This morning we are as it were invited to join the crowds at the shore of the lake of Gennesareth. Imagine you have come to listen to this strange new teacher, Jesus. He has already performed several miracles, like casting out an unclean spirit in Capernaum, healing Peter’s mother in law and then healing or exorcising several others. Luke 4:23 suggests that even before that, Jesus had done miraculous things in Capernaum. Soon after there had been a first attempt on his life. True, Jesus’ teachings had been unusual to say the least. He had quoted and emphasized and explained precisely those passages in the Bible which spoke about the poor, the brokenhearted and about liberty for the oppressed. He added that the prophet Elijah had been sent to a mere widow, and that the prophet Elisha had not even cared about his own countrymen who were lepers, but instead he had helped a leper who was a foreigner, even a military commander of the enemy. And his hearers went all the way from admiration to being “filled with wrath” because they realised that their self-importance and pride did nothing to impress the Messiah. Boy, this was a radical!
So you find yourself in this crowd, which is almost pushing Jesus into the lake in order to hear every word. Luke puts it this way, “the multitude pressed about him to hear the word of God”.
For here was someone who might finally reveal the true meaning of all those traditional stories. And he was adding some of his own. Then Jesus turns out to be very practical as well. There is a boat in the vicinity which is not being used. He claims it so as to better address the crowd. The first function of the boat was not to bring in all those fish, but simply to give Jesus a platform to sit down and teach. There is a lesson here for us as well. Perhaps we should not only pray for miracles, but for creativity and common sense as well. And that creativity will surface again in this same story.
After he stopped speaking he asked Simon Peter, whose boat he was on, to move the boat further from the shore and catch some fish there. Mind you, at this stage nobody had told Jesus about their bad luck so far. They had not asked Him for any advice. There had been no time and perhaps they thought there was no point, as Jesus was a carpenter and not a fisherman. How could he know what was best for them, business-wise? But Jesus knew. Like he knows our needs before we even pray to Him. And He cares about the most practical things in life, not just the lofty, spiritual and theological issues. I think He cares especially about the practical things, as He had illustrated in his speech in the synagogue in Nazareth. Somehow Jesus also knew where the fish were to be found. The Creator of the World would have a special intuition for those things, even after emptying himself of his divine powers. As Psalm 65:4-6 says, “We are filled with the good things of your house, of your holy temple. You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds, God our Saviour… who formed the mountains by your power.”
But there is yet another dimension in this story. Jesus challenged his future disciples, to not always fish where they usually fished. It may be easier to fish near the shore, but you cannot rely on it. Sometimes the best catch requires real effort. Isn’t it the same with the gospel of the kingdom? Sometimes we need new ways to be church, to do mission, and we cannot rely on the way we have always done things. Mind you, I am not exactly a pioneer. I love my traditions, but I have also discovered that traditions can become an end in themselves. What is familiar to us can become some kind of idol, closing our minds to the way others experience truth and the way they experience us. We have incredible abilities to adapt and to be creative, but we do not always use them.
Sometimes we even block all progress just to be on what we feel is the safe side, or out of arrogance. This is not right. When we are unsuccessful, there needs to be change of some kind.
God wants us to be successful and flourish.
Now you may wonder if I am advocating the so called prosperity gospel. But that is something else. The prosperity gospel says that you will be blessed materially and financially, if you are a good Christian. When others are not blessed, they can’t have been good Christians. This is as false as it can get. In reality God wants us to be successful because he wants everyone to be successful.
Fear of progress
Now notice the reaction of Peter when two boats almost sink because of the huge quantity of fish. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” It seems to be an expression of utter humility.
But Jesus sees it for what it is, fear. That is why Jesus has to say, “Do not be afraid”. Psychologist Erich Fromm would later point out that we often have difficulty accepting freedom and success. And then we sabotage ourselves. Did Peter really need Jesus to depart from him? No, whether or not his sins were a problem, he needed Jesus, just like we all do. Whether we are longstanding or brand-new Christians or still making up our mind, we need Christ over and over again to initiate new phases in our lives. Christ said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly”. That is also what the fish represent. This story is not only about converting others. And it is certainly not about catching them in the sense of restricting their freedom, or using them, as you would eat a fish. That would be stretching the analogy too far.
Actually, I think this is mainly about our own spiritual growth. While Peter has only just about come to terms with this sudden abundance of life, Jesus already announces the next stage: “From now on you will catch people”. When you have truly grasped what Jesus was doing here, how he valued people, their well-being, and their development, then you want all people to have that kind of treatment and experience. Remember that in this same story, the first four disciples have just been caught like fish by Jesus. So what Jesus asked was for them to do a similar work to what he himself was doing right then. Pointing out eternal truths, those things that really matter. It doesn’t count what profession we have. It doesn’t even count whether we have a profession.
Growth in every profession
“From now on you will be fishers of people”. I wonder what Jesus would have said if the first disciples had been bankers. I think he would have said something like, “from now on you will invest in people”. If they had been builders, he might have said, “from now on you will help to build the kingdom of God, God’s spiritual temple”. If they had been software developers, he might have said, “from now on you will free people from their broken code of ethics and their limited assumptions. You will help them to discover their own true requirements and operating instructions”.
Anyway, God uses our existing talents and he uses them to teach us about new horizons.
At the same time this story shows that we are not immediately perfect. We have so much to learn. As fishermen, we don’t always know where the fish are. As financial advisers, we may put our trust in the wrong experts and trends. Priests may hurt people by putting outward appearances above the interests of their flock. And so I could go on. It is no wonder that Jesus wants the first disciples to be near him for a few years. We should stay close to him, too, learning from him every day, asking for and being open to the Holy Spirit.
Catching and being caught
Does that mean we have to give up our current job, like the first disciples did? Well, not necessarily. Paul continued to be a tent maker, but he also started to build spiritual dwelling places, communities of believers, where all people felt welcome, whether they were Jews or Gentiles, male or female, rich or poor, masters or servants. Yes, equality used to be a Christian value.
After the resurrection, by the way, even the first disciples returned to their former jobs. And in the last chapter of John, Jesus appears to them once more, and performs almost exactly the same miracle. This is how they know it is the Lord. And this is how we know we have met the Lord. When we are changed, when He keeps saying to us, “Follow me”, that is when we are connected.
Upgrades for humanity
You see, whatever we do, our lives can be upgraded. Somehow, this is always linked to other people. It is always about going to where the other fish or the other sheep are. About catching and being caught. Shepherding and being shepherded. For we are all in this together. Luther called it the priesthood of all believers.
Speaking about togetherness, I found it interesting to note that Jesus starts by sending out one boat into the deep waters. Two boats return loaded with fish. What does this tell us, apart from the main miracle? It tells us that Peter discovered that he needed his partners. Jesus let him find this out for himself. Not everything which is good for us has been spelled out. However, we, too, have partners not only for bad times, but also for good times. So let us share the blessings that God gives us and share ourselves as well.