Of fish and people

Epiphany 5 – 2010
Luke 5:1-11
Marian Free

In the name of God who can use the most unlikely people as his disciples. Amen.

Most of you will know that our Lectionary follows a three year cycle. We read in turn the three Synoptic gospels – Matthew followed by Mark and then Luke. (During this cycle the gospel of John is inserted at times like Advent and Lent so that we cover all four gospels over the three year period.)

This year as you will have noticed, we are reading the Gospel of Luke. Already we have noticed some significant characteristics of this Gospel. For instance, Luke has an extensive birth narrative, in which he interleaves the stories of John the Baptist and Jesus in such a way that it is clear that Jesus is to be the more significant of the two men. Further, he elaborates Mark’s account of Jesus’ preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth and moves it to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. A major theme is liberation. Judgement will occur, but that does not belong to this period of time or to this part of the story.

In today’s gospel, the calling of the first disciples, Luke once again embellishes Mark’s version and changes the placement to suit his own purpose. In Mark’s gospel, the calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John occurs at the very beginning of the gospel and is a stand alone account. Jesus is walking beside the sea, sees the men and calls them to follow him. They leave their nets and follow him. It is not until chapter 4 of Mark that we hear the account of Jesus teaching from the boat.

Luke situates the call of the first disciples in the account of Jesus’ teaching from the boat and he includes in the story the account of the miraculous catch of fish – a miracle which is only found here and in John’s post-resurrection stories. When Jesus has finished teaching, he (a carpenter, not a fisherman) presumes to tell the experienced fishermen to put out to sea. Any fishermen would know that this is a foolish thing to do in the middle of the day if the night has not yielded a catch, but such is Jesus’ authority and confidence that Simon agrees to do what he asks. The result is more fish than one boat can safely bring in – in fact more fish than two boats together can manage.

Though it is clear that Luke is telling the story of Simon and Andrew, James and Johns’ call to ministry, Jesus doesn’t use the words: “follow me”. It is only in response to Simon’s fearful “confession” that Jesus says: “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people alive.”

There is so much of interest in these eleven verses but I want to focus on Simon Peter’s reaction to Jesus. It is fascinating that, in a world in which miracles were an accepted part of life; Simon is completely overwhelmed by the catch. Despite the fact that a night of fishing has yielded nothing, Simon’s reaction to the number of fish is not one of gratitude and joy but rather of terror and shame. It is easy for us to understand that he would fall at Jesus’ feet in gratitude. It is less easy to grasp why he would urge Jesus to get away from him. What is the connection between the miracle and Simon’s recognition of his sinfulness?

It is Simon’s language which tells us that something more than a miracle has happened here. In addressing Jesus as “Lord” instead of “Master”, Simon is indicating that, through the miracle, he has grasped the divine nature of Jesus. In the presence of the divine, Simon is overcome with awe, even terror. The Old Testament tells us that presence of the divine is a terrible and dangerous thing. The Israelites believed that it was impossible to look on God and live. Moses hides his face so that he need not look at God. At Mt Sinai, the Israelites were kept from the holy mountain for fear that they would be killed if they were to get too close to the presence of God. Elijah is allowed only to see God’s back. The splendour and glory of the God are believed to be too much for ordinary human senses to bear. No wonder Simon wants Jesus to go.

There is another source of fear. The holiness of God exposes the sinfulness of human beings. In the face of God’s goodness and justice Moses, Isaiah, Paul and now Simon recognise how unworthy they are to be in God’s presence. How can they possibly measure up? How can they be holy as God is holy or good as God is good? When we understand this Simon’s response to Jesus seems not only reasonable, but totally logical. He filled with awe and fear in the presence of the divine and at the same time he feels vulnerable and exposed. He is not a bad person, but in Jesus’ presence he is all too aware of his human limitations and inadequacies. He wants the source of his discomfort – Jesus – to go away.

The presence of God in the miraculous is often associated with the call of God. Again we can think of Moses and the burning bush, Isaiah’s vision of the temple and Paul’s experience of the risen Christ. God gets a person’s attention and then commissions them for ministry. They all reply that that are not worthy to carry out the task God asks of them. Jesus does not use the words: “Follow me” here, but it is quite clear that this is a story of commission. Jesus is calling Simon – from now on he will be catching people alive.

Jesus’ does not set out to terrify Simon, but Simon’s response indicates that Jesus has chosen the right person for the task. Simon demonstrates that he has the humility and self awareness that is needed for ministry. His knowledge of his own weakness and sinfulness will mean that he will look to God for guidance and direction instead of relying on himself. Simon, as we will discover, will not reach perfection, yet his faith in, and dependence on God will mean that God will do great things through him.

God can’t work through us unless we first recognise our human frailty and vulnerability and our need to depend entirely on God. When we understand that we are not worthy of God’s trust, and when we realise that we, on our own, cannot do what God requires, then we open ourselves to allow God to use us for God’s purpose. If, in the presence of the divine, we do not throw ourselves to the floor in awe or cover our eyes in fear, we can be sure that our arrogance, our self-importance and our sense of independence will provide a barrier which locks God out of our lives and effectively prevents God from working with and within us.

In our 21st century lives, we may not witness a miracle, or see a vision, but through our baptism we are all commissioned by God to carry out God’s work in the world. It is an awesome and terrifying task. There will be times when, like Simon we do not feel worthy of the responsibility and there will be times when, like Simon, we will let God down. But through it all God will stay true to his choice of us and when we feel ourselves least worthy we may find that our it is the recognition of our vulnerability and inadequacy that leads to a dependence on God and that this is what allows God to work through us to make a difference in the world.

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