One of the greatest struggles we face as Christians is that between faith and unbelief. On one hand, we have faith—the belief in Christ as our Savior, the confidence that God has our eternal best interest in mind, and the knowledge that the Holy Spirit is with us always to speak to our hearts and minds the very Words of Jesus. But unbelief is never far away. It lives in our rational, fallen mind. It tells us that God plays no role in our lives. This unbelief thrives on pessimism and optimism, on failure and success. When things go wrong, we question if God cares, if He is really watching, and, at worst, if He really even exists. When things go well, we pat ourselves on the back, proud of all the work we accomplished all by ourselves. “Pessimism and optimism are human emotions. Where they rule, faith is falsified. For faith has nothing to do with emotions. [Rather, faith] is the unshakable trust in the unbreakable promises of God” (Sasse, Lonely Way 1, 72, emphasis added).
We see all of this come to bear in today’s Gospel as Peter, James, and John are confronted by Jesus as He turns their fishing boat into a floating pulpit. After laboring all night and coming home empty-handed, they are frustrated, tired, and in no mood to listen to others give unsolicited advice. But there they are, floating along listening to this new preacher when suddenly the preacher starts to tell them how to fish. He tells them to let down their nets in the wrong part of the lake at the wrong time of day. It’s a sort of adding insult to injury after a full night with no catch. They still had to wash and fold the nets as if they had caught something, and now they’ll have to repeat the process because some traveling preacher thinks He knows something about fishing. You can hear the terseness in Peter’s voice: “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing.” But then something else takes over—faith. Instead of allowing pessimism and failure to run the show, the faith created in him by the preaching of Jesus takes over and he changes course: “Nevertheless, at Your word I will let down the net.” His faith in the face of seeming failure is rewarded by a catch of fish so large the entire fleet can’t bring it to shore. He, along with James and John, are given faith, an unshakable trust in the unbreakable promises of God. They see that the One who spoke these very fish into being on the fifth day of Creation is standing in their boat. But joy doesn’t last long. They realize that emotions, not faith, had been running their life. They trusted in themselves, not God, to provide. Peter confesses His sin along with the punishment he deserves—abandonment by God. But Jesus does not abandon him to death. Rather, He has mercy on him, forgives him, and sends him out into life forgiven to be a witness to the mercy of God.
What about you? How has optimism or pessimism challenged your faith? The devil uses these emotions to eat away at faith, to try to convince us that God is not in control, that He is not present among His Church today as He was during His earthly life. And all of this comes to bear far more in pessimism than optimism. The devil likes it when we wring our hands, when we would rather sit and weep daintily into a lace handkerchief or write a post on Facebook than boldly fight the devil, challenging him as Jesus did with the very Words of Holy Scripture. Instead of calling him a liar, that one little word that can fell him, we play the part of our first parents. We listen to his sales pitch and instead of realizing that it’s a gimmick, that it’s too good to be true, we start to believe him. We look at the sins not just allowed, but celebrated and encouraged by our nation—sins like murder and adultery and discrimination. We look at our cities through the lens of the nightly news that begins with 15 minutes of homicide, robbery, and bigotry. We look at our families, complete with dissention, a refusal to bear with one another in love, and drama that would make even daytime TV and soap operas blush. And then we look at ourselves and see our failures, our depression, our every imperfection. “Where is God in all of this,” we ask ourselves. How does faith factor in when my eyes see nothing but sin and evil, failure and the trajectory that things will only continue to get worse?
Jesus’ call of Peter, James, and John began with a ridiculous command: “Let down your nets for a catch.” It made no sense to listen to Jesus. They were tired, hungry, and angry. Going to shore without fish meant going home without a paycheck. When Jesus told them to do something completely contrary to logic, they had every earthly right to reject the command, and would have even felt justified if they had refused and given Him a sermon of their own. But they listened. Against all rational judgment, in the face of pessimism and failure, they let down their nets and at Jesus’ command a miracle occurred.
You, Christian people; you, beloved of the Lord, are the fish. In the chaos of the sea that is your world, nation, city, and family, the Church is the net and the boat. By Word and Sacrament Jesus has rescued you from the evil. That doesn’t mean that failure and sinful pessimism or optimism, trust in anyone but God, will stop on this side of eternity. Faith is not a prosperity gospel—just believe hard enough and the bad stuff will just disappear. The world will not stop being evil. But it is into this evil world that your Lord came in the flesh. It is this evil world full of sin and death that Jesus loves, and it is for this evil world that He died. While you were still sinners, Christ died for you. When you trusted in yourself, Christ died for you. When you doubted God’s goodness, Christ died for you. He forgives you all of your sin. He will not cast you off forever, departing from you because you are a sinner. Rather, He comes to you all the more, reaches out to you more earnestly, with greater compassion. He is present among you as He has promised to be—speaking to you in His Word, forgiving all of your sins with His declaration of Absolution, strengthening your dying body and blood with His risen, life-giving Body and Blood. He has lived in this world and witnessed firsthand how overwhelming it can be to give into the human emotions of optimism and pessimism and abandon faith, so He works all the more to strengthen your faith and to keep you in it.
The turmoil in your life and the war going on inside of you will have an end. You will not be in this war between faith and reason forever. Jesus has died and has risen again. He has ascended into heaven. He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, and He will take you and all believers into His kingdom which will have no end. No one will be plucked out of His hand. And on this side of eternity, you are not alone. You are surrounded by an innumerable host of saints, both here in time and there in eternity, people who intercede for you and with you, bearing with you in love.
Take heart. The God who has created faith in you will sustain it, and He will see you through until that faith attains its end in heaven. Then you will see clearly that God is love. God wants the best for you, and He is good to you in Christ.