Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
“But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” — Luke 5:8
Last week I offered the first of a two-part sermon series. We started this journey in Luke 4. It’s the story of Jesus’s launch into public ministry.
Before Jesus has a chance to preach his trial sermon in the synagogue, Satan steps in. Satan takes Jesus out to a lonely place. For forty days and for forty nights, Satan tests Jesus. Satan offers Jesus the path of least resistance. He offers Jesus instant gratification. Satan offers Jesus a seeming shortcut to success. He thereby tests Jesus’s commitment. Satan offers Jesus the world to walk away from his divine calling. He offers Jesus the pleasure of worldly vices in exchange for Godly virtue.
Many of us have walked down this tempting path. For forty days and forty nights, we have witnessed others seemingly succeed through the devices of dishonesty and deception. For forty days and forty nights, some of us have wrestled with self-doubt and second-guessed our own moral commitments.
So the first temptation is a test of our commitment. Satan, whether in the form of negative peer pressure or that malevolent voice in our head, wants us to cut corners. Satan desires for us to opt for the convenient and comfortable over the right and the just. This is why we must remember that there is no success without commitment, no permanence without perseverance, and no stability without integrity.
After Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, the Bible says everyone spoke well of him. This leads to Jesus’s second temptation—the temptation of widespread compliments. Public appreciation and praise can be an alluring narcotic. It titillates and tantalizes. But public approval can also be deceptive. There is a difference between what’s popular and what is necessary. You can ask any parent this. It’s easy to be a “cool parent.” Just give your child whatever she wants, and she will tell everybody, “My mom is the best. My dad is cool.” Being a responsible parent is much harder. This is the difference between providing children with what they want, and what you know they need.
Similarly, it is easy to end up on the right side of public opinion and the wrong side of righteousness; the right side of a capricious cultural moment but the wrong side of history. Maybe this is why Jesus says, “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26)
Temptations abound. Temptations test our commitment and tempt us to succumb to widespread applause.
Today’s lesson picks up where we left off last week. Jesus is still in Galilee. And the author of Luke offers Jesus’s first non-healing miracle. Luke uses this miracle account to describe how Jesus called his first disciples.
Jesus is teaching along the Sea of Galilee. The crowd was so large that Jesus decides to get into one of the two fishing boats along the shore. He begins to preach from the ship. After Jesus concluded his lesson, I assume he saw a look of despondency on the face of the fishermen. One of the fishermen was Simon, also known as Peter. The other two were brothers, James and John. The men had been out on the lake fishing all night but did not catch any fish. So Jesus asks them to cast the ships into the deep and drag their nets one more time. On this occasion, the men caught so many fish that both boats could barely hold them all.
Peter then falls out at Jesus’s feet and declares, “Go away from me, Lord. I am a sinful man.” To which Jesus makes his call. “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will be catching people.”
I think we can learn a powerful lesson today from Peter’s response. He falls down at Jesus’s feet and declares himself unworthy. He acknowledges his inadequacy. Before the feet of Jesus, he admits his insufficiency.
I suspect this is why Jesus calls Simon Peter—Peter passed Jesus’s test. Peter resisted the temptation of qualification.
Peter teaches us a lesson about God’s blessings. He understands himself no more worthy of Christ’s call than anyone else in the crowd. No more qualified than any other fisherman along the sea. So when called by God’s grace, Simon Peter falls down on his knees in humble repentance. Simon Peter understands a fundamental truth about God’s call and God’s blessing—none of us is ever truly qualified.
I know that we live in a so-called meritocratic culture. We warrant our spots. We earned our call. We deserve our position. Even when someone is picked over us, we will concoct reasons to rationalize why they were selected.
“It’s because their parents are rich and connected.”
“I hear he is legacy.”
“I heard they just needed to select a woman this time around.”
“Well. you know they only picked him because he’s black. Minorities get all the opportunities.”
Consider what we are doing in such moments. We are succumbing to the temptation to assert why we are really more qualified than somebody else—as if we were the one truly deserving. This is why the language of qualifications is often merely an expression of entitlement. We regard ourselves as entitled to a particular position, and then we create a list of often arbitrary criteria to justify our appointment.
I am sure Jesus saw something special in Simon Peter. I don’t want to deny Simon his due. And I doubt Jesus’s selection process was totally random. But Jesus is the source of the miracle, not Simon Peter. Jesus is the one who fills up the boat with fish, not James and John. So rather than Peter saying, “Well, you know he picked my boat because of my advanced netting techniques, and I received the top graduate school paper within the Association of Galilean Fisherman,” Simon Peter simply falls down on his knees in disbelief and deep appreciation. “Lord, I’m not worthy.” And because of this orientation of humble appreciation, God deems Simon Peter most worthy.
Toward the end of the last academic year, my dear friend Joan Sachs Shaw handed me a book to read over the summer. The book was a memoir of an incredible young man Dan-el Padilla Peralta, entitled Undocumented. Dan-el Peralta was born in the Dominican Republic. His family came to the United States when he was four years old on a temporary visa so that his mother could receive emergency prenatal medical care. Mrs. Peralta chose to remain after delivering her second son in the United States; and the ensuing two decades offer a narrative of determination, perseverance, and grit if there ever was one. A voracious reader; a quick learner; an incredible mind. Dan-el consumed everything he could in grade school even while living in a homeless shelter. A New York photographer took notice of his work ethic and helped him earn admission to his high school alma mater, The Collegiate School in Manhattan. Here the young Peralta learned Greek and Latin, excelled academically, gained early admission to Princeton where he was named class salutatorian, and delivered the Latin oratory at commencement. A Sachs scholarship enabled him to ultimately earn his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University.
If anybody deserves to boast about his qualifications, it is Dan-el Padilla Peralta. If anybody overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles, did so much with so little, took the hustle his mother demonstrated every day as a domestic worker and applied it to his education, it is Dan-el Peralta—he is “qualified” by all respects, and an over-achiever by most standards.
But once while visiting his friends in Harlem after his time at Princeton, Mr. Peralta made an interesting observation. Of his neighborhood friends, he said, “I was proud of them for the choices they’d made: they’d served their country; they were trying to be fathers to their kids; they were working jobs, and trying to expand their view of the world.” Yet of himself he says, “I wasn’t some Horatio Alger-regurgitating dummy—on some simplistic jump-off about the self-made man picking himself up by the bootstraps all the way to the Ivies.” No. According to Dan-el Peralta, “More now than ever, I believed with every ounce of my being that structures, contexts, and luck reigned supreme.”
Yes, Dan-el Peralta is accomplished. Yes, he has an incredible mind and a herculean work-ethic. But his memoir also reveals a large heart and deep emotional intelligence. When he thought over the opportunities he was afforded—how he was the beneficiary of other’s goodwill, the inheritor of miracles, and the recipient of the inexplicable uptick of luck and God’s grace—when he looked at his friends, like Simon Peter, Peralta essentially fell to his knees and thought, “I am not worthy.”
Why don’t you join me today in considering all of the fish that God has dropped in your boat. Consider all of the miracles that God has wrought in your life. Consider all of the doors God has opened, the gifts God has given, the grace God has bestowed, and the goodness God has granted.
Now ask yourself this question, “Am I really that good?”
I don’t know about you, but I am so glad that God has called me not because of myself, but in spite of myself.