- Grant, O Lord, we beseech Thee that the course of this world…
- 1 Peter 3:8-15a
- Luke 5:1-11
Because the Gospels are written as a series of vignettes, things seem to happen suddenly, with very sharp edges. In Luke 1, for example, the scene shifts rapidly between the house of Mary and the house of Elizabeth; in Luke 2 the scene shifts between Bethlehem, the Temple and then the Temple some 12 years later; in Chapter 3 John Baptist bursts onto the scene; in Chapter 4 there is the synagogue reading, the death threat and miracles; and here we are in Chapter 5 with Jesus performing the miracle of the fish prior to recruiting Peter. It almost certainly did not happen so episodically in real life. It is a pleasant walk from Nazareth to the Lake, though the return journey is a bit of a climb and there would have been plenty of contact between Nazareth and the lake towns, particularly with Tiberias. It is also hardly likely that Jesus appeared one morning and announced the start of his mission: Luke 4 implies that Jesus was in the habit of reading and preaching in the Synagogue and there is a strong suggestion among some authors, particularly Vermes, that Jesus was a disciple of John before his arrest. Whether or not this is true, the two were cousins and would have been well known to each other and their extended families and clans. A few days living in a rural community without broadcasting very soon brings home the point that people have very little to talk about, notice everything, no matter how slight, and weave endless minor variations on the same few themes.
It cannot, then, have been a surprise to Peter when Jesus came recruiting but the manner of the encounter is, as such things are, no less remarkable for being awaited. Peter has had a very bad night, catching nothing, so Jesus makes amends but also ensures that Peter’s fishing career ends temporarily on a high note. Peter, recognising the miracle that Jesus has performed, dismisses himself as unworthy and Jesus transforms the fishing from fish to men. This could not have been accomplished overnight: family businesses were hereditary and members of cartels which ensured that there were not too many boats for the market (a kind of self-regulated Galilee Common Fisheries policy); and it was not the custom for small family businesses to hire casual labour. It is therefore misleading to think of the recruitment of the Disciples as a dramatic series of boat-mooring and tool-downing; and it is almost certain, too, that the apostles were not full-time followers of Jesus but put in a spot of fishing, or whatever, when occasion offered. It is not irreverent, for example, for Peter to go fishing so soon after the Resurrection (John 21:3). What we are looking at here is slow, steadily increasing commitment, an extra burden on top of everything else. To be a Disciple was not to escape from drudgery, it was to take on extra work. In that respect, we can model our Christian lives on the disciples, not by becoming full time ministers but by living out our Christianity in ordinary life and in church ministry.
It is only possible to connect the Peter of that lakeside calling with the writer of the Epistles if we take seriously the active intervention of the Holy Spirit. How else could we account for the transformation? The Epistle is full of sharp contrast and economical writing; the tone is as certain as Gospel depictions of him are indecisive; and there is a sense of concentrated professionalism. At another level there is the customary contrast between knowing what we must do and the failure to do it. It is a danger of which all teachers must be aware. It is often said today, incorrectly, that to preach one thing and to do another is hypocritical but that would only be true if we claimed to be more than we are and better than those we teach. The real fault is to claim not to be sinners.
Perhaps Peter is most eloquent on the subject of suffering. “If ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye”, he says, with an inevitable backward glance which travels from the early days of his calling (and the healing of his mother-in-law), past the tribulations of trying to come to terms with the message of Jesus, past the horrible trauma of his denial and the Crucifixion, past the incomprehensible events of the Resurrection, Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, to his present responsibilities and his hard-headed assessment of likely violent death. Of all the Apostles, his life was the one which experienced the most ups and downs which adds weight to what he says, just as Paul is at his most powerful when he combines his teaching with accounts of suffering.
The outrageous haul of fish was a wonder and a promise, a wonder that would sustain him through all his trials and a promise that, as a fisher of men, he would bring many to Christ. No matter how many adventures a fisherman has, there is always one tale to which he warmly returns. No matter how difficult things became, there was always this inspirational illustration of God’s power and promise to which he could return, reminding him of the inextricable link between suffering and righteousness. He could no more have thought of the haul of fish as an accident than he could have thought of Pentecost as a freak event.
Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:
- Does the way in which the Gospels are written distort or enhance our sense of their reality?
- Discuss the relative merits of full time and part-time ministry
- Do we expect too much of our clergy and teachers?
- What are the dangers of associating righteousness with suffering?
- Have you experienced a similar event to the haul of fish?
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