Harrowing Of Hell
May 19, 2019

The Story of Peter

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To listen to the sermon click here.

Today we find Peter in the book of Acts on his knees in prayer. A vision comes upon him.  It is a weird one having to do with animals and sheets and lunch. Peter engages the vision, as we are supposed to do when we have a vision. Then there is a knock on the door. Standing there were two servants and a soldier, sent by the Centurion Cornelius, to bring Peter to his home by the sea. Even as they were there, knocking at the door, the Spirit with whom Peter was in communion said, “Get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” 

So, Peter went, and this led to the opening of the early church to full relationship with Gentiles, or, as I like to call it, the best day of fishing ever. Peter was a fisherman, and, as many of you know, I’m a fisherman as well. A pretty good one; just ask me, or anyone who has never been fishing with me…except maybe my friend Gary.

Gary and I were fishing on the Jefferson River in Montana with a guide named Russ.  It was a rough put in so Gary and I walked down the river as Russ pushed the boat over some precarious rapids before picking us up downstream. 

His first comment when we got in the boat was that he really didn’t like the Jefferson.  I could see why. But thing got off to a good start. Gary, who actually is a good fisherman, landed a fish pretty quickly. Then we floated. That is what you do when fishing, you mostly just float down the river. Life is a little like that as well.

Gary continued to pull in a fish or two. I may have caught one. Russ, as good guides do, chatted us up and found out I was a priest.  “Really,” was his response, “could you baptize me?” “Sure,” I said, as the conversation meandered off in a different direction. 

Later in the morning, on a most improbable, shallow, wide stretch of the river, just as we were going to move on, I got a bite, and from the look on Russ and Gary’s faces, it was a big bite. The line started to run out of my reel, and both Gary and Russ yelled, “Let it run…” In other words, you have a big fish on, don’t screw it up!

So, I let it run, and some ten minutes later, as Russ jumped over the side of the boat, net in hand to ensure I landed this fish. There, on the hook, was a big beautiful 24 inch brown trout. Gary was surprised, and then said… “Maybe prayer does work.” Russ was elated; and sent a copy of the photo to the other guides… they are a competitive lot. 

Russ’s view of the Jefferson river seemed to have changed a bit. That afternoon, Gary, in turn, landed a huge rainbow trout. Russ again jumped in the river to net it, and after the entire process of landing the fish, photographing it, and letting it go was over, Russ turned to me and said, “What a day!  Do you think you could baptize me right here, right now?” 

So, over the side of the boat I went. And after a sixty second catechism, Russ bent his head in the river, I filled his hat with water and baptized him in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Now that isn’t the end of the story.  The next day Kristin and I were in the lodge store chatting with the woman who ran it.  Turns out she was Russ’s wife. “You’re the priest!” she exclaimed. “Russ told me all about the Baptism.  He came through the door the other evening and said, ‘I’m a new man!’  And,” she concluded, “I think that is true.”

Fishing is a funny thing. We are called to it, each in our own way. The catch comes at the confluence in the river where our God given gifts, meet the world’s deepest needs. This catch looks different for each one of us. For me a river baptism; for Russ building memories out of a day on the river.

There are two things to know about the river confluence,

  1. It is not always self-evident;
  2. And the Holy Spirit is always there.

So, the challenge is to lift up our heads from our self-absorbed perspective and take a look around, to see what the Holy Spirit is doing in our midst; and it very often starts by bowing our heads in prayer. I’ll say more about this later.

Because first I want to return to Peter to take a closer look at the river confluence where he catches fish. When Jesus called Peter to be an apostle, he was a fisherman, and probably a pretty good one. But he left all of that to follow Jesus. I want to put some context around this. To be called to follow a Rabbi was a big honor, so, leaving the life a fisherman to be a student of a Rabbi is not as whacked as it may sound. And then if you add on top of that the Rabbi is Jesus, well the honor was huge.

So, Peter went. And for three years he saw things that would make anyone’s head spin.  Healings. People raised from the dead. Jesus walking on water. The transfiguration.  And even more than that, Peter was also Jesus’ friend. They probably laughed. They certainly disagreed. Then came the most significant collision; Jesus’ vision for his life and Peter’s vision for Jesus’ life parted ways: Jesus toward resurrection; Peter toward worldly power. Peter denied Jesus and abandoned him to die on the cross.

Then Peter, and the other disciples hid in an upper room. Even after they heard Jesus had been raised, even after Peter and The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved saw the empty tomb, they hid in the upper room. Then Jesus appeared to them. Then he appeared to them again… walking right through the wall. The disciples found themselves standing there and looking at each other and wondering, “What do we do now?”

So, Peter, defaulted back to his last good, known state…. Fisherman. It is what he knew he knew he could do. So, he said, “Let’s go fishing.” and, they all went fishing. They returned to their village in Galilee; got a boat and went out one evening fishing. That is what they had always done, and it is what they did that night. 

But things were different; not the nets, or the water, or the boat… they were the same. No, what was different were the Apostles themselves.  All night they heaved the nets into the water and pulled them up, and nothing.  And again, they heaved the nets into the water and came up with nothing.  And as they were rowed in to shore, the sun coming up in the east, they saw a man on the beach bent over a charcoal fire, frying fish. 

He looked up and called out, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” Then everyone in the boat looked up, as they heard him continue: “Cast the net over the other side and you will find some.” So, they did, and the net was filled to capacity, 153 fish, which is better than a 24-inch brown trout, and at that moment The Disciple Who Jesus Loved called out: “It is the Lord.” Peter went over the side of the boat, into the confluence of the river that was his new life, toward Jesus…something had shifted in him, fishing changed. He was a new man, even though he was the same old fisherman.

And what this transformation looked like for Peter is the same for you and me. When we move toward Jesus, we will find the river confluence in which we were meant to fish. How do we do that? Just like Peter did. We bow our heads in prayer. That is how we keep our line in the water. Then we wait. We listen and we wait. And when the Holy Spirit bites the line, we engage, as Peter did in that vision in Joppa.

He saw the meat, and said, “I don’t eat that stuff.” But then he stayed with it, he let the line run, and a new insight appeared. Like Russ on the Jefferson that day said: “I don’t like this river,” but he stuck with it and let the line run. 

And then we let the prayer insight move with us beyond the prayer itself into the patterns of our every life; as Peter did. There he was on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house in Joppa in prayer. There is a knock on the door. Three men are there, and Peter links their story to his vision, and lets the line run all the way to Caesarea where he met Cornelius the Centurion and heard his tale of the Holy Spirit in their midst, and affirmed it.

That is what that Baptism on the Jefferson River was; affirmation of the movement of the Holy Spirit. Which is why that big brown trout did not end up as a trophy on my wall.  You can’t stuff and mount the Holy Spirit.