Fishing in the Deep (Without Drowning)

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

The Gospel today brings us a fish tale. On the surface the story may sound familiar enough. Aspects of story appear the other Gospels, but there are some slight differences. It’s as though Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all went fishing, but then varied a little bit in telling and retelling the story.

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 fish for people.” (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.

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. But by this point he also knows and 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. “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” It seems like both parts of what Jesus says to Simon Peter are important for most of us to hear.

As for the first part, it’s hard for us not to be afraid– at this point in the pandemic, wondering what is coming next, how should we be faithful going forward… a million different versions of those questions.

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.”

Yesterday, our vestry gathered for a time of reflection and planning. A part of what we talked about had to do with our vision as a community on the Upper East Side, in 2022 and beyond. What makes us unique? What can we strengthen? What are our priorities and how do we follow Christ with some focus, with some dedication and direction?

We looked at some of the conversation in the Church of England around vision, and noted its 3-part vision: that the Church in the next decade be simper, humbler, and bolder.

This is straight out of today’s Gospel: It’s usually simpler than Peter makes it. He needs to follow Christ and fish. He needs to do it with humility. But he needs to be bold.

And so do we.

But that’s the same for us as individuals, too, isn’t it? In our work, in our families, in our fun—to follow Jesus Christ in simple, humble, but bold ways.

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.”

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.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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