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The Gospel today brings us a fish tale. On the surface the story may sound familiar enough. Aspects of this particular fish tale appear also in Mark, Matthew and in John. But there are slight differences.
In Matthew, Jesus is baptized, he is tempted by the devil in the wilderness, and then he goes into Galilee. He sees Simon Peter and his brother Andrew fishing and Jesus interrupts their work. “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:18-22).
Mark’s version is similar. the fishing story is placed within the larger context of Jesus calling his disciples, assembling his team, choosing his friends and followers. Follow me, he says. And they follow.
The Gospel of John adds characteristic drama as John places the story within a resurrection account. It is the risen Christ who offers tips on fishing, so that the disciples catch so many fish they can hardly bring them in.
In Matthew and Mark, these stories tell of the charisma and power of Jesus. It’s a force that hits people in immediate way. People meet Jesus, they see that there is something different about him, and for whatever (perhaps complicated) reasons, they leave what they’re doing and they follow. In John, it is Jesus with divinity showing through, able to know the future, able to affect the weather and the natural order of things, even to reverse the effects of death.
But in Luke’s story, (the Gospel we read today) there is a different focus, and we have a close-up on Simon Peter. The formal calling of the twelve apostles comes later in chapter 6 as Jesus chooses the twelve out of a larger gathering of people who seem already to have been following him.
When we hear Luke’s version of the fishing story, it comes not with the initial “follow me.” Jesus and Simon Peter already know each other by this point. Jesus has just healed Simon’s mother-in-law. Word has spread about Jesus through the towns and the synagogues and so there is none of that initial, startling surprise at the recognition that Jesus is someone special. Instead, there’s a kind of second recognition. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is saying to Simon Peter not so much “follow me,” but more, “keep following me,” “follow me even further,” “follow me in yet a different way.”
Simon is a fisherman. He knows what he is doing and he probably knows the waters of Galilee as well as anyone. When Jesus suggests that they drop fishing nets in a specific place, Simon complains that they have already been fishing all night. Nothing is biting.
This is the Simon Peter we know from other places in the Gospels: quick to speak his mind, fast to question Jesus, so bold even to talk back to Jesus. It is Simon Peter who names Jesus as the Christ. At the transfiguration, it is Peter who wants to act, to build shelters for the visiting Elijah and Moses. When there is talk of Jesus’ dying, Simon speaks out against it. After the crucifixion, it is Peter who speaks too quickly even then, denying Jesus three times.
It is a strong personality. I would imagine Simon was as sure of his fishing as he was of anything else. But by this point he knows Jesus and he trusts Jesus. The Lord says, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon mutters, “We’ve fished all night, with nothing—but ok, if you say so.” And Jesus makes it so.
Suddenly, there are fish everywhere. They hit upon a whole school of fish. The fish are so many that the nets are breaking and they need extra help. Water is splashing, fish are flying and the boat is sinking, but Simon Peter suddenly “gets it” and he falls to his knees. He sees something new in Jesus; he sees something new in himself. “Go away from me, Lord” he says, “for I am a sinful man.” In that moment, Simon Peter recognizes his own willfulness, perhaps his pigheadedness, his need to get his own way, his need to understand everything, his lack of trust, and finally he confesses his need for someone stronger and wiser and more godly.
“Do not be afraid,” Jesus says, repeating the words of angel after angel to so many; the word of God to humanity from the beginning to the end. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
This word that Jesus uses meaning “to catch” people, is a strange word. It includes in it the prefix we know from Greek that means life, “zoe”—as in zoo and zoology and protozoa, with animals and living things. And so the word Jesus uses, (zogron) means not that you’re going to be catching people and that’s that. But you’re going to be catching people for life, you’re going to be catching people and adding to their life, making their life more, helping them move into the fullness of life. It’s a word that is used to describe the process by which a teacher might “catch” a student, “catch him or her up” into a new way of thinking and living and being; a new and better way.
Before long Simon Peter and the other disciples would, indeed, be catching people for life, and they may not have understood until later that they would be catching people up even into eternal life.
The Gospel today speaks to us as a church and also as individuals.
As a community, as “church,” we are called to fish. If we have spent much time in church at all, we have probably heard of the “great commission,” those words in which Jesus charges his followers to go and make disciples of all the nations. Though we may interpret their urgency differently, though we may pursue different methods, most Christians agree that we are called to share our faith, to catch others up into the life of Christ, to offer baptism, to share Eucharist. But the practice of this catching, can leave us feeling tired or anxious or (looking around at empty pews) we can even feel a little desperate. Perhaps we are like Simon Peter. We’ve done the equivalent of fishing all night long. We’ve tried that program. We’ve tried reaching out in that way. Perhaps we’ve even tried offering door prizes and incentives—who knows what we might have tried, but we sometimes get to that place of resignation and frustration. Our nets are empty, we’re out of ideas and it’s getting late.
But perhaps it is at just this point that we are called to stop and listen like Simon Peter. I wonder if Jesus be pointing to the deep and saying something like, “but have you tried over there?” “Go out a little deeper and give it a try.” The church in our day spends money and energy trying to attract the young, trying to attract the rarest of things—the couple with children. We have fished and fished. But could it possibly be that Jesus might be pointing to others as well? Especially in this city, have we tried to reach the students? Have we done what we might to reach the elderly and aging? Have we tried to reach those who are working so many hours they don’t know what they’re looking for? Have we tried to reach those who don’t speak very good English? Have we tried to cast our net out there—into the deep, into the place we’ve not yet been? “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. “Do not be afraid.”
The Gospel indeed speaks a word of encouragement to our efforts at evangelism, but it also speaks a word of encouragement to our own understanding of who Jesus is.
Simon Peter shows us that there are levels to recognizing Jesus as the Christ. There is an initial surprise, if not shock that with Jesus things can be different. I can be different. But just as Peter grows in his understanding of Jesus, we too can grow and change in our reception of Christ, in the way that we allow ourselves to be caught up into new life. The old word for this is, of course, “conversion,” a turning and turning again to Christ, so that as we turn we see a new aspect of God even as we come to understand a new aspect of ourselves.
And, on this cold day in February, I think we are called to keep fishing, to keep catching people into the life of Christ, even as we allow ourselves to be caught anew.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.