Although there have been many technological developments, fishing hasn’t really changed much in the last two thousand years. In spite of all our diesel-powered boats, radar, detailed and accurate charts of the sea, satellite-assisted navigation, and the like, fishing is still pretty much the same kind of activity it was in Jesus’ time.
Fishing is about setting out on the water, about leaving the safety of the dry land and trusting the laws of physics and the goodness of God. It’s about hoping and praying for a good, bountiful catch – but not really being able to do a whole lot to make that happen.
Compare this to farming. Farmers assure a good harvest mostly through hard work – careful preparation of the soil, proper nutrition and moisture, freedom from pests. The weather plays a part, of course, but it is only one of a very complex set of factors. And make no mistake, fishing is hard work, too: maintaining a boat, studying charts, baiting hooks, and repairing nets, just for a start. But in fishing, whether there are fish or whether there are none, whether the wind blows enough to move your sailboat or so much that your boat is capsized – these kinds of things are totally out of the control of the men and women fishing, aren’t they? And most of the factors in fishing are like that.
In fact, in spite of all the technology, all the training, all the experience – fishing is still pretty much putting all your hope in God.
The message is clear: just put your trust in God, and God will provide everything. We don’t have to cultivate the soil, or sew seed, or dig in fertilizer, or irrigate the crops, or spray for insects – we just have to trust.
So, today’s gospel passage is a simple story with a clear message, right? It’s a metaphor that by extension is as much about us as it is about James and John and Simon Peter and Andrew. Just trust in God, who provides everything we need, and we will find the power and the strength to go and catch people, to make disciples of all nations, and to build up the church through our efforts.
Of course, that’s the way we’d like it to be: all neat and clean, and wrapped up so nicely. We trust and God provides. What more could we ask for?
But fishing, well, it’s more than just a plentiful catch isn’t it? Sometimes, there are no fish at all. Frequently, there are tremendous risks and great danger. And always there is a great deal of pain and suffering.
A few years back, there was a movie called The Perfect Storm, based on a novel by the same name. Did any of you see it or read the book? It’s about a small New England fishing town, and the relentless efforts of the fishing community to remain economically viable. It’s about facing amazing challenges, and about the unfairness of life – why did they catch so many fish while we caught so few? It’s about women and children waiting on land for news of loved ones still out at sea during rough weather. It’s a poignant depiction of the human drama – of love and loss, of work and struggle, of success and challenge and joy.
The movie depicts modern-day, deep-sea fishing in graphic detail. We see large, elegant, graceful swordfish – not caught in a net and quietly surrendering to their fate, but impaled on large and painful hooks; painfully dragged aboard ship; beaten, stabbed, and even shot by the crew in a frenzied and violent struggle.
And being gentle doesn’t help: then they are attacked by sharks – on the very deck of their boat – hit by the boom, thrown overboard, and even caught in the worst net of all: the pain suffered at the hands of a fellow human being.
The movie, which is well worth seeing, ends with the amazing and defiant actions of one captain and a brave crew, who seek swift passage home with an abundant catch of swordfish – more than they could ask or imagine – and instead confront a storm of unbelievable proportion. Intent on offering their abundant harvest to the people on land, and reveling in their amazing bounty, the crew instead give their lives to the majesty of the sea, never returning from their valiant journey.
Let’s face it, fishing is cruel – both to the fish and to those who do the fishing. Fishing is not a pretty story about evangelism or a miracle about feeding thousands; it’s about struggle and pain, challenge and hope, success and failure, life and death, sacrifice and joy, magnificent beauty and unimaginable ugliness.
And if this gospel passage is about us and our efforts to build up Christ’s body the church – is this who God wants us to be? Is this who we want to be?
Do we really want to lay out bait for people – not enough to sustain them, but just enough to get them painfully caught on a hook? Is it our vocation to pull them in, kicking and screaming – and to beat them into submission? And are we to revel in this catch? – tallying the number of fish we’ve managed to drag in, disemboweled, and put on ice, and then thanking God for this manifest blessing?
Plus, aren’t we all just like that kind of “fish,” as well? Are we somehow different from those we seek to bring to Christ? Are we to terrify them by wielding our weapons until they believe? Now, there’s a revelation to be truly afraid of! There are doubtless some Christians who would say “yes” to all that. But are we Anglicans called to do this?
Many of our fellow Christians think that we are called by God almighty to become fishers of men, to lay out our nets and haul in as many people as we can get, and to thank God for the abundance of the harvest – measured not in pounds of fish but in numbers of people.
But in most of Anglicanism, we offer another vision of the church. Oh, we are truly glad when the church grows, and we thank God for that. We believe and proclaim that our dependence is on God alone. And we recognize that our life’s journey is not always one of hopeful expectation; that sometimes we come across times of struggle and even insurmountable odds.
We hear this morning’s gospel passage and consider the frightening implications of those words: “From now on you will be catching people.” The pain that we may suffer or that may be inflicted at our hands, the tremendous risk ahead of us, the hard work that is ours – and ours alone – to do: we must face these are challenges. Because from now on we will be catching people.
And yet we remember that we rely on God and God alone for the many good things we know in this life – indeed for life itself. And we pledge to work hard, to do the best we can – not because it will gain for us any reward, but in thanksgiving for our many blessings.
We remember that Peter, when he experienced the miracle of the presence of God in Christ, when he saw his boat sinking from a catch of so many fish, fell down at Jesus’ feet and said, “Go away from me, for I am sinful.” We remember that we are like Peter.
And we remember that this story reveals the miraculous power of Jesus Christ – a power as available and present and real to you and me, at this holy table, as to simple fishermen on the Sea of Gennesaret some two thousand years ago. We remember the power of God.
And so we fear that we, like Peter, are sinful and unworthy of God’s love. But we also remember that Jesus replies to Peter’s fear and trembling – as indeed to ours – with these most comforting words: “Do not be afraid.” This comfort is ours, here and now, no less than it was theirs, out on that lake so very long ago.
This insight does not assure us success; it reminds us of our salvation. This teaching does not give us license to abuse others in Christ’s name; it calls us to repent from the pain we inflict. This power does not scare us into submission; it invites us, gently and lovingly, to give up our fears and trust in God.
This power comes to us from God – by our very life, through our baptism, and again and again in this our simple ritual meal.
This power comes to us every day, in ways we have not yet begun to understand or imagine.
This power comes to us in our joy and in our pain, when we struggle and when we succeed. This power allows us to become more and more what God created us to be.
This power is love.
And with the power of love, we are able to withstand pain and torment, and we are able to revel in joy and bliss.
With love, we can endure great trials, face new challenges, and even overcome death.
With love, we can help to heal the world that suffers and hurts greatly.
With love, we can trust that God will provide all that we truly need.
With love, we can invite people to join with us in revealing more and more of the miraculous power that is God.