If you’ve been around Bible stories a long time, you know that the colorful images of the Sunday school flannelgraph can fade over time. Instead of reading the Bible with wonder, we tend to gloss over the words, yawn, and flip the page.
Somewhere between the flannelgraph and my grown-up Bible I’d come to understand the gospel as a transaction that depended on me. Work hard for God, and He will work for you. It was “okay news,” but not the “wonderful extra good news” that we sang about in Sunday school. I worried I wasn’t working hard enough to earn and deserve God’s care and intervention.
I was in the throes of a demanding season of parenting our three sons and two sweet girls who were entrusted to us through the ministry of foster care. Sprinting towards the next parenting event, I strove to stay ahead of the needs of five little humans. When my prayers for a smooth day or well-behaved children went unanswered, I figured I hadn’t worked hard enough to deserve it.
Rifling through the pages of my Bible for a quick shot of Scripture to propel me toward the next parenting emergency, I stumbled over a story so familiar, I didn’t even know why I gave it a second glance.
It was the story of Peter’s great catch of fish. I’d seen it on the flannelgraph. I’d taught the story in Sunday school. I’d even made blue Jell-O served with goldfish crackers to cement the story in the minds of my students.
But here I was, all tangled up in Peter’s nets, watching him work hard. He showed up for his job when and where he was supposed to. He worked all night. And in the morning, he had nothing to show for his work but ripped nets and a morning filled with fixing them.
I felt sorry for Peter. I’d been showing up and working hard too, and yet, I was surrounded by evidence of my failures — my impatience, irritation, and exhaustion. I was so disappointed with myself, I figured God was disappointed with me too.
But as I read the story again, Jesus didn’t seem disappointed with Peter.
He stepped into Peter’s boat at the wrong time of day for catching fish. While Peter was busy fixing the necessary tools for his job, Jesus inconvenienced him by asking him to row to deeper water. And somewhere in the deep water where the fishing had been bad, Jesus told Peter to throw his recently repaired nets into the sea.
You know the rest.
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. (Luke 5:5-7)
In his boat sinking under the weight of what he had not worked for, Peter knelt in a pile of quivering fins and scales to worship. Jesus did for Peter what Peter couldn’t do for himself, even though he’d worked hard.
To me it was a picture of God’s larger message of the gospel.
We may show up and work hard to prove, earn, and deserve God’s grace. But hard and holy service is not a prerequisite for receiving God’s grace.
It’s not our work that earns the abundance of God’s grace.
Jesus did that work. Grace is His to lavish in extravagant doses on those who recognize they’re unable to earn it. When we realize it doesn’t depend on our work, the gospel becomes extremely good news.
It makes following Jesus a no-brainer and a joy, just like it was for Peter. And like Peter, we may find ourselves following Him into hard and holy service to God. Not to earn grace, but because we’ve already received so much of it.