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The Graduate

May 19, 2013

Sermon:  The Graduate
Text:  Luke 5:1-11; Acts 2:1-8; 13-15; 36-41


Today our text comes from both Luke 5 and Acts 2.  Hear now the Word of God.

Luke 5:1-11:

One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the  word  of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon,

“Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”

11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

Acts 2:1-8, 13-15, 36-41:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?

13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning.

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

Once again we come to a Sunday where we see a convergence of two events and observe today both Graduate Recognition Day and the Day of Pentecost.  I have entitled this sermon “The Graduate” with apologies to Dustin Hoffman and those of you old enough to remember the movie.

Last week I was invited to offer the opening prayer and benediction at the commencement exercises at the University of South Carolina Upstate (USCU).  It was one of the very few times in my life when I was asked to wear a cap and gown.  Thankfully, I do not have to dress in that attire very often.

One of the issues of concern that night was the impending rain.  USCU was like the hole in a doughnut. It rained all around us but not during that commencement exercise.  I should tell you that Chancellor Dr. Tom Moore and Dr. Harris Pastides, the President of USCU, both looked at me as if I could do something about the rain.  Since I was the designated person to pray, they probably thought I could do something about the weather.  I simply said, “I don’t do weather.  That’s not my deal.”  I do not take credit for good weather, nor do I take blame for bad conditions.

This is also the time of the year for the graduation ceremonies for both Wofford and Converse.  Those two colleges will hold their commencement exercises this afternoon.  Today we honor three young men from our own congregation who will graduate from high school this year.  They have led us in this worship service in a wonderful way, and we appreciate their willingness to participate.

How can we connect the occasion of graduation with the birthday of the church?  On the Day of Pentecost everything broke loose.  The gift Jesus had promised, the gift of the Holy Spirit, transformed the church.  It seems to me that the two occasions come together in the person of Simon Peter, one of the twelve disciples.

Simon Peter’s call began during his interaction with Jesus by the Sea of Galilee.  The version from the Gospel of Luke, in some ways, offers a view of the beginning of his learning lessons from Jesus.  During the next three years of this education process, Simon Peter experienced some ups and downs.  Then we see a transformation in him, a culmination of his learning, on the Day of Pentecost.  At that point he was no longer a follower; he was a leader.  Most people I know who graduate from an institution of higher education discover that the process takes at least four years.  Some take many, many more years.

Matthew and Mark also give us a version of Jesus’ calling the disciples to follow him.  Jesus simply directed, “Follow me,” and they followed.  Luke’s version contains some high drama. Jesus actually got into Simon Peter’s boat, sat down, and began to teach.  On this first occasion of hearing Jesus, Simon Peter realized that Jesus’ message really did matter.

You understand that sitting down was the position of authority for a rabbi.  When Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, he was seated.  Seeing the multitudes, he went up on a mountain and sat down.  When he went into the synagogue in Nazareth and taught, he was seated.  Immediately the crowd recognized that Jesus was a man of authority when he sat down and began teaching.

After Jesus finished teaching on this first encounter with Peter, he directed the fisherman, “Go out in the boat a little further, and  try to catch some fish.”

Peter responded, “No.  We fished all night and caught nothing.”

Jesus repeated, “Go out a little further.  Let’s try it.”

Peter’s answer, “At your word I will do it,” shows that he recognized Jesus’ authority.  The Scripture says that the men caught such a large number of fish that the two boats almost sank.  Peter’s response was to fall on his knees before Jesus and say, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man.”  Simon Peter recognized the authority of Jesus, but he also became aware of the power of this man.

Think about what was required of Simon Peter when he heeded the words of Jesus, “Follow me.  I will make you a fisher of men.”  He, as well as his fishing partners James and John, left everything he knew about making a living.  His decision to follow Jesus required that he leave his lifestyle, his nets, and his boat.  We know that Peter was married because we are told he had a mother-in-law.  He probably also had children.  Simon Peter had these obligations; yet when this itinerant rabbi called him to become a disciple, he made an immediate life-changing commitment to follow.

We see a connection between Graduate Recognition Sunday and Simon Peter when we ask, What does it mean to become a disciple?  Being a disciple means being a student, a pupil.  Disciple and discipline come from the same root word.  When you become a disciple, you enter into a life of discipline that requires doing some things that allow you to learn.

Sometimes people ask me, “How in the world can you get a kid to do homework?”  They may ask, “How do you write a book?” or “How do you figure your income tax?”  The principle is basically the same:  sit down in a chair and resist the first thirty-eight temptations to get up and do something else.  Staying there and doing the task require discipline.  Being a disciple requires certain disciplines.  Peter made a commitment to be a disciple, a follower, a pupil, a student.

By Acts 2, Luke’s second volume, we see the other bookend of Simon Peter’s life.  Jesus had gone to heaven, and Peter had graduated and assumed a leadership role.  He was no longer just a disciple, though he was still that.  He was no longer just a learner, though we are all learners for life.  Now he became an apostle, one who was sent on assignment, one who had a sense of calling and purpose.

What was his classroom?  Was Peter seated in a room with desks arranged in neat rows?  Did he have both feet on the floor and eyes turned to the front?  No.  His classroom was the great outdoors: a storm on the Sea of Galilee, a dusty road in Judea.  Simon Peter was in the classroom of life.  He did go to the synagogue, a place of learning; and he did go to the temple, the centerpiece of all Judaism.  His classroom, however, was wherever Jesus went.  Jesus, constantly on the move with his disciples, even said, “Birds have nests, foxes have dens, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

What was Simon Peter’s textbook?  He would have studied the Torah, the first five books of the Law.  He would have studied the books of the Prophets.  You remember that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Do not think that I have not come to abolish the Law and Prophets; I have come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17).  Simon Peter would have studied the wisdom literature, not all of which had been accepted as Scripture though certainly the Psalms had.  Peter learned from the written texts of Judaism.

What else served as his textbook?  Another way he learned was by the “fleshy tablets of the human heart,” words the Apostle Paul used in II Corinthians 3:3.  Simon Peter learned from the lives of other people such as his fellow disciples.  He learned from his fishing partners, James and John, whom he called the “Sons of Thunder.”  He learned from Thomas, who had the reputation of being a doubter.  Do you think Peter learned anything from the traitor Judas Iscariot or from his follower Mary Magdalene, possessed by seven demons before Jesus cast them out of her?

Simon Peter’s own life experiences served as instructor.   He learned from the encounter between Jesus and the very sick Gerasene demoniac.  He witnessed Jesus casting a demon out of this raging maniac, we might say.  He watched Jesus first embrace the leper who came to Jesus for healing.  He heard Jesus say to the men ready to stone the woman caught in adultery, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.”  Simon Peter learned from the experiences in which Jesus, he, and the other disciples encountered the hatred and rejection of religious leaders.

He knew this itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, this man born in Bethlehem, as Master and Messiah.  In fact, he was the first to declare that Jesus was the Messiah.  He said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  He knew him both as the Son of God and the Son of Man.

One of the first things a teacher does after walking into a new class is match the names on the roll with the student’s faces.  A teacher understands that the names on the roll are not necessarily the names that the students prefer.  William may go by the name Bill.  Thomas goes by Tom, and James may prefer the name Jim.

Simon Peter’s full, more-formal name is Simon Barjona.  Simon is a more intimate name.  If my mother had serious business on her mind, she would call me Kirk Hudson Neely.  I knew that her use of that name meant, “Now hear this!  Now hear this!  Something serious, not casual, needs your attention.”  Simon Peter, known as Simon Barjona at some points, had two nicknames.  Jesus gave him the Greek name of Petra, which translates into our language as Rocky or Rock.  The Apostle Paul called him the Aramaic equivalent, Cephas, which also means rock.

What kind of student was Simon Peter?  Josephus, the governor of Galilee for a while, wrote a very slanted record of history in favor of the Romans.  He described the people of that area as being creative and inventive.  Josephus also described the people as delighting in sedition; they were often ready for insurrection and rebellion.  Though he pictured the Galileans as being quick-tempered and quarrelsome, he did note their high code of chivalry.  The Talmud says that the people from Galilee preferred honor above riches.

Simon Peter was from the town of Capernaum, located in Galilee.  Combining Josephus’ information, we can assume that Simon Peter was quick-tempered, impulsive, emotional, and easily-provoked.  We actually see Peter’s quick temper in the Garden of Gethsemane during Jesus’ arrest.  Peter grabbed a sword and sliced off the ear of one of the soldiers.  Jesus healed the wounded man.  We can also assume that Simon Peter was a man ready for adventure, and we know that he was loyal to a fault and very despondent when loyalty failed.  That loyalty did fail.

Among his peers Simon Peter was a leader.  His name appears first in every list of the disciples.  Matthew even says, “First, Peter…” when he makes his list.  He was a part of an inner circle – consisting of Peter, James, and John – that accompanied Jesus to places the others did not go.  Those three were present with Jesus when he raised the daughter of Zairus, the Jewish ruler, and present with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Jesus gave him and John the responsibility of going ahead to prepare the Passover meal that became the Lord’s Supper.

In fairness we should say that one reason he played a leading role among the disciples is that John Mark, his young protégé, wrote the Gospel of Mark.  He basically wrote stories he had heard from Simon Peter.  Peter put himself at the center of many of those stories, but to his credit he did not try to cover up all of his fallibilities.  He exposed his weaknesses.  Mark’s Gospel is actually a picture of the Gospel according to Peter.  We must also notice that Matthew and Luke, who both used Mark’s Gospel as one of their primary sources, also presented Simon Peter as playing a leading role.

Simon Peter was known to ask difficult questions, the mark of a good student.  “How often should I forgive?”  “What is the reward for those who follow you?”  Peter brought to Jesus’ attention a question Jewish leaders had asked, “Does Jesus pay taxes?” On another occasion he raised questions about why the fig tree withered.  Peter was an inquisitive person who asked hard questions.

Simon Peter sometimes possessed the negative trait of giving an impulsive, quick answer that was often incorrect.  At one point Jesus, moving through a crowd, asked “Who touched me?”  Peter answered quickly, “It is impossible to tell.  The crowd is so thick.”  Jesus, however, discovered the identity of the woman and healed her.  On another occasion, at the Last Supper, Jesus forewarned, “You will all fall away.”  Peter blurted out, “Not me!  I will go with you to prison or even to death!”  He did not accompany Jesus.

We see Simon Peter as a disciple who dared to take risks.  While in a storm on the Sea of Galilee, he and other followers saw a figure moving toward them across the water.  Peter recognized Jesus and said, “Lord, let me walk on the water too.”  Peter stepped out of the boat and took a few steps before looking down to see how he was doing.  Beginning to sink, he yelled out, “Save me!”  By daring to take risks, he also dared to fail.

Did Simon Peter face any exams as a student?  Yes.  He had a big exam at mid-term, about halfway through the ministry of Jesus at a place called Caesarea Philippi.  Jesus, talking with his disciples, asked, “Who do people say that I am?”  They named prophets:  Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist.  Jesus then asked, “But who do you say that I am?”  It was Peter who answered this tough exam question with, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  He was the very first one to confess Christ.  Remember that just based on what he had seen up to that moment, he knew nothing about the crucifixion and nothing about the resurrection.  He got the right answer though he did not completely understand.

Many people think of this exchange as a turning point in the Gospel.  From that point forward, Jesus began teaching about how he must go to Jerusalem, suffer and die, and on the third day be raised.  Again displaying his propensity to be impulsive, Peter protested, “I will not allow that to happen.”  Jesus rebuked him, saying “Get thee behind me, Satan.”  Peter was constantly learning, and he often learned from his mistakes.

Simon Peter learned one of the most important lessons of his life in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus told him to keep watch and pray, but he fell asleep in class.  Have you ever done that?  It is similar to going to sleep in church.  You wrap up your head with your hands and try to prop open your eyes.  Those of you who have ever taught see students trying to stay awake all the time.  Luke is gracious in his account, however.  He explained that the disciples slept because of their grief.  I can understand.  Grief will wear out a person.

Another important lesson occurred during the Last Supper.  Peter boasted, “Lord, I will never desert you.  I will never deny you.”  Simple peasants later confronted him around a campfire.  Three times he denied his association with Jesus.  In the early morning light when a rooster crowed in downtown Jerusalem, Peter was convicted of his sin.

Following the crucifixion and resurrection, Peter decided to return to his old way of life, fishing.  He did not return for just one fishing trip; he returned to his former lifestyle.  He went out with some of the other disciples and fished all night long but caught nothing.  Does this scene remind you of Luke 5?  John 21 tells us that again as the sun was rising, a figure standing on the beach inquired, “Have you caught any fish?”  Asking that question to bone-weary fishermen who have caught nothing is not a good idea.

Jesus suggested that they place their net on the other side of the boat.  The Gospel of John is precise in saying that when they lowered the net as Jesus instructed, they caught 153 fish.  William Barkley makes a big deal over that number, saying that 153 is the exact number of known countries in the world at that time.  You remember that Jesus had told the men, “I will make you fishers of men.”  They caught one fish for every country.

Jesus fixed fish for breakfast.  As the men ate, he asked Peter three questions.  First, “Simon Barjona, do you love me?”  Jesus used the word agape for love, which means committed love.

Using another word for love, philia, Peter answered, “Lord, you know I love you like a brother.”

“Feed my lambs,” Jesus answered.

A second time, “Simon, Barjona, do you love me?”  Again, Jesus used agape.

Again Peter answered with philia, “Lord, I love you like a brother.”

Jesus said, “Tend my sheep.”

“Simon Barjona, do you love me?”  This third time, however, Jesus came to Peter’s level by using philia.

Peter said, “Lord, I love you like a brother.”

Jesus’ response was, “Take care of my lambs.”

Peter did exactly that.

Did Simon Peter graduate?  Yes, he did graduate though he did not make straight A’s.  He did graduate even with his many experiences of failure.  He graduated to a life of service.  He became a servant.  Paul says that as disciples we are to “Have this mind among you that was also in Christ Jesus…who humbled himself and took the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:5-7).

We understand that God had incredible optimism and Jesus had great faith that the disciples would follow the Great Commission and “Go into all the world.”  Simon Peter took that commission seriously.  On the Day of Pentecost, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he preached the first Christian sermon, the first sermon of the early church.  On that day, 3000 were converted.  Jesus had told the men, “Give up your nets and I will make you a fisher of men.”  That is what happened.

Tradition is that Peter went to Rome.  Under the persecutions of Nero he was crucified upside down as a martyr.  Some say he did not want to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus.  Since his whole life was somewhat upside-down, maybe that was the best way for him to die.

Under Rome in the catacombs is one unidentified ossuary, one bone box.  On the side of that box is the Christian symbol, the sign of a fish – the stylized Greek letter X (chi) for Christ.  In my imagination it might hold the body of an old fisherman, one who had gone a long way away from his boats and nets, one who had traveled to the capital city of the empire, one who had literally given his life in service, one who had graduated with honors.

Have you made a commitment to be a disciple who will follow Jesus?  If not, could I invite you to make that decision today?  Maybe Jesus is calling you to be an apostle and go somewhere to tell the gospel to someone.  I know for sure that he is calling you to be a servant.  Perhaps you need to make that decision today.

Kirk H. Neely
© May 2013 

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