in his community, and undoubtedly heard some of his preaching and teaching as well.

But on this day, Jesus singles out Simon and his fishing partners to receive a great blessing, to confirm what they are probably already suspecting about Jesus’ identity and power, and to prepare them to join in the work and ministry that he has just begun.

However, instead of responding with joy and enthusiasm, Simon experiences a sudden wave of fear and self-doubt. Although he’s followed Jesus out into the deep water of the lake and been rewarded for his faith with an amazing catch of fish, he hesitates to go further with Jesus.

He falls down at Jesus’ knees and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Jesus hasn’t even asked Simon to join his ministry team yet, but Simon seems to see it coming and he starts to make his objections early: “I’m not like you. I can’t do the things you do like healing and teaching and miracles. I’m just a fisherman, and not a very good one at that. We fished all night and caught nothing until you came along to help us.”

And maybe there was more behind his hesitancy too – perhaps he wasn’t particularly faithful in his religious practice. Maybe he was aware of his selfishness or his cheating or his unkindness in the midst of the struggles of daily life as a fisherman. He did not feel worthy or capable of what he already seemed to know Jesus was asking him to do, nor was he ready for the position of leadership he would one day fulfill as the Apostle Peter, the Rock on which the church was built.

Biblical scholars have noticed that when God or Jesus calls someone in Scripture to a special role like a prophet, a priest, or an apostle, there’s a usual pattern to the encounter. First, there is some sort of divine epiphany – a burning bush, a voice from the heavens, a demonstration of God’s power, a miraculous catch of fish. And then, the person being called almost always says, “Oh no, not me!” They don’t know how to speak. They’re too young. The task seems too big or too difficult.

But the objections are always followed by reassurance: “I will be with you. My Spirit will help you. I will give you the words. I will fill you with power.” Often, the Holy One says “Do not be afraid,” even though fear seems like a perfectly reasonably response to the kinds of things these people are being asked to do.

And then finally, there is a commission – a sending to do God’s will, to participate in God’s work, to use their gifts, including the ones they didn’t yet know they had. And they do. They almost always respond with obedience after that – going out into the deep water of chaos and risk, trusting that God knows what God is doing and that their mission will be fruitful.

Of course, not all Jesus’ followers are called to go out on the road. Not all are apostles. Not all are missionaries. And thinking about that reminds me of the Christians at Corinth in the mid-first century, the community we’ve been talking about for the last several Sundays as we make our way through the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Very much like us, the Corinthian Christians were figuring out how to live as people of faith and followers of Jesus in a complex and diverse society of many cultures, religions, and ideologies. They were a minority group, as Christians are becoming again in our time, struggling to find their place and share their good news in a complicated and often dangerous world.

Like many communities that are dealing with challenges, the Corinthians began to struggle amongst themselves – with conflicts and disagreements causing tension and leading to power struggles and divisions.

Paul heard about their troubles, and wrote to them with a message of encouragement, a little scolding, and a lot of advice for how to get along better and cooperate in their mission of sharing the love of God in Jesus Christ with the world.

You may remember that in the last few chapters, Paul reminded them that their different gifts and diversities all come from the same Spirit and are meant to be shared for the common good. Each member of the church is like a part of one body, and the parts are designed to work together in a coordinated effort to accomplish their goals.

And although the knowledge and other gifts of the church members are worth celebrating and appreciating and using for good, Paul tells them that these things are just temporary. The only thing that endures forever is the gift of LOVE which is given to us all from God, and we are meant to share it along with any other gifts that we may have.

Paul is asking a lot of the Christians at Corinth, and when we read his letter in our time, we are reminded that God is asking a lot of us too. God has blessed us with many gifts and resources, but we’re meant to use them for the good of others, not ourselves. God has gifted us with talents and abilities that are quite remarkable, but we’re asked not to expect too much praise, but rather to work with others, adding our contributions to the whole and showing more appreciation for the gifts that may seem less remarkable.

Most of all, we are called to LOVE, which means showing patience and kindness, and avoiding envy, boasting, arrogance, and rudeness. Bearing with one another, even through challenges and conflicts, trusting in God, and placing our hope in the eternal gift of LOVE.

Although the LOVE chapter in 1 Corinthians is beautiful and inspiring, it’s also difficult. It’s a lot to ask. I feel that when I realize with regret that I’ve become impatient with someone and spoken harshly to them. I feel that when I firmly disagree with someone on an important issue and I just want to walk away and not associate with someone who could think such terrible things.

It’s hard to love in those circumstances, and I’m so very aware that I have failed to show love – whether in my words, in my thoughts, or simply in my giving up and turning away.

Well, when Paul advised the Corinthians to share their diverse gifts, to work together, and above all to stay committed to LOVE, he didn’t do it as one who was claiming to have done it well himself. A couple of chapters later (in the verses we read today) Paul admits to the Corinthians that he hasn’t embodied LOVE very well either. He tells them, “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

Although he was a religious leader and scholar, Saul (as he was formerly known) showed little patience for imperfection and no love for those who disagreed with him as they began to follow the teachings and way of life of Jesus of Nazareth.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul witnesses to the good news that God has not condemned him for his failures, but has shown compassion and grace towards him. He says, “By the grace of God I am what I am,” and what he has become is an Apostle of Jesus Christ. One who persecuted the church of God and made so many mistakes has become, by God’s grace, the one sent to bring good news and a message of love and grace to others.

Just like Paul and just like Peter, the Christians at Corinth are being invited by Jesus to a high calling – to join his team and use their gifts (together with love) for God’s purposes in the world. And so are we.

We may not feel worthy, or well-equipped, or confident in our natural abilities. After all, we also have a history of getting things wrong, and hurting one another, and wanting recognition instead of humble service.

But we are reminded today that Peter and Paul and the Corinthians, and pretty much everyone who followed Jesus and shared God’s love with the world was just like us – always imperfect and often afraid.

And we are like them in another way too – we are loved, we are forgiven, we are gifted and sent – given a mission in Jesus’ name, and assured that the Spirit will be with us to surprise and amaze us with the miraculous results.