Sermons That Work

Fishing Is a Noble Occupation…, Epiphany 5 (C) – 2004

February 08, 2004


Fishing is a noble occupation. For some it is a sometimes-dangerous livelihood. Others find it an exciting sport or a tranquil form of relaxation. While conversations about the size, weight or species of fish may go on for hours, including descriptions of “the one that got away” the last thing most anglers want to get is advice from amateurs. If that amateur happens to be a parson, so much the worse. After all, the pastor is supposed to know a good deal about things “holy”, but let’s leave practical things to practical people.

St. Luke is perhaps the most careful of all the Gospel writers. He set himself out to be a historian. He felt called to let the non-Jewish world know about Jesus and about the birth and early development of the church. Luke has an eye to detail. He’s also good at painting pictures in words. Tradition has it that he was an artist as well as a doctor.

In the Gospel we heard today, St. Luke brings us to a lakeshore. A crowd has gathered to hear the new itinerant teacher and in its enthusiasm threatens to push the teacher into the water. Two boats stand just out in the water. It is morning. Their crews are washing and cleaning their nets after a long and largely unsuccessful night on the lake.

Jesus calls across to one of the fishermen, called Simon, and asks permission to come aboard and use the boat for a podium. The Big Fisherman agrees. One can imagine him grumbling that the work is being interrupted. The nets have to be cleaned and coiled and the partners given time to rest before night arrives again. Nevertheless, Simon consents. The teacher sits down and teaches.

Then the Teacher gets to meddling. He orders the members of “Zebedee and Company, Fishing Experts,” to thrown their newly scoured nets into the lake in broad daylight. One expects to get advice on living virtuous lives from religious instructors. What on earth would a carpenter’s son turned preacher know about professional fishing? Simon and his companions were faced with a choice. Did they refuse, politely, or do as they were asked? If they did as they were asked they would certainly face the ridicule of all who came to know of the incident, a ridicule they would probably share with the Teacher. Goodness knows what Zebedee would say to them when he heard the story!

Simon, James and John decided to obey the Rabbi. Simon wanted the order confirmed though. “If you say so, we will let down the nets.” They pushed their boats out and threw out the nets. Pretty soon the nets were so full there was a danger they would break. One can imagine them struggling to bring the nets on board and then to get them to shore. At least they had enough customers to buy the fish in the warmth of the day before the catch spoilt.

Simon fell on his knees when he saw their catch. One wonders why? First Century Jews didn’t kneel to worship. Anyway, worship was something due to God and there’s not hint that Simon, at this stage, had any awareness that Jesus was anymore than a “Master”, a Religious Teacher. Perhaps Simon was so agitated by the phenomenon, and perhaps very embarrassed that he may have misjudged the young teacher, that his legs gave way under him. .

Simon, saying that he is “sinful” asks Jesus to go away. Instead of referring to Jesus as “Master”, Simon now calls him “Lord”. In other words, Peter is feeling that smallness we often experience when we are suddenly confronted with someone or something that fills us with awe and amazement. It is not that Simon necessarily felt “sinful” in the sense that he thought himself to be a naughty or wretched person. Rather, Simon felt small and inadequate. Even his professional judgment as a fisherman now seemed faulty. Did Simon think that Jesus had performed a supernatural miracle? We don’t know. It would be enough that the carpenter’s son from inland predicted something Simon and his partners would never have imagined. The Rabbi had invaded their “space” and known more than they did.

Perhaps it was the sheer wonder of the Teacher’s goodness that hit Simon so forcibly.

Jesus then told Simon — Peter would be his later nickname — James and John that they would now “catch men”. The Greek word here for “catch” means something like “continually catch alive.” It’s at this point in the story that we might begin to feel uncomfortable. It all sounds suspiciously like evangelism. Jesus tells his new followers that they would “hook” others in the same way that Jesus had just caught them.

There’s a very simple point to be made here. If the disciples hadn’t begun a ministry of catching people alive, we wouldn’t be in church here this morning. If we look again at how Jesus “converted” Peter, James and John, we might get some fresh insight into “evangelism” The thing that astounded Simon Peter was that Jesus talked about real life things. The miracle of the fish catch isn’t religious at all, at least in the way we usually use that term. What Jesus did was practical and down to earth. Three tired and disheartened people (they had toiled all night and caught nothing) were suddenly turned into three astounded and happy men. Jesus’ generosity had invaded their space. They would never be the same again.

We are called to be a people who have experienced that transforming generosity and love, as Jesus has invaded our “space” and affected our day-to-day lives. There’s been a moment, perhaps a whole lot of moments when God in Jesus has touched us even in the parts of our lives we have foolishly thought to be “nothing to do with religion”.

Often others have been the agents. A word spoken in kindness, a piece of advice, an example of suffering in adversity, a touch or a hug melted our hearts, made us feel unworthy and changed our direction and our outlook. “Saving” people can be as simple as saving them from loneliness, isolation or depression.

When we say our thanksgiving, Jesus smiles back. He often seems to be saying, “You didn’t know I could do that did you?” Then he asks us to show our thankfulness not only on our lips, but in our lives, by giving ourselves to God’s service. Zebedee’s Fishing Company began with three employees. It has grown to be a multinational reality. We all work with Simon Peter, James and John now.

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Christopher Sikkema

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