Agents of Thoughtfulness
The phrase, “fishers of men,” is like last week’s Biblical oldie and goodie “faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love,” in that it too, is known by Christians and nonChristians alike. While you might have to be a heartless monster to find fault with the quote about love from 1 Corinthians, the quote from this morning’s Gospel reading strikes fear in the hearts of believers and disbelievers alike.
In a lot of ways, I think the fear of nonbelievers is more interesting than that of believers. What do we do to diminish fear when faced with something that makes us fearful? Well, if we cannot avoid it we make light of it. We make fun of it. So, for instance, an atheist might compare Christian evangelism to a slimy worm on a hook, or claim that evangelism is, at its heart, predatory because catching fish makes them prey and causes them pain and death. Yeah, really, I actually spent time online reading this stuff. Now you do not need to waste time in the same way. Note, these same folks will say nothing at all about the predation that leads to cans of tuna fish in their pantry or sautéed salmon on their plates. Still, I do think that their response to Christ’s telling Simon Peter that He will make him a fisher of men and not of fish indicates a higher degree of respect for the Gospel than they would otherwise admit. It is a backwards complement to the power of the Gospel to bring people to faith and to transform their lives.
What makes this interesting to me as a Pastor, interesting and potentially dismaying, is that I do not often hear practicing Christians express the same degree of respect for the power of the Gospel. It could be that we simply do not talk about this with one another like we should. It could also be because we take that divine power for granted or because the Holy Spirit has been working within us so long that we have no sense of how different we are from the person we might have been had Jesus not been a part of our lives. We may also have come to the point where, like my Mom used to say, the saving Word runs in one ear and out the other without interacting much with the brain in between. All I know is that when Jesus says “fisher of men,” we close our figurative tackle boxes and do our best to escape from the boat.
Today’s fishing story from the Gospel reading does not begin like my family’s fishing expeditions began out on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. We bought fish eggs and worms, cleaned out our tackle boxes, but a new reel on the fishing pole, gassed up the boat, and packed sandwiches, chips, and drinks. Jesus does none of those things. Granted, Jesus begins His fishing from the Sea of Galilee, a wholly different place than Henry’s Ford or Decker Flats. But what makes His preparation for the task so very interesting is that it does not involve the preparation of gear but the preaching of a sermon. Jesus preached this sermon while sitting in a fishing boat just off shore, rowed out there by a couple of accommodating fishermen who were tired and cranky after a poor night’s fishing. Sitting out there in a boat like that allowed large numbers of people to crowd the shoreline and hear Jesus better as He preached. The fishermen who had accommodated Jesus in this way did their curious neighbors a great favor, for they more than ready for their beds as they fished at night. They fished at night rather than during the day because the nights were not as hot and uncomfortable for the fishermen and because the fish they sought to catch could not see their heavy nets made of flax and linen and avoid them as they could in the day. And besides, there was much to be done during the early part of the day as well, as the fish needed to be sorted and sent to market, and the nets needed to be untangled, cleaned of silt, dried, and then folded away for the next night’s fishing.
The work these men did was both important and necessary. They did not fish for fun, but to provide for their families and their neighbors. The Sea of Galilee is quite large, about 13 miles long and 8 miles wide, and is essentially a fresh water lake that has, for many thousands of years, provided the major source of protein in the diets of many, many people. Few people could afford goat or sheep or cow meats, but most could afford fish, whether it was carp, tilapia, catfish, or sardines. Jews did not eat catfish as it was counted as unclean, but they could sell it to their Greek neighbors. Carp and tilapia were sold fresh or dried and preserved with salt. The smaller fish, sardines for the most part, were tossed into large stone or clay vats with the guts of the other sorts of fish, fermented, and the liquid drawn off and sold as fish sauce to the Romans. More than one boat would work the water at a time, so some part of a school of fish could be chased into one net and men in both boats could haul the net into the boats and get the fish to shore. It was grueling and sometimes dangerous work, but Simon Peter, his brother, Andrew, and their friends or cousins James and John were making a very successful go at it in that they owned and worked their own boats.
But the night before there had been no fish, and disheartened they sat and listened to a sermon that asked those listening to have faith in the boundless love and mercy of God, and to have faith in their futures through Him Who loves them. The sermon was lure enough for tired fishermen to put aside for a while longer their breakfasts and their beds to do as this man asked even if they knew He was not really there for fish.
“Go deep,” the Preacher said to the already tired fishermen who had to row their largish boat far out from shore for the second time in the same day. “Go deep, and let out your nets.” To men who had not only spent a fruitless, well, fishless, night upon the waters and who then had also repaired and wrapped up their nets for the day, this Preacher said, “Go deep, and let down your nets.” I’m not sure I would have been inclined, myself, to do as He asked. But they did. Those tired men rowed their boat out and let the nets down into the deeper waters far off the shore, and what they had not been able to find the night before swam in huge numbers into their nets. There were so many fish, that both the nets and the men dragging them were threatened, and so the other boat came to help and both were loaded high and heavy and dangerously low in the water.
You find the big fish, the large schools of fish, in deeper waters farther from the shore. There’s more risk in those deeper waters, but more reward, too. To men both tired and amazed Jesus the Christ said, “I will make you fishers of men.” But only Simon Peter, at first anyway, understood what those huge piles of fish meant, and we know he did, for he went to his knees in that pile of bloody, flopping fish bodies to say to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
The first part of that phrase is not so very different from what the demons have been saying to Jesus when He undertook to heal those they possessed. Go away, leave us alone, they said to Him who they knew to be God’s own Son. They knew the holy and the unholy do not mix; it is much like oil and water, matter and antimatter. Peter understood his sin made his nearness to God both risky and unlikely. But, like the angels, Jesus told Peter to put his fear aside, and go deep. Like the Prayer of the Day, Jesus asked Simon Peter to enlarge his vision by going deep into the faith he already knew, yet likely, as do many, took for granted. Go deep, do not simply skim the tops of the waters to which you are committed, but go deep, that you may know the lengths to which God will go to save you from sin and death.
So the real miracle of this Gospel message is Simon Peter’s grasp of God’s power in the world, not the huge numbers of fish caught that day off the shore of the Sea of Galilee, or even the timing of that catch, in the day by tired fishermen. An ordinary man saw God at work in creation, and if he did not exactly know what that meant for his salvation he certainly knew he was in the presence of the divine. In the middle of the Sea of Galilee a window into the workings of God and the kingdom of heaven had been opened, and Peter was overcome by the sudden knowledge of the burdens of his sin and he sank to his knees in fear.
Fear is often a consequence of a God moment like this, although fear will sometimes lead us to a God moment. It is typically the case that ordinary people like those first disciples and later disciples, too, stay in the shallows when it comes to faith. We need to be forced to go deep. We take faith as it comes. We love the stories of Scripture. We pray for help for ourselves and others. Sometimes we wing a prayer of thanksgiving to God above when we see how wondrously we have been blessed. But mostly, we let our minds, those marvelous inventions of the Almighty, chew on matters we think closer to home, like what a certain family member is up to, how to do the job a bit differently for better results, getting fertilizer for the spring lawn preparation. Maybe we’re even looking planning on doing some fishing when the season opens. But we tend not to think actively about what God is doing now, in our lives, through us. It’s a bit like going out in a boat to fish, only leaving the rod and the reel behind. We’ve got the platform for fishing, but not the gear we actually need.
Christ asks us all to be fishers of men. People tend not to like the “e-word” anyway, e for evangelism, but the greater difficulty is that we simply are not mindful about our faith. We do not put in the study and reflection necessary to see our opportunities to fish when they arise. Until it’s too late. We don’t have to leave a successful fishing business to follow Jesus, but we do need to commit to going deeper, not so we can do more with Jesus Christ but so He can do more with us. A fisherman or a fisherwoman is a person whose job it is to get healthy fish to the mouths of those who need to eat them. Our job as disciples of Jesus Christ is simply to be the conduit through which the Holy Spirit brings Jesus to those who are starving for faith, hope, and love. As He once sent the prophet Isaiah, God sends us, to be the ones to speak these things to others. We do not need to worry about our perfection as disciples, because we have none. We do not need to worry about having eloquent speech or getting it right when we speak. That is all the purview of the Holy Spirit. We only need to go deep, to study the Word, to pray for understanding, and to reflect on the wonders revealed under the light of that singular star over the temporary home of that holy Child, and then share all that we have seen and known with those still wandering too much in the dark.