The Church in the World, Militant and Wave-Tossed: Hemmingsen on Luke 5

Yesterday’s Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity, according to the traditional Western lectionary, was Luke 5:1-11:

And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret,

And saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets.

And he entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And he sat down, and taught the people out of the ship.

Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.

And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.

And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake.

And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.

For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken:

10 And so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.

11 And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him.

Niels Hemmingsen divides his Postil sermon on this text into four topics: “the necessity of hearing the Word of God is commended in this example of the crowd that so eagerly heard Christ”; “an image of the church, those who teach and those who hear the Word”; “the attendant miracle and its use”; and “the example of Peter is to be imitated, both in the catching of the fish and in the recognition of Christ.”

In this post, I translated his remarks on the second topic, in which Hemmingsen does something likely to scandalize many modern Protestant readers who don’t realize how modernist our reading practices often are. Which is to say, Hemmingsen reads the text not only literally but figuratively. (Topic four, on moral-exemplary interpretation, is likely to make some irrationally skittish as well, but that is not my subject here.)

The allegory, then: the ship is the church, Christ is the church’s teachers, and the crowd on shore are those who hear the Word. (Does this get a little awkward, given that the church is not synonymous with her teachers and many of those who hear the Word are members of the church, i.e. the ship? Yes, yes it does. But work with him here. It’s a picture; don’t get too hung up.)

Of special note is the way that Hemmingsen weaves together illustrative examples from biblical history, church history, and his own day. “The Word of God is living and active,” after all; it interprets history rather than vice versa. Also worth remarking on is the fact that Hemmingsen can call the church “the bark of Peter” (naviculam Petri), thus showing that this nomenclature need not be ceded to Roman Catholics.

The Picture of the Church in Luke 5:1-11

“Jesus climbed up into one of the ships, and, sitting down in it, taught the crowd that was standing on the shore.” In these words, the state of the church in this world–militant and being tossed on the waves–is most beautifully depicted.

Three things are to be observed in this picture: the ship itself; Christ sitting in the ship; and the crowd standing on the shore. The ship itself sketches an outline of the church; Christ denotes all sincere teachers; the crowd standing on the shore signifies those who hear the Word.

Now, just as the ship is horribly shaken on the sea when a storm arises, so nothing in this world is more shaken than the church–something the history of the whole world teaches. How dismal was the shaking of this ship when Cain killed his brother? Or afterwards, when St. Lot[1] was in Sodom and Abraham was wandering in foreign lands? How much, moreover, was the church of God shaken first in Egypt, and then during the forty years in the wilderness, to say nothing of the persecutions that the church has suffered in all times: under the judges, under the kings, in the Babylonian captivity?

And, to pass over the rest, I shall mention our time–how much the church is shaken by those who want to seem to be citizens of the church, while others make an assault upon her through heresies, which are (as it were) horrendous storms sent by the Devil himself. What do the sacramentarians–what do the other sectarians, Anabaptists, libertines–not do to overturn this little ship of Peter? The papists condemn her for heresy; the Jews mock here; the Turk scorns her; the civil magistrate in many places accuses her of sedition, just as we read in the history of ungodly Ahab, who threw the following words in the face of the most holy prophet Elijah: “Are you not he who troubles Israel?”

Why should I speak about the new method of attacking the church that those who wish to be and to be called “evangelicals”[2] have discovered? In an ungodly and sacrilegious manner, they turn the goods that pertain to preserving the ministry of the Word to perverse uses.

So much does Satan with all his members glower over the church of Christ to overturn it while it is being tossed on the waves. But Christ is too strong for the gates of hell to prevail against him. [It is significant that Hemmingsen uses the masculine pronoun here, clearly referring to Christ himself rather than the church in his adaptation of the famous verse from Matthew 16: in the last analysis, the strength of the church is in its entirety the strength of Christ alone].

I have spoken of the church being tossed on the waves; from this discussion, it is also easy to understand how great the dangers of ministers of the Word are. For as Christ sits in the ship, so they too endure the greatest mass of dangers, and many are hauled off to most grievous punishments. But the crowd that stands on the shore (that is, the greatest part of those who hear) are outside of danger. For when a storm arises, they either hide themselves or straightaway depart.

Let these things be briefly said about the shaking of the church.

References

References
1 sanctus Loth.
2 This is “evangelical” in its historical, not modern, sense, i.e. those who adhere to the Reformation principles first enunciated in Wittenberg.

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