First, it’s not entirely clear what the nature of the story is. Is it a Call Story, of which there are lots in the Bible? The biblical storytellers frequently offer us tales of those whom God has called, so that we might be ready to hear the call ourselves. In some Bibles this morning’s story is designated “the calling of the first disciples”. The fact that it is paired with also-quite-interesting Call of Isaiah, our first lesson today, would back this assumption.
But maybe it’s a miracle story? Other Bibles introduce it as “The Miraculous Catch”, and it IS that. Let’s agree that Luke has done a clever job of combining both a call, and a miracle.
The next important thing, in my mind, is how different Luke’s chronology is from the other three New Testament gospels, and I think it’s interesting to think about why.
Matthew, Mark, and John all begin with Jesus’ baptism, Mark and Matthew describe Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and describe him introducing his ministry by declaring that “the realm of God has come near”, but after that, in all three, Jesus begins his ministry of outreach by explicitly inviting (“calling”) disciples to join him.
Not Luke. In the third gospel, after Jesus’ baptism and temptation, Jesus begins his ministry on his own by teaching in the synagogues, and he immediately begins to acquire a following. In the last two weeks we’ve heard the story of the dramatic incident at the synagogue in Nazareth that starts out well but soon has Jesus’ boyhood neighbors running him out of town.
In Luke’s story, Jesus then proceeds to cleanse a man with an unclean spirit, heal Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (though there is no mention of any particular relationship between Jesus and Simon Peter,) and to travel out of Galilee and into Judea, teaching and healing bodies and spirits and increasingly, drawing crowds. AND IT IS ONLY THEN that today’s incident occurs, ultimately resulting in Jesus’ invitation to Simon Peter, James, and John to come with him with the opportunity of “catching people”.
We assume that as the gospel writers began producing their accounts of the “good news story” of Jesus Christ during the years of the developing early church, decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there was lots of material in circulation about Jesus. We assume that each of them drew from that material and made choices to construct a narrative that conveyed what they felt was important.
Why did Luke present Jesus as initiating his ministry on his own, and then inviting a community of followers, friends, and (as Luke describes them in chapter 6) apostles almost as an afterthought?
You may have other ideas about this, but I think Jesus recognized, weeks into a solo ministry tour, that he couldn’t do it on his own. I think that he not only discovered that crowd management was becoming an issue, but I suspect that Jesus discovered a need for companionship and community in the work of preaching the Realm of God and of caring for the needs of God’s children. Later on, as he sent the disciples out to minister on their own, he sent them in pairs. And the lesson of the importance of sharing the work of ministry is equally true for us.
The third interesting thing I want to observe about this story is the way in which Luke shapes this introduction of Simon Peter, who was the undoubtedly the most important leader in the very early church. Throughout all of the gospels we come to know Peter as not only the first-called, but as a complex, passionate, and yet really fallible human being. He was at times the most faithful of Jesus’ community, being the first to openly name Jesus as the Messiah, but the strength of his own certainties caused Peter to get it wrong as often as he got it right.
You can imagine that members in the early church must have been eager and fascinated to hear about the origins of Simon Peter’s relationship with Jesus, and this morning’s story is the way Luke filled in those gaps for them. What’s intriguing to me is that Luke, rather than depicting Simon Peter as eager and decisive, showed his vulnerable side.
The fishing business of Simon Peter and his colleagues served multiple purposes: it not only fed their families, but provided their livelihood, feeding the community who purchased their catch. It was hard, physical work, and times (such as the night preceding this morning’s story) when there was little or no catch would have been distressing as well as disheartening.
But despite what must have been his fatigue and discouragement, when the new teacher (who Simon would have known to have helped his mother-in-law) asked his assistance in being transported out onto the lake to get some space from the crowds, Simon was willing to be helpful.
After the teaching was done, however, Jesus’ instruction to the fishers to head further out to drop their nets was more than Simon wanted to take on. “We’ve already tried, and they’re just not biting. Besides, we’ve washed the nets. There’s no point in trying again.” But Jesus insisted, and so Simon complied. Was he hopeful, do you think, or just too tired to argue?
As Luke tells us, the catch was just crazy. There were enough fish to break the nets and threaten that the boats would sink. (I like to imagine that all of those fish were magnetically drawn to Jesus, just as the crowds on the lakeshore were, and were practically jumping into the boat to be close to the power Jesus radiated.)
And the situation frightened Simon Peter. He had been impressed by the new rabbi earlier, but he was not comfortable with what he had just witnessed. He wanted some distance. His anxiety suddenly made him aware of his own unworthiness. Probably he felt that he’d be better off with the unpredictability of the fishing business than he was with this guy who seemed to cause such unnatural things to happen.
He exclaimed “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus understood Simon Peter’s fear, and offered not only reassurance, but the opportunity to be part of something bigger: “From now on, you will be catching people.”
So, finally, we come down to the place we always come down to. What does this story have to say to us?
It’s not too hard to see some obvious connections. Like Simon Peter, we’re tired out by things that are hard and uncertain. For Simon Peter the strain was largely physical; for us, in the last couple of years, it’s more emotional and spiritual. When you think about not only the pandemic, but also the increasing cultural divide in not only our nation, but the world, as well as the frowing environmental environmental crisis, we are in a hard place. A lot of the things we’ve been doing don’t seem to be getting us anywhere. We feel like we’re going through the motions, maybe, and repeating familiar pattern because we don’t have a better idea.
I’m grateful for an observation I read about today’s gospel in a commentary by New Testament scholar Ronald Allen that has rung a chord for me. Allen points out that bathos, the Greek word for depth that’s used when Jesus instructs Simon Peter to “Put out into deep waters”, is associated. Where it’s used elsewhere in Hebrew scriptures, in Hebrew scriptures with the danger and chaos of the primordial seas.*
Jesus encourages Simon Peter to dip the nets into the deeper, more dangerous and perhaps more unpredictable waters of the Sea of Galilee – the better-known name for Lake Gennesaret - rather than steering away from them. And it is when they did so that Simon and his companions experienced God’s unexpected abundance – a catch that was more than they were ready for or knew how to handle.
Might this be a useful metaphor for us to apply to the challenges of our own lives? How often do we keep doing things in the same safe way we’ve been doing them but which is no longer providing what we are looking for?
How frequently do we avoid the depths because there’s too much unknown there - they are too frightening, too unpredictable?
We can listen to Jesus’ words to Simon Peter: “Do not be afraid.” As we’ve observed in relation to another sea-going tale in the gospels, we can afford to risk because we’ve got Jesus in the boat with us. Our God provides a world of abundant (if unpredictable) riches. Ours is the opportunity to dig in, and who knows what we’ll pull up.
*Ronald J Allen, Commentary on Luke 5:1-11, February 10 2019, workingpreacher.org
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