5th Sunday after Epiphany (Year C - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Saturday, February 3, and Sunday, February 4, 2007
The kernel of this sermon comes from Frederick Danker’sLuke commentary in Proclamation Commentaries from Fortress Press (1987).
Peripeteia (PAIR – UH – PAH – TEE –AH). There is plenty of peripeteia in our reading from Luke. Peripeteia is a term coined by Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, a term used to describe an essential part of a tragedy, a drama, the highest form of literature in Aristotle’s opinion. Perhaps you’ve never heard of peripeteia, but see if you can figure out what it means if I tell you the examples of it from today’s Gospel reading.
It’s peripeteia when instead of just standing on the shore and speaking to the people, Jesus asks to go out into a boat and speak from there. It’s peripeteia when Jesus the Preacher starts giving orders to the fishermen. It’s peripeteia when the nets don’t come up empty—as they had all night—but instead come up bursting full, threatening to sink the boats. It’s peripeteia when this miracle doesn’t cause Peter to rejoice but to confess his sins. It’s peripeteia when Jesus doesn’t judge Peter for his sin but instead asks Peter to be part of His mission. And it’s peripeteia when Peter, James, and John leave everything—even that incredible, miraculous catch of fish—leave everything so that they could follow Jesus.
Do you have a guess on what peripeteia means? According to the American Heritage Dictionary, peripeteia is “a sudden change of events or reversal of circumstances, especially in a literary work.” A sudden change of events, an event that goes just the opposite of what we might expect to happen.
Most of the things I listed from our reading aren’t really peripeteia—since they’re not the central turning point of the story—but they certainly are reversals of what we might expect. We didn’t expect that Jesus the Teacher would use a boat as his pulpit. We wouldn’t think that Jesus the Teacher—who grew up as a carpenter—would suddenly start telling the fishermen how to do their jobs. We’d probably agree right off with Peter—they fished all night, they didn’t catch anything, it’s the middle of the day now, this isn’t the right time to expect to catch fish. And yet, there’s the miracle, there’s a reversal as the nets come up chock full of fish.
That last one comes pretty close to being a true peripeteia, “a sudden change of events,” and a lot times that’s the only peripeteia we concentrate on in this passage. We think of this story as the story of the miraculous catch of fish. That’s the miracle, after all. That’s what has power in this story; that’s what caught the attention of the disciples, pun intended. The catch of fish was unexpected, and it shows the power of Jesus.
And yet, if we go back to Aristotle, his definition of peripeteia, his eye for the key elements in a tragedy, the things that cause true drama, the catch of fish isn’t the peripeteia in this story.
True drama reflects life. Tragedy is meant to let the audience envision themselves in the same situation because there’s something universal about it. The catch of fish isn’t the universal truth that really applies to our lives. It’s not even the thing that applied to the lives of Peter, James, and John. The catch of fish is an attention grabbing miracle, but the peripeteia, the reversal of circumstances on a theological, spiritual, supernatural, universal level, that peripeteia happens after the catch of fish when Peter falls at the Lord’s knees and says, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”
When Peter says this, we as readers would expect Jesus to distance Himself from Peter. Jesus is holy, without sin, having the power and glory of God the Father, and certainly, Jesus wouldn’t allow Himself to be corrupted, dirtied, soiled, defiled by being with a sinner like Peter.
But this is a story with a reversal worthy of the great Greek tragedies. This is drama. This isn’t what we’d expect; this is peripeteia.
Jesus forgives Peter—“Don’t be afraid,” He says. In other words, “Don’t run away from Me, don’t be scared, because your sin is forgiven. I am overlooking your sin, I’m not even paying attention to your sinfulness, because I want you to follow Me.” Forgiveness is peripeteia; it isn’t what we’d expect. It’s the exact opposite of what we deserve.
That’s drama; that’s what we don’t expect; that’s peripeteia, and it goes one more step. Jesus calls Peter, James, and John to be His partners in His mission—“ordinary fishermen become privileged partners of” the Savior (Danker).
The Lord’s purpose is to preach the Gospel, and everything He did was toward accomplishing that goal. Just before Jesus comes to the lake, in the reading we had last week, Jesus had been in Capernaum, healing people and doing miracles, but when He tells the people that He must move on, must go to other cities, He doesn’t say that He needs to go do miracles in other places. No, Jesus says, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”
The Lord’s purpose wasn’t the miracles, and so the Lord’s purpose at the lake wasn’t catching fish. That’s why the miracle isn’t the true peripeteia, the turning point of this narrative. His purpose was to preach the Gospel, and the Gospel is forgiveness, and forgiveness is peripeteia, the Gospel is all about reversing our circumstances, a sudden change of events so that God can save us from sin and death.
On that beach we can see that His purpose trumped any expectations that the religious leaders might have had of how this whole thing would go down. Jesus had been in the synagogues; Jesus had taught and preached among the religious leaders, the established authorities of the Jews. Yet, that’s not where Jesus found His disciples. Apparently, Jesus wasn’t swayed by pomp and circumstance, by authority and hierarchy, by the expectations and customs of society.
It’s peripeteia that Jesus finds His disciples on the beach of the Sea of Galilee, finds His disciples out on a boat pulling in nets of fish. The religious leaders of the day would’ve fully expected to be the ones chosen for service in the Kingdom of the Messiah. The general congregation would’ve expected this, too; the religious leaders seemed to be in line for the important positions in God’s plan.
Whatever religious leaders were there that day on the shore of the lake must’ve had a visceral reaction, a gut-wrenching shock, a prideful “what about me?”, an immediate rejection of Jesus as someone who doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand who’s really in charge. They may have even expected that Jesus wasn’t serious—that getting Peter, James, and John to follow Him down the beach was just some elaborate teaching method.
But Jesus didn’t turn back. Jesus didn’t change His mind and choose some of the religious leaders to be His servants. Instead, Jesus kept walking down the beach, Peter, James, and John following Him, the three men who became His inner circle, His most-trusted disciples, friends, partners, and leaders of the Church after He ascends into heaven. This is drama, this is true drama, this is real life, this is peripeteia, and God in His grace is a master of the reversal of fortunes.
Jesus reverses our expectations—finds that ordinary people can be His servants, isn’t swayed to change His mind even when we protest that we’re too sinful. And I suppose we could find ourselves on either end of that beach—with Peter or with the religious leaders.
We probably can see ourselves as being like Peter—just an ordinary person, having no special qualities, not someone in line to be God’s chosen servant, and yet, no matter what we may think of ourselves, no matter how shocked we are that Jesus would want “a sinner like me,” still it’s peripeteia in our lives. It’s a sudden change of events when we realize that Jesus isn’t kidding when He says that He is choosing us for the team.
You’ll have to answer this one for yourself, but what is it about you that makes it seem unlikely that Jesus would choose you to be His partner in the mission of the Gospel?
Before you try answering that, it’s important to remember that you are a partner in the Gospel, serving God in ways you might not even realize. You can be a partner in the Gospel in many different ways—in all the different ways that people make sure that the ministry of this congregation continues. From the people who helped make sure we got the heat working this week [A BIG THANK YOU, by the way] to the people who teach Sunday School, you all have been chosen by God to use your time and talents in His kingdom.
Yet, what is it that makes you second-guess Jesus, what makes you wonder whether Jesus really meant you when He picked you out from the crowd, what makes you think, “I couldn’t possibly be helpful to the mission of the Gospel, because I’m just. . .because I’m too. . .because I was never. . . .” However you fill in those blanks, whatever your objection, concern, worry, or doubt, watch the peripeteia that happens in your life through the work of Jesus. Watch how Jesus reverses everything for you—just like Peter—and calls you to go out and catch people with the Gospel.
Of course, as I said, at times we may find ourselves at the other end of the beach, standing with the religious leaders, standing there in shock and awe as we see Jesus making some really surprising choices for His partners in the mission. The religious leaders of His day probably thought Jesus was making a foolish choice in those fishermen, Peter, James, and John. Yet, don’t we sometimes find ourselves in that same position, questioning the choices Jesus makes for leaders in the Church today? We protest, “How could that person serve? They’re so. . .they’re too. . .they never. . . .”
Yet, as soon as we go down that road, using our criteria to judge God’s servants, as soon as we begin to think that we know better than God about who could be His partners in the Gospel, well, that’s when we’ve forgotten that peripeteia is a grace word, a grace event.
We didn’t show up for service in God’s kingdom already meeting all of the prerequisites. We weren’t qualified for the job, but that’s what made it peripeteia—an unexpected change, something we didn’t see coming.
Well, we’ve got to allow God to do that same work of peripeteia with other people, too. Sometimes it’s hard to set aside our thoughts, ideas, and judgments, and just watch God work. Yet, peripeteia is drama, real drama, real life, God really working to do things in ways we wouldn’t expect. It’s peripeteia happening all around you—God choosing servants that you might not have chosen, God using people in ways that you wouldn’t expect, God choosing fishermen instead of the religious leaders, God finding His partners down on a beach instead of up in the synagogue.
Whatever end of the beach you find yourself today—with Peter or with the religious leaders, shocked by being chosen as a servant or shocked by God choosing others as servants—wherever you find yourself today—and maybe like me you find yourself on both ends of the beach—the key comes back to remembering that it’s all about peripeteia. . .and the peripeteia comes through the Lord’s preaching.
Peripeteia is a gracious act; it is God’s work. It’s God’s Word that transforms us, changes us from sinners to mission partners; it’s God Word that reverses our expectations and suddenly changes our circumstances. It’s the preaching of Jesus that moves Peter to go back out and let down the nets. It’s a gracious act, a work of God that causes Peter to respond; it’s God’s Word that brings the peripeteia in Peter’s life.
If this was a self-improvement seminar, I’d use phrases like: “Make the change,” “Renew yourself,” “Become who you want to be,” or “Transformation begins on the inside.” But you know what? That wouldn’t be peripeteia. That wouldn’t be an unexpected reversal—we’d be trying to do the reversal, we’d see it coming. That wouldn’t be a sudden change of events—most of the time it takes a lot of effort over a long period of time to change our lives and habits. And that wouldn’t be grace—we’d be talking about doing the work ourselves.
Peripeteia is just the opposite of all those self-improvement phrases. We don’t make the change; Jesus makes the change in us through His Word. We don’t renew ourselves; Jesus renews us with His life-giving Word. We don’t become who we want to be; Jesus makes us to be who He wants us to be. Transformation doesn’t begin on the inside; transformation comes from the outside, comes from Jesus, comes from His Word, comes through hearing the Word, receiving the Word in baptism, eating and drinking the Word in the Lord’s Supper. Jesus does the work of peripeteia in our lives, and it is miraculous, gracious drama to see that we are now His forgiven people called to be His partners in the mission of the Gospel. That’s the real peripeteia today.