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On Obedience and the Gifts of God
A Sermon on the 16th Sunday After Pentecost
In the Gospel reading appointed for this Sunday we hear a story of the greatest importance, both for ourselves and for Christianity itself: we hear the story of the beginning of the conversion of the holy chief of the Apostles, St. Peter. This was not the first encounter of St. Peter with Christ; his brother, St. Andrew, had brought St. Peter to Jesus in Bethabara and told him that He was the Christ. Afterwards the two brothers began to follow the Lord in His earthly wanderings, both hearing His teachings and witnessing His miracles. They were with Him as His fame began to spread throughout the whole region. The Lord had even lodged under St. Peter’s roof, and healed his mother-in-law of her illness. Yet today at Gennesaret, Simon Peter as it were encounters the Lord for the first time: not as an abstract idea, not as a public figure only (however great a figure He doubtless appeared to be), but face to face. St. Peter begins to understand that this man is far more than merely a religious teacher or a political liberator, and he begins to realize that his own life will never be the same. This beginning of St. Peter’s life of apostleship can and must serve to inspire and instruct us also, who are all likewise called to the apostolic life — no less than was St. Peter himself.
In the first verse of this passage we hear that “the people pressed upon him [i.e. Jesus] to hear the word of God.” It is first of all this eagerness for the word of God which we must cultivate within ourselves. Remember that the people of Israel did not yet realize that the Lord was far more than a rabbi, far more than a prophet, far more even than their limited and confused idea of who the promised Messiah would be. But we ourselves already know that He is the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, God Himself come in the flesh. The people of Israel desired to hear the teaching of a wise man, or perhaps to receive healing from an illness, or perhaps even to be freed at long last from the hated Roman occupation. But we ourselves know that the Lord came to bring us the forgiveness of our sins, eternal life in the Kingdom of His Father, and even theosis, deification, union with the Lord God Himself! These are things far beyond anything the people gathered by the lake of Gennesaret could possibly have imagined.
And yet how bored we are by all of it! Not only do we not run eagerly to hear the word of God, not only do we not press ourselves excitedly toward those who teach us such a word, but we can barely even drag ourselves out of bed to receive into ourselves the very Body and Blood of God Himself! My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Let us ask the Lord to enkindle within our hearts at least the first sparks of this fiery longing for the kingdom of heaven, a longing which these simple people of Israel possessed in abundance.
After the Lord finishes instructing the people, He says to St. Peter: “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.” That is to say, He tells him to do something which appears to be nothing but a waste of time, a pointless and difficult endeavor with no hope of any meaningful benefit — for St. Peter had already been toiling all the night long and had caught nothing. What is more, all fishermen knew that the nighttime was far better for fishing than the day; if the night had yielded nothing, how could anyone expect success in the day?
How well this describes the way in which so many of us view the Christian life! We hear the commandments of the Lord, but we do not understand them; they do not make any sense to us. We look on them only as toil and labor, and in our state of faithlessness and unbelief we in no way perceive the grace and benefactions stored up within each and every one of them, without exception. But in St. Peter’s obedience to this commandment of Christ we can learn three very important lessons which have the power to help us — by God’s grace — to overcome our spiritual blindness and hardness of heart.
First, we see that St. Peter obeys the Lord’s request meekly, even though all his experience and understanding tells him that to obey would be futile. His obedience is not blind and thoughtless; he calmly acknowledges the full reality of the situation, yet at the same time he humbles his rational mind and commits himself to obedience to Christ. It is absolutely necessary that we ourselves practice such apostolic obedience, trusting in God rather than in our own knowledge and understanding – no matter how reasonable or well-founded. If we fail to do this, we cannot possibly expect any results whatsoever in our spiritual life.
But if we follow St. Peter’s example, we will open ourselves to learning the second lesson: we will learn the true nature and heart of the evangelic commandments. Because of course the Lord gave His commandment to St. Peter purely out of love and generosity. It was not merely some arbitrary test of St. Peter’s faith. It was not given out of some vainglorious need of the Lord to be obeyed by His creatures. Quite simply, the Lord wished to give food to His disciples, and so told them how they might obtain that food. And this is how it is with all of the Lord’s commandments: they are all manifestations of the compassionate and boundless love of God, given for no other reason than to bestow His kindness upon His servants.
If we learn this lesson well, we will find it much easier to give our obedience willingly and gladly, rather than reluctantly and grudgingly. And the more we do this, the more we will learn to trust the One Who always gives generously and abundantly, far above anything we could ever deserve or imagine. We often think that to obey Christ means to lose many things which we love and desire. But the things we love are dross, and the things we cling to are but dust and ashes. It is only once we let go of them that our hands will be free to receive the true and everlasting riches which our Father so greatly desires to give us.
Third – and most important – we must learn the response of St. Peter to the kindness and generosity of God: gratitude, yes, but gratitude expressed in compunction, repentance, humility, and faith. “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Note well that it was not righteous indignation or the threat of chastisement that led St. Peter to such a confession, but rather a simple gift of fish one morning in Galilee. Such a gift changed St. Peter’s whole life because his heart was open, because he caught a glimpse of the power of Him Who holds all creation in the palm of His hand, and saw that this great and incomprehensible power was being stretched forth not to smite him for his sins, but rather to gently give him his daily bread. And so was proved true the saying of St. Paul: it is above all the goodness of God that leads men to repentance.
And behold also the great wisdom of this simple fisherman: far from clinging to the earthly riches he has just been freely given, he rather immediately exchanges all his livelihood, his home, his family and all his possessions for a life of wandering and poverty. The Lord made no demand, nor even a simple request for the disciples to forsake all and follow Him. He simply gave to them a catch of fish.
So it must be with us. We must respond to the generosity of the Lord with our own generosity of heart. As it says in the Scriptures: “He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully.” And as the Lord Himself tells us: “For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.” This is the simple arithmetic of the spiritual life. It is not complicated. It has all been explained to us quite clearly. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” Let us go then, and do likewise.