Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. Luke 5:1-11
I love the idea that Jesus, desperate for a little space from which to speak to the crowds pressing upon him, simply commandeered Peter’s boat. And I love that Peter just lets him do it. I mean, Peter had been fishing all night and probably wanted to finish cleaning up and get home to bed. But he takes Jesus out anyway. He was just that kind of a guy, the kind of guy who would push out from shore even though he was dead tired just because you asked. He just does it. And I love that.
I love that when Jesus is all done teaching he isn’t actually all done. And that Peter again does something that doesn’t make sense, letting down his nets after he’d been fishing all night and caught nothing. And I love to imagine the expression on the fishermen’s faces as they struggled to haul in this catch, and called their friends to help, and barely get their nets to shore.
And I love what Jesus says to Peter: “Do not be afraid.” It’s the hallmark of Luke’s gospel; maybe the hallmark of the gospel. Jesus comes so that we don’t have to be afraid anymore. I love that. And then Jesus gives Peter something to do, something bigger and larger than anything he’d ever imagined. And I love that, too.
Of course, the story’s not quite done. Because after these words, the fishermen give everything up – their professions, their livelihood, their family and friends, everything – in order to follow Jesus. And, quite frankly, I can’t say I love that. I’m not sure, to be honest, how I feel about that. For what would I give up everything? Would I do it for this? Would I do it for Jesus?
In our text for today we find the metaphor “fishing for people.” For some this has to be one of the Bible’s worst metaphors! Imagine a fish, happy and swimming free in its natural and nurturing environment being unwillingly emancipated from it’s watery environment to one in which she can’t breath and then, usually, becoming someone’s supper. From that point to view a caught fish is a dead fish. Obviously, when Jesus says we’re gonna catch people, he doesn’t mean that they’d be cut up and put sauteed in a nice white wine sauce. But, being caught by Jesus, some would argue, suggests that something dies, right? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship wrote that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” But we need to be reminded that metaphors serve a contextualized rhetorical point.
In Romans 6 the Apostle Paul makes a great deal of this metaphor. He asks: 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Then he says: 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. And he then ends the passage saying: 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Benedictine Monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, penned: “The fact that you are not yet dead is not sufficient proof that you are alive. It takes more than that. It takes courage–above all, the courage to face death. Only one who is alive can die. Aliveness is measured by the ability to die.” And then he adds: “It is fear of death that prevents us from coming fully alive.”
A dozen pages into Isaac Penington’s “The Holy Truth and People Defended,” a polemic written from Reading Jail in 1672. Penington’s anonymous detractor claims that we may sit down in Christ “in a state of rest and reconciliation, heavenly and divine, before and without the consideration of any works of righteousness which we have wrought…” but Penington rebuts this as “directly contrary to scripture,” which teaches in various places “that persons do not sit down in eternal blessedness in Christ, before or without consideration of any works wrought by them.” Prior to this sitting down comes a state of discipleship, in which none can dwell and abide in Christ, “but he that can dwell with devouring fire and everlasting burnings: for the pure word of life is a fire, and he that sits down in the heavenly place in him, must sit down in that fire.”
Quakers have held that the Refiner’s Fire is a difficult and usually painful element of one’s spiritual journey. It was used by many early Friends to describe the process by which the Light of Christ reveals and melts everything within that resists God and God’s ways. Gradually sin, temptation, and disbelief are cleansed away, as well as overriding cravings for comfort, pleasure, and social status.
They are not intended to be taken literally or pressed beyond the rhetorical point. And the reality is that, in this context the Greek verb that is used in the text means to catch alive, not to kill. Net fishing is quite different than fishing with hook and line. Net fishing is indiscriminate in that it hauls in everything within its take. It’s not selective, at least in the initial haul. I like that part of the image. As a child I remember laying out a long net from a row boat on the beach at Galveston and then pulling it to shore. Caught in it were sea creatures of all sorts from croakers to dog fish.
Of course it wouldn’t have happened had the fishermen not demonstrated a faith that freed them to move from the shallows to the deeper water, where the catch is abundant and Jesus is realized.
Something is disclosed in Simon Peter’s reaction to the stunning catch of fish, that moment as he witnesses the dramatic reversal of his experience of fishing all night with nothing to show for it. It becomes immediately clear to him that Jesus is the one who can create abundance from scarcity. The one who can turn failure into success. The one who can, ultimately, create something out of nothing.
And that recognition makes Peter…what, exactly? Aware of his shortcomings, of his inadequacies, of his failure? In some measure, perhaps. But I think it’s even more that Peter realizes he is in the presence of the holy and eternal and he, Peter, knows just how far he is from that. “Sinner,” in this sense, doesn’t simply designate Peter as a moral failure; rather, it signifies his new born awareness of not yet being what God created him to be and the One who is precisely and fully what God created him to be.
At heart, the word “sin” itself is a metaphor which means “missing the mark,” not necessarily a moral wretch and certainly not one despised of God or all of the other things we sometimes think “sin” designates. So I think that what Peter is most keenly aware of in this moment is that he has missed the mark. His life is not what it could be, not what it should be, not what God hopes and intends it to be. To use Quaker imagery, he finds him self sitting in the fire.
Framing “sin” in this way is valuable because it helps us to imagine God as more than a cosmic judge and eternal rule-enforcer. Rather, God is the one who loves God’s creation and people, even when we miss the mark. God wants the best for us. God wants us to know that we are loved, that we enjoy God’s favor, and God wants us to live into that identity and future.
That’s why, I think, after Peter’s exclamation Jesus doesn’t respond by saying “Your sins are forgiven.” But at this moment Jesus responds to Peter’s confession not with forgiveness but with comfort and with purpose. “Do not be afraid.” This isn’t judgment, it’s mercy. And, “From now on you will be catching people.” Jesus doesn’t deny what Peter is – a fisherman – he enlarges it, meeting Peter where he is and, rather than condemning him, expanding his vision, drawing him into God’s kingdom vision of who and what Peter might be.
And guess what? Jesus is doing the same with us. Wherever you are right now, at this moment, you also have missed the mark. But rather than hear that as a word of condemnation, hear it instead as a word of love and invitation: Do not be afraid. From now on you will be drawn into a mission and purpose larger than you can imagine.
But we can’t leave this passage without recalling the import of verse 7 which says, “So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them.” Ministry is not a solitary journey it is always corporate. Later Luke will tell us that when Jesus sent some seventy two disciples into ministry none went alone. Solitary can be defined as individually alone, congregationaly alone, or denominationally alone. We are not called to do ministry alone. We have to embrace our partners in faith to work together to meet the needs of our communities, our nation and our world. Yes, we need to answer the call to follow Christ individually, but as we do we become part of a much larger community, that is ‘The Body of Christ.”