SJF • Epiphany 5c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “Put out into the deep water and let out your nets for a catch.”+
In spite of being the son of a carpenter, and perhaps being a carpenter himself, our Gospel reading this morning shows us that Jesus was quite a fisherman as well. This story involves another fisherman named Simon bar Jonah — a disappointed fisherman at that. He’s spent the whole night for nothing, and now faces the tedious task of washing and stowing the nets that let him down the night before even as he pulled them up — empty. Talk about adding insult to injury! But Jesus pays no mind to the grumbling Simon. No, Jesus just goes on preaching and teaching, sitting there in the front of the boat as Peter grumbles and fumbles in the stern. And this is how Jesus shows himself to be a master fisherman — for he too fishes for people.
Now, there are all kinds of fishermen in the world. You may have seen the sports fishermen who catch huge swordfish from the stern of powerboats — the fisherman’s equivalent of wrestling or in keeping with today, football. But there are also trout-fishers, the fishing world equivalent of archery — whose work is marked by the delicacy with which they cast the line, the gentleness with which the fly is twitched floating on the surface of the current, making it seem a natural treat to tempt a trout.
Jesus is a trout-fisher as opposed to a sports fisher. And the fish he’s after in this Gospel passage isn’t among the crowds on the shore — they’ll get caught in the big net later on, tended by someone else. No, the fish Jesus is after is right there in the boat with him. It’s Simon himself, Simon son of Jonah, no less. How’s that for a coincidence?
I’ve mentioned before that in Greek the first letters of the phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” spell out the Greek anagram IXΘYC, the Greek word for fish. People in the early church used the sign of the fish as a secret code for the fact that they were Christians. Some people still do the same with bumper stickers. So in our Gospel this morning we have Jesus, whose title spells out “fish” angling for Simon the fisherman who in this case is the fish Jesus is after, just as Simon’s father’s namesake, Jonah, once got caught by a fish, and later also became a fisher of men when he went preaching to Nineveh. This is some fish story! And before it is fully told, Simon will be sent, sent to fish for people all around the banks of the Mediterranean sea. He will have received a new calling.
And in today’s Gospel we see how Jesus places this important call. Jesus plays out his line, trailing the lure as he teaches and preaches. For while he speaks to the crowds on the sure, he is also targeting Simon, there in the boat with him. Simon seems to be a bystander, such is the craft of Jesus the fisher of souls. Simon doesn’t even know he’s being lured! He just sits there tending his nets, and the words of Jesus — what they were we’ll never know — they come to him second-hand, or so it seems.
Then, suddenly, the spell is broken. Jesus turns to Simon, and instead of asking to be rowed back to land, as we might expect at the end of the sermon, he tells the fisherman to put out to the deep and try for another catch.
You can well imagine what thoughts went through Simon’s head at that point. “A carpenter is going to tell me how to fish?” But something in Jesus’ command gets through, and out they go. Simon lets down the nets — nets he’s just finished cleaning — and suddenly grace breaks through, and there are so many fish he doesn’t know what to do with them, and the boats are almost swamped. And Peter, knowing now that he’s been caught, falls to his knees and appeals to Jesus to throw him back. But it’s too late. Jesus has caught his Big Fish who will become the Big Fisherman, and tells him not to be afraid, for he will now start his true calling, his calling to fish for people.
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Calling. That’s a simple English word for what sometimes gets called a vocation. Sometimes the “calling” is literal, and audible “calling out” in spoken words. Simon in our Gospel this morning gets an express verbal command; Gideon in our Old Testament gets the same; Paul on the road to Damascus got the same; Joan of Arc heard voices in the ringing of the church bells telling her to put on armor like a man and go to Orleans and tell the king to start acting like a king.
But most people in the history of the Christian faith don’t receive their calling in such a direct and literal and audible way. God whispers to our hearts more often than shouting in our ears. And just as Jesus appointed Simon to go out and fish for people, assigning him a task rather than doing it all himself, God continues to work through angels and ministers of grace, apostles and evangelists and preachers and teachers, members of our own families and friends we’ve known for years, and sometimes casual acquaintances we hardly know, or even a stranger — to gather in the people of God, to pull in the nets into his great ark of the church.
For as I’ve pointed out before, our church is a great ship, literally. Look up into the vaulting of the roof at those ribs. We’re a great upside down boat, and you are sitting in the nave. That’s why they call it “the nave.” We are on naval maneuvers! Our church is a boat turned upside down, a great boat that sails between heaven and earth. And there are nets cast out through the portals of this church that stretch off into the world, to bring in a catch.
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All of us here this morning have a calling, even if we are not entirely sure what it is or what it will be. Sometimes you have to listen very carefully to hear God’s voice speaking through the many messengers God sends out. Other times it may be as clear as a trumpet blast.
And we can’t be sure where the call will lead us. Simon Peter walked off and left the nets, the fish, the boats, and everything else. A man who thought he would spend his whole life long plying the nets by Galilee, ended his life in Rome crucified upside down, as upside down as his world had been turned, and as upside-down as he and the other Christians had turned the world— we Christians who sail the ship of the church upside down in the waters of heaven.
The call of God has “a net effect.” When we respond to God’s call it will make a difference in our lives; as Paul said in the epistle this morning, “I am what I am by God’s grace.” That grace, that call will make us be what we are, though it may change what we do: even if the calling is not to something new, but the rediscovery of something old. Sometimes God redirects a person’s skills say, from catching fish to catching people. And sometimes God opens our eyes to see God’s grace in the calling we’ve already got, the precious uniqueness of a skill we thought was common and ordinary. For there is nothing insignificant in God’s great world, and the net God casts is very fine, and doesn’t miss a single fish.
Of course, when we hear the word vocation we often think of vocation within the four walls of the church, an on-board ministry, so to speak. Not everyone, though, will be called to be a sailor, or a steward or purser — the world needs travel agents and tour guides and hotel managers too! And what I want to say to you this morning is that every calling of God is a holy calling, and every act done in the Name of Jesus is a work of the kingdom of heaven — on board the boat or out in the ports and harbors of our journey. The church is the ark of salvation, but some of us are also called to go out, out into the deep places of the world, where the Spirit of God moves where it wills, touching hearts that are hungry and thirsty for the Word from beyond the worlds, who made the world and everything in it, and who calls that whole world to himself.
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I mentioned Joan of Arc a moment ago, how she received a commission to go to the king and tell him to start acting like a king. Well, about a thousand years ago, King Henry the Third of Bavaria, thought he had a calling to become a monk. He’d been an effective monarch, but he also felt a strong sense that God wanted him to devote himself to a life of prayer. And so he went off to the local abbey, to meet with the wise old Prior. And right off, the Prior, who was very wise, said, “You know, your majesty, you’ve been a good king; but kings aren’t generally accustomed to accepting orders from other people, and here in the monastery, as you place yourself under obedience to me and the other senior monks, you may find the vow of obedience is much more difficult for you than the vows of poverty and chastity.” King Henry said he understood, but he persisted. “I know it will be difficult. But I wish to give my life to God. So I will obey you as you command.” “Will you, then, your Majesty, do as I tell you?” said the Prior. “I will,” he answered, “with all my heart.” And so the wise old Prior said, “Then go back to your throne and serve where God has put you.”
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Sometimes the call of God will send us off to the other end of the world, and sometimes the call of God will send us right back to where we’ve always been. But in any case, as we do God’s will for each of us, each of us being what we are through the grace of God alone; whether we see new things or see old things anew; the net effect is that our world will be changed, as we are empowered to change the world around us. God is calling each of us to be all that we can be, or to make new use of what we already have, for it all comes from God, after all, new or old. We may find ourselves, like Simon son of Jonah, leaving all that is familiar behind us on the beach. We may, like Henry of Bavaria, find ourselves returning to an old task with a new sense of purpose and commitment. In any case and in every case, God is calling us, and may all of our work in response, all of our calling and vocation, be to the glory of God alone, to whom we give thanks, and in whose Name we pray.+