A sermon for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C. The Gospel tells the story of Jesus teaching from a boat because of the crowds, a miraculous catch of fish, and the first few disciples to leave everything, and follow him.
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
What is the pressing word that the world needs to hear? What is the great need that Jesus can address?
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
What makes you trust Jesus? How has Jesus addressed your needs?
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
With whom can you share the Word of God that answers the needs of your neighbours?
Too many people, so many people needed to hear what Jesus had to tell them about the word of God, the stuff of salvation; so he asked for help from a fisherman fresh off the water after a long and fruitless shift. Despite his weariness, his unwashed nets, his aching bones, Simon was willing to accommodate the man; whether out of curiosity, or hope, or need, or common courtesy, the legendary hospitality of their people; or repayment for that time when Jesus healed his mother-in-law.
Simon did what Jesus asked of him, and Jesus, as though in return, perhaps with a twinkle in his eye, said, “Follow me into the deep water and I’ll show you something.” And the catch of fish that they found more than made up for the night of empty nets, and the aching bodies, and the hungry mouths at home, the fear of food insecurity, and the shame of empty-handedness.
And if the story had ended there, it would confirm everything that the prosperity preachers have told us about the way in which God works: do God a favour, and God will work the odds in your favour. Throw in a coin, a seed, a token, and see your fortunes flood. With Jesus, you’ll hit the jackpot.
But the gospel is not a lucky charm, and faith does not work as a vending machine: prayer in, miracle out; and this story does not end with Simon and his friends heading to market and cashing in their fish for a tidy profit, such as they had never thought to see from a night on the Sea of Galilee, and going home rejoicing.
No, when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything, everything, and followed Jesus.
It can’t have been just about the fish. It can’t have been just about the bread. There was something in Jesus himself – his words, his presence, his essence, the Incarnation of God – that made people want to get close to him, to follow him. The fish, to conjure a distasteful image, were just the icing on the cake.
There are a few things I think it’s worth really trying to notice about this story.
One is that the people had such great need of Jesus’ teaching. Remember, what he had been teaching was the message of the prophets, of the day of the Lord, in which the poor receive good news, and the blind see, and the prisoners and the oppressed find liberty. People were starving for that message. They were parched for that hope. They were teeming for that word.
We know a little of how they feel. We know the over-incarceration of our country, the unequal distribution of the consequences of crime based on economic status and most especially on race and colour, the privatization and profiteering off of punishment that traps people in systems that have been likened to modern slavery, that further dehumanize rather than restoring the dignity of us all.
We know the unequal access to healing medicine, and the travesty of maternal and infant mortality that stains our country’s façade as a beacon of civilization and progress. Again, race is a factor. Again, profit too often takes priority over people.
We know the profound need for good news, that sets people seeking after heroes and helpers, so few of whom measure up in the end; so few who prove completely faithful, and fulfilling. We know the disappointment of a people perpetually seeking their own salvation, and coming up short, so we know the need of the people for the message of salvation that Jesus brings: Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand; God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, God willing.
Another thing to notice is that Jesus did not approach Simon out of nowhere. A chapter or so ago, Simon had heard Jesus preaching in the synagogue, perhaps reading again from that scroll of Isaiah, and Simon had invited him to dinner. At the house, Jesus had healed Simon’s mother-in-law, who had a fever. That was a while back; Jesus has been travelling the countryside preaching in more synagogues and healing many more mothers-in-law before he arrives here, at the seaside. But there is a relationship already in progress. Jesus is already known to Simon. Simon is already inclined to trust him.
One more thing that I’d like to draw out of this story is that once Simon Peter started to follow the direction of Jesus, he quickly found himself overwhelmed, out of his depth, and under-resourced to pull up the fish that he found. He had to call in his partners, James and John, to help him. He was afraid, and he could not handle the work alone; he couldn’t even handle a miracle alone. And Jesus didn’t expect him to. When he said, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people,” he might have been pointing to the partners who had gathered around to help out, the community of disciples that was just beginning to become a gleam in Jesus’ eye.
There is a great need among the people to hear the hope that Jesus has called forth. Simon already has reason to trust Jesus, and to heed that hope. Simon needs to call others to help him if he is to follow the path to fulfillment that Jesus has pointed out for him. And once he does, they follow Jesus, too.
Which brings us back to the questions that we asked at the beginning:
What is the word that the world needs to hear? What is the great need that Jesus can address?
What makes you trust Jesus? How has Jesus helped you?
With whom can you share the Word of God, because they need it, and because you need them to help you heed it?
I can’t do my work by myself. If God wants me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, freedom from the oppression of gun violence, liberty from white supremacy and deep-rooted racism, food for the hungry, my own salvation from depression and anxiety and the troubles that bind me – then the first thing that I am doing to make that happen is to look around to see which other boats are out, and who I can ask for help. Because it’s too much to contemplate alone. But then I have to remember, too, that Jesus is in the boat with me.
Jesus is in the boat with me. He has always been trustworthy. There have been times, plenty of times, when I have felt overwhelmed, underwhelming, in danger of drowning, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Jesus has been there, a whisper away. Sometimes, he drags me to shore. Sometimes, he dances with me in the deep water, waiting with my aching lungs for the tide to ebb. Sometimes, rarely, he flips the whole scene upside down, inside out, and I find myself, a fish out of water, facing a whole new world.
“Don’t be afraid,” says Jesus, “From now on you will be catching people.” Simon, James, and John looked at the great crowd gathered on the sea shore to hear Jesus, to see Jesus, to find Jesus. And they put down their nets, and followed Jesus into the country, into the crowd, who needed more than anything to know the presence of the living God among them.