Year C Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany February 4th, 2001
Lord of the Lake Lutheran Church
Web page http://lordofthelake.org
By The Rev. Jerry Morrissey, Esq., Pastor
Heavenly Father, “I am a sinful person,” thank you for sending Jesus to pay for my sins by his death on the cross. Amen.
Title: “I am a sinful person.”
Luke 5: 1-11
Simon and his companions, after listening to Jesus teach, obeyed his command to fish one more time, resulting in a large catch. Jesus then calls them “to catch men,” whereby they leave all and follow him.
This story set before the resurrection and John 21: 1-14 set after the resurrection share so many details that they are probably different interpretations of the same event: the call of Simon. In both accounts, after fishing all night, the disciples have caught nothing. Jesus commands them to let the nets down. They do so and make an enormous catch. The effect on the nets is noted. Peter reacts to the miracle. Jesus is called “Lord.” The other fishermen present say nothing. In both, the motif of following Jesus is present, and the catch of fish is symbolic of missionary success. These two versions give us a clue to the formation of the gospel accounts. The writers use the same material, but place it in different settings for their own theological reasons.
Similarly, in Acts there are three accounts of Paul’s conversion experience each one similar, yet different. Be it Peter’s call or the foundational call to establish the Church upon Peter’s confession, the order of post-resurrection appearances of Jesus or other differences in the Gospels, Acts and Epistles, the differences in details and locales illustrate that these are eye-witness accounts at heart and so they will depend on the powers of recollection of the source. They were passed on for years and so would undergo variation in the passage. Finally, the writers would put the passed-on stories at the service of their overriding perspective and use them to teach truth even at the expense of correctness, a sort of “poetic license.”
In verse one, listening to the word of God: By Luke’s time “word of God” was a synonym for “Gospel,” good news. Simon and everyone else is called after truly listening to the words of Jesus.
Lake of Gennesaret: Luke always calls this body of water a lake, whereas the other evangelists follow the Old Testament and call it a sea. It is 13 miles by 7 miles and 700 feet below sea level. Only here is it called “Gennesaret”; elsewhere it is called “Galilee” and Chinneroth in Old Testament and Tiberias twice in John.
In verse two, washing their nets: After a night’s fishing the nets would be washed out and hung up to dry.
In verse three boat: This would be an open craft some 20 to 30 feet long. It provided a platform free from the congestion of the crowd. According to custom the speaker sat and listeners stood.
Crowd: Luke presumably regarded the crowd as dispersing before the following miracle. At any rate they disappear from the scene. The story has been so condensed that it contains a number of inconcinnity’s, perhaps because two or more sources have been conjoined.
In verse four Simon: As captain of the boat, an allusion to his leadership role, Jesus addresses him personally in the singular “Put out” and then all the others in the plural “Lower your nets”.
In verse five: Master: This title is a general term for anyone in authority like our “Boss”, and is used only in this gospel, seven times, in addressing Jesus. Later, Peter will address Jesus as “Lord,” a much deeper term.
All night long…nothing: In the most respectful way Peter is asking why should experts, that is, life-long fishermen, listen to an ex-carpenter? Night was the best time for fishing. Fish do not swim near the surface in deep waters during the day. They had caught nothing using their timeworn and tested practices.
Side bar: Actually, they never caught a single fish in the gospel accounts without the help of Jesus! Some fishermen! All their efforts were in vain.
But, if you say so: This is not to mollify Jesus, but is an expression of confidence in his perceptive powers. Many a miracle does not happen because we give up too soon and do not try one more time.
In verse six nets at breaking point: This detail is meant to establish the enormous success they had, impossible to explain on human terms, techniques and tactics.
In verse eight a sinful man: In John’s use of the story “sinful” would obviously refer to Peter’s denial. As Luke tells it, it speaks of the general condition of sin and unworthiness and fear in the presence of divinity. Side bar: reference Isaiah 6: 1-8, the first reading.
In the presence of the Holy, one pales and shrinks at the inconsistency. Thus did Abraham, Moses, Job, Isaiah, etc.
In verse astonishment: The disciples too have a religious experience of wonder in the presence of an event that could not be explained, but only experienced and expressed.
In verse ten, do not be afraid: When divinity is revealed the message always begins with encouragement to not let fear either awe, as here, or terror paralyze. It is meant to free. It also communicates forgiveness. Thus the message, really the mission, follows.
Catch men: From this point on Peter and the disciples will begin a new life, taking in not fish but humans. They will “catch” for life not for death. Of course, no Christian could read this without thinking of the image of the Church as a boat, a solid, if mobile, island of safety in the midst of the stormy waters of chaos and humans being pulled by attraction to safety and salvation by the ministry of the apostles of Christ. The catch would be enormous, universal in its scope, for everyone, but not universal in its results, not accepted by everyone. There will be both success and failure.
In verse eleven, left everything: They left the greatest catch they had seen in their lives, a fisherman’s dream. What a great “fish story” it would make! They walked away from it all, all that success! They walked away from everything else besides. They detached from their old ways and attached to Jesus alone. The awesome power of Jesus overcame their occupational, fishing, difficulties; so does following his command overcome the difficulties of renunciation in order to follow him.
Both Peter in today’s gospel reading and Isaiah in this week’s first reading had a religious experience. The curtain of dailiness, of very day vision, was drawn back and they both saw into an alternative realm. Isaiah saw God in his throne room, his home, but Isaiah physically remained in the Temple, his own religious turf. Peter saw Jesus as he really is, as God, but in Peter’s ordinary surroundings, in a boat on the waters. The religious experience, the experience of wonder, can happen anywhere. It is no less “holy” when it happens on the sea than when it happens in a church, at work or at prayer.
Peter not only saw Jesus in his true light. Peter saw Peter in his true light also. The light of eternity is so bright that it penetrates even the darkest soul. Like Isaiah, who said, “I am a man of unclean lips,” so Peter says, “I am a sinful man.” When in the presence, the felt presence of the divine, what human cannot help but see him or herself truly? They both became aware of what was always present. God is always present, whether humans are aware of it or not. Also, human sinfulness is always present whether humans admit it or not. However, in the presence of wonder a person penetrates not only the truth of reality, but also the truth of self. God not only reveals himself, or an aspect of himself to us, he also reveals us to us.
The experience of wonder, which is the experience of God, does not stop with God revealing previously unknown dimensions of his “reality” and it does not stop with God revealing our personal inadequacy to grasp reality’s dimensions in our ordinary perception. The experience takes us further into a consciousness of being sent on a mission. Being a “missionary” of the experience of wonder simply means we are sent by that experience back into our ordinary world to “proclaim” by word and, especially, deed, that there is another way, another way to live than the way we usually do.
Side bar: People who have had near-death experiences are good examples of this. The mission is to motivate others to open their minds to indeed have the experience themselves. Ordinariness closes us off to this experience. The mission, to put it in Jesus’ terms, is to move from mere doers of life, like fishermen, working to survive, an old brain activity, to being, to being motivators of and for life, like fishers of men, a new brain activity, attracting others to the light we ourselves have basked in and are basking in, so they can see themselves as they really are and see God as he really is, see and be, be with God in peace. For that to happen there must be a conversion, a switch from one form of current to another, from AC to DC, from operating on our own power to operating on his, Jesus’, power. To be a missionary, that conversion has to take place in us first, if we are to be effective. Otherwise, we will be like everybody else who has hundreds of wonder-filled experiences everyday but chalks them up to just another pleasant experience, a stroke of good fortune in an otherwise drab existence.
Fish are attracted to bait, food, and insects are attracted to light. Humans are attracted to both. The experience of wonder is both nourishing and enlightening. It is the very way we experience the eternal, the divine realm, God himself. And God is so attractive. Yet not so attractive as to be irresistible. We can resist wonder, God, Christ. Sin is the term for such resistance. The more the sin, the more the resistance. So, sin must be cleansed, removed, forgiven, if we are to have any hope of coming into the realm of God and staying there. We cannot remove this opposite force on our own power. It takes the power of God to do that for us, but it takes our permission first, and then our continual cooperation, lest we slip back out of the realm of eternal light. What many term back-sliding.
The call of Simon and the call of Isaiah, in the first reading, are paradigms for our own “call.” The experience of wonder calls all of us. When we stay with that call, when we experience wonder, we know firsthand, need no further convincing that this is so valuable an experience that we will put all else second to it. We will leave all else behind and spend the rest of our earthly days either basking in its presence or remembering past experiences of its presence, remaining open to having the experience again, and indicating by example and word to others that the presence is available to them too. In that way, being “fish” ourselves, we become “fishers of men.”
One More Try: As God’s children we are neither pampered nor puppets. We have to work in order to live. We have to work for a living and work at living. We are not pampered heirs, sitting around being waited on all day. Neither are we puppets. We depend on God for everything, but God gives us the power to do things; he does not do them for us. So, God tells us in this story that many things do not happen in our lives, not because God does not want them to happen, but because we give up too soon or too easily. If we cannot get a concept in math or science right away, we give up, instead of trying again. Of course, there is such a thing as reaching too high, of kidding ourselves that we have an ability that we clearly do not have. Nonetheless, that said, it is even more true that most people do not develop the capabilities they do have because they do not want to do what it takes. Often, what it takes is the humility to endure temporary failure and inconvenience, “We have worked hard all night and have caught nothing,” says Simon, in order to enjoy permanent improvement. The world has been deprived many a miracle because some of God’s children refused or neglected to keep trying.
Mission: It is clear that our mission in life is life itself, living it to the fullest and helping others to do the same. The experience of wonder is the experience of God and it is open to all people. We cannot make ourselves have such an experience, but we can put ourselves in the frame of mind and frame of reference to maximize the possibility that we will have such experiences. We can refuse to look at anything the same way we looked at it the last time. We can keep searching for some new sign, some new way, some new insight. In that way, wonder can more likely happen. Now, God, Wonder, is always present. It is our awareness of wonder that is faulty and fickle. Sin makes it even worse. Sin dulls us to the perception of newness. Sin gives our old brain and its feelings dominance over our new brain and its attitudes. The challenge is to be alert and alive to these new possibilities of experiencing life, enjoying life and sharing life. That is where the missionary comes in. Jesus is the primary missionary. The example of his life opened his disciples to new possibilities. They followed him, his lead, imitating his attitudes, and behold! They experienced wonder too. It is when we encounter other people who are living life on a different plane than we are, who seem to be rich in joy, in love, in vitality, people who really are into life that we encounter a “missionary” of life, luring us by their ways and their words into the world they live in, telling us stories of great adventures and far off places. Yet, these “missionaries” have not come from eternity, or utopia, or some foreign land. They have lived among us, experienced the same world as we. Yet, they are different. They do not see anything different from us. They see it differently. Side bar: “Different” is what the Hebrew word “holy” means.
They make us want what they have got. They are like fishers of men, holding up before our eyes their bait, that is, their lives, and calling us to come and get it. When the felt experience of wonder fades and goes away, the memory of it remains. If we keep the memory alive, keep in conscious contact with that divine experience, that miracle of light and nourishment, it never really goes away, only the intensity of the feeling fades. The reality remains and gives both nourishment and light. Amen.