Gone Fishing, Luke 5:1-11, Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 10, 2019
Because today’s Gospel lesson includes a fishing story, I thought it would give me an opportunity to tell a fishing story of my own.
The last time I went fishing, I really made a haul! I mean I was bringing in more fish than anybody else. I made such a haul that when I tied up my boat, all the other fishermen were amazed. Even the game warden noticed that every time I went out I was able to bring back substantially more fish than everyone else combined. I guess the game warden was a little curious and a bit inquisitive. So, as a result, I told him if he wanted to go fishing with me he could come and see why I was so fortunate, and see how I did it.
I navigated my boat to an isolated inlet that I had not fished before. I dropped my anchor, and opened my tackle box, and I proceeded to withdraw a stick of dynamite, I lit the fuse. The game warden just sat there with this dumfounded look on his face. I held the dynamite until just the right time when the fuse was short then I hurled it into the water. Just as it struck the water, it detonated.
Immediately many of the dead and stunned fish floated to the surface. Just as I collected the fish, the infuriated warden starting shouting, he said “Stop! This is outrageous! This is illegal! You can’t fish this way!” As he was railing on and on, I took out another stick of dynamite, lit the fuse and put it in the game warden’s hand and I said, “Are you gonna talk or are you gonna fish?”
My story is obviously an exaggeration of the truth, alright not any truth at all. The details that the Gospel of Luke gives us has a bit of a different perception. While we’ve heard this story before from Matthew and Mark, (Mt 4:18–22, Mk 1:16–20) because we are experiencing a particularly late Easter this year, we get some readings we don’t often hear in our Lectionary. The last time we had a Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany was in 2010. On the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany we get to hear a real fishing story.
Let’s imagine then, the real story. On that morning, on the lake of Gennesaret which is just one of the many different names for the Sea of Galilee, Peter, James, John, and the crew had been fishing all night. They had worked extra hours trying to find a few fish, but they were skunked. Now all that is left is only the cleaning up, and heading home for some rest so they can get after it again the next night. But then they see Jesus coming along with a crowd. Peter knows Jesus. His brother Andrew had introduced them a year or so ago. Peter had been with Jesus at the wedding at Cana. Peter knows Jesus, and he believes in Him. You might call Peter a Christian.
But now Peter is back in his boat fishing. Perhaps Jesus had sent him home for a while; we don’t know. Perhaps Peter had thought the weeks he had spent with Jesus were all there would be. But now that familiar and blessed face is back. Jesus comes to Peter this morning, followed by a crowd, and asks Peter to take Him out onto the water a little way. Peter does, and Peter listens as Jesus preaches. But then Jesus turns to Peter and astoundingly says, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch” (4).
Just put yourself in Peter’s place. You’re a fisherman, a pro, skilled in your trade. You know that if the fish are going to run at all, it’s going to be at night. You know that you don’t catch fish in deep water, but in shallower areas. You respect Jesus, He’s a great healer, and He speaks in a compelling manner and all. But what does He know about fishing?
Miracle of miracles, instead of saying, “You stick to what you’re good at, and let me be the fishing expert” or “That’s absurd, a waste of time and energy.” Instead of saying “You stick to preaching, I’ll fish.” Instead of thinking “after all what does a carpenter’s son know about fishing?”
Peter doesn’t. He follows the command of Jesus. “At your word I will let down the nets” (5). And the One who spoke on the fifth day and created the fish in the sea summons the fish to the net. And look what happens. The catch is big enough to break the net and almost sink two boats.
Then Peter begins to realize that the net of Jesus’ love, has just surrounded another soul for the Father’s kingdom. Jesus ends up with a haul of His own, three disciples join His movement that day, names which will come down to us from ancient times and be revered throughout the world to this day: Peter, James, and John.
Peter, in this catch of fish, begins to see what Jesus is up to, that He is making a claim on him. This great catch of fish is not to make Peter a great fisherman, but to end his career of fishing for fish altogether. Jesus is saying to Peter, “Now you are mine,” and Peter is afraid.
In the middle of this huge pile of flopping fish, and in the middle of a sinking boat, Peter falls down on his knees at Jesus’ feet and begs him, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (8). Peter is not terrified of sinking; he is not afraid of dying. He is afraid of Jesus, afraid of His holiness and wrath, and afraid of this claim that Jesus is making on him. And Peter has every right to be afraid.
Our Gospel and even the Old Testament readings remind us that God does not always send His angels into this world to carry out His mission, nor does He just send the perfect heavenly beings at His command, but oddly enough, He works through and with us. Just as He sent the once sinful, now purified Isaiah out into the world as a prophet, transforming his fear into boldness. Just as He goes with a Peter, who cowers at Jesus feet. Jesus sees His beloved here, and He will not leave him, not now, not ever, even when Peter disowns Him. Jesus never will. Just as He is always with us.
And we too are afraid. Who are we, after all, to be servants in God’s kingdom? Perhaps if He had a job polishing floors, or taking out the trash, I might fit in, but this saving the world stuff is for other people, important people. We are not very capable and can’t be much good for the Kingdom when you get right down to it. God’s mission is not easy. The people are rebellious and hard to work with. The people are dull, hard of heart, deaf, and blind. Even Isaiah wonders, “How long must I do this?”
Just as Peter’s nets are not sensible things to fish with during the day, Jesus sends him and his comrades out. He sends them out at the wrong time, when it should not work, yet it does.
And Jesus sends us out. This is not an optional activity. Jesus does not say, “How’s this sound, what if I make you a fisher of people.” He just tells Peter and the gang what He is going to do. And they leave all and follow him.
What would motivate fishermen to leave behind the greatest catch they had ever made? Only faith, faith that the words of the One who said “Follow me” were the words of God Himself and that answering His call was of greater importance than being comfortable and prosperous in one’s own occupation.
The implication is that they “left everything and followed him”. It is not that the disciples completely abandoned their families, but rather that from this time on, they devoted their full-time attention to being Christ’s disciples.
That same Jesus is calling His people today. Yes, with Isaiah and Peter we have a confession of sinfulness to make, but God hears that, touches our lips, fills our net with fish, and sends us out of these doors with a message to tell. He will do the saving. He will do the heavy lifting. He forgives us, equips us for ministry, and sends us out into this world to the places in which we work, live, play, eat, learn, and gather.
Jesus looks at Peter in his sin and says, listen, “Do not be afraid” (10). Do not fear. There is nothing to be afraid of. I did not come to judge you, to condemn you, or to destroy you. I’ll take care of your sin. I’ll make a way for you to be alive and live with Me forever.
To us Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” Yes, it is true that we are unworthy, but God has done something marvelous about it. No flaming angel has come with a burning coal to touch our lips. God has instead sent His Only Begotten to bear that pain on the Cross. And He has poured out the fire of His Holy Spirit upon us. He has washed us in the waters of baptism. He has touched our lips with something better, and probably less painful than a burning coal: the very body and blood of Christ. We really are the children of God. He has taken up a real and permanent residence in our lives.
We often get weary from toiling with no results. When we are unsuccessful, we would love to fish with dynamite, even though we know it is wrong. We continue to fail Him miserably.
But that is not able to drive away His love. Peter betrayed Jesus in His hour of greatest need. He wept bitter tears outside the palace of the high priest, and Jesus died alone. It did not have to be that way, but it was. And another day when Peter drew up a massive catch of fish, and John told him that it was Jesus on the shore, Peter launched himself into the water, forgetting the fish, only remembering Jesus. Jesus did not come to chastise him but to give him a sacred and holy task, Peter, who had denied Him three times. Three times Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” Three times he said “Yes!” and Jesus sent Him out to feed His sheep.
God really loves us with a love which transcends human understanding, a love which does not die, a love which abides in us despite us.
And that love also empowers us into a life of service, as it did Peter. Peter did not have eloquence or years of schooling in which he was given the tools you would expect for a world changing individual. He had time spent with Jesus, and the gift of the same Holy Spirit, who was poured out on you. He would become the bold preacher of Jesus.
Likewise, the abiding love in our lives emboldens us and gives us confidence. There is nothing that we can do which will ever turn off the love of God. We may fail, we will indeed fail, but He will still love us, and He even finds ways to work with our failures. He simply and persistently loves us. And because He loves us, our words become much more than we might ever know. Amen.