The long night spent fishing is over. You caught precisely nothing, but at least no-one fell into the drink during the night and the nets didn’t snag on anything to speak of, and no-one rammed your boat in the darkness. So you are sitting on the shoreline, listening to the hypnotic slap of water against the hull of your boat, fixing your nets, managing not to worry about paying your crew. Just enjoying your favourite time of the day. The early morning’s hard yakka over, and you have a legitimate excuse to hang out in the cove with your mates and yarn before you have to head back home and do something about the roof.
From the distance, you can hear a commotion. You try to ignore it – because you really have to fix these nets before you knock off. You bend your head to your task, and allow your mind to roam back over the events of the last few days.
It’s been quite a trip. The gradual realisation that Eunice, your mother-in-law really is very sick, and isn’t just being a drama queen. Your wife getting increasingly worried. Conversations in hushed tones. Advice being sought. Doctors – those useless quacks – being consulted and applying their leeches and nostrums and implausible lifestyle advice.
Then, out of the blue, this Jesus character shows up. Takes one look at her, then, unlike all the other professionals who have been in and out of that house like the money-hungry chancers they are, he rebuked the fever, and it immediately left her.
You have literally never seen anything like it in your life before.
And the fuss! No wonder she rushed off to get dinner ready. The house was swamped by people, and this Jesus character, he heals them and casts out demons and has these weird conversations with them.
It has been a strange, strange week. I mean, obviously, it’s great that Eunice is better and everything, and your life generally has been a lot less stressful. But it goes deeper than just being a sort of free medical service.
Something seriously weird is going on.
Little do you know that in exactly three seconds your week is about to get even weirder.
The sound gets louder, and then suddenly a massive mob of people appears over the crest of the hill. All sorts of people. Cousins, friends, that bloke who owes you three shekels and a length of rope. People from nearby towns you sort of recognise from Passover in Jerusalem. And hundreds and hundreds of strangers. It was like festival time, but, instead of people streaming into the enormous courts of the temple, they are all, apparently, heading for you.
Briefly you wonder if there might have been something wrong with the fish you sent to market yesterday – was there something a little iffy with that little green one? – but then you see that they are following a familiar figure.
It’s that Jesus dude again.
One of the features of the little cove where you keep your boats is that it’s a bit of a natural amphitheatre. You’ve been down to Sepphoris, where they have a proper built amphitheatre where they put on plays and their godless pagan festivals. You remember that time you snuck in once when you were helping out a mate who lived there and he showed you how you could hear the centre stage from every corner.
And, it turns out that you aren’t the only one who has noticed the similarity, because no sooner has the crowd arrived than Jesus, back to the water, starts talking. But the crowd is in a funny mood. Overexcited, overheated, overtired. They’ve picked up on the sense of something weird going on, and they won’t sit down, won’t shut up. They are swarming, pushing, shoving, trying to get close to Jesus. And they are in danger of pushing him in. You start to feel a bit worried. You heard what the mob tried to do to him in Nazareth, and you don’t want to be a part of it. And, frankly, you don’t want to be on the wrong side of anything that goes down, so you start folding the nets neatly and thinking about slipping away.
But, something holds you. You haven’t really heard him speak. There was something after Eunice’s thing, but you were in such a brain-fried state that you didn’t really register it. So, you decide to stay. Just for the moment. See what all the fuss is about.
Jesus, who seems completely unflapped by all the commotion, notices you.
“Morning Simon. I want you to do something for me.”
You weren’t even aware he knew your name, but you manage to nod in what you hope is a cool and nonchalant manner.
“Row me out from the shore a little bit.”
“Sure. Why not?”
So you beckon your crew over, Jesus gets in, and you row a little way out, then drop the anchor, lean back on the oars, and try your best to take it all in.
The crowd seem calmer, and they plonk themselves down on the grass, some of the more well organised ones unwrapping loaves, little dried fish and olives, others passing wine skins around. And they become still, and focus their attention on Jesus.
It’s quite weird sitting there, right next to him. But you might as well be invisible for all the attention the crowd is giving you.
Jesus speaks for quite a long time. You can’t really do justice to what he says. But it’s amazing – he sees right to the heart of things.
This goes on for quite a while, and then he dismisses the crowd, who contentedly wander off, talking quietly amongst themselves, mulling over all the things that he’s said.
Then Jesus turns his attention to you. “Right,” he says. “Put out into deep water and cast your nets. It will be worthwhile.”
You hesitate. It’s been a long day, the crew were tired before this started and now they’ve been sitting in the boat in the sun for a good hour. It’s going to mean overtime, and there are never any fish around here, and even if there were, they wouldn’t be here in the middle of the day. It’s a stupid idea. You can tell he’s not a fisherman. The idea is ridiculous.
“Boss, we’ve fished all night and haven’t caught anything…” But then you look at him. Really look at him, and see the amused twinkle in his eye. And he did cure Eunice, and gave you the best spot to hear his talk, and so, against your better judgement, you continue: “But, if you say so, we’ll let down the nets.”
There are wry faces from the crew, but you are, after all, the boss. And they’re a bit star-struck as well, truth be told. So without any more grumbling than is traditional amongst crews of boats the world over, we rowed out into deep water, though not too far because you worry about the trim of the boat with a passenger in it (probably can’t swim after all, complete landsman) and you do what he asked.
You stand up, and throw the net into the sea, as you have done literally thousands of times before.
Immediately, and you mean absolutely instantaneously, the most enormous throng of fish hurl themselves into the net, and you can feel it straining against you like you’ve cast it out into a gale. You draw it shut, and the inside of it is a solid mass of silver flashing and wriggling in the sun.
You’ve been a fisherman for a long time, and your fathers before you. You’ve fished this lake since time out of mind, and you have never, ever heard of anything like this.
However, time enough to marvel later. First things first, and your crew begin to haul the catch into the boat.
But you can see the nets beginning to fray and tear, and you wave frantically at James and John to come and help you. They come rushing out, oars practically bending with effort, thinking it is some sort of emergency. They draw up alongside shouting about who has fallen in and where do we start looking.
Wordlessly you indicate the astonishing catch of fish, and they stop their yammering, pull around the net, and start loading in the catch.
When you’re in Jerusalem you like to go to the fish gate, mainly in order to sneer at the inferior produce these hill people have to put up with. But, truth be told, it’s an amazing sight, with more fish than you’ve ever seen before all laid out for sale. Glassy-eyed, but plentiful.
But this… this puts the market in the shade. You have never seen so many fish in your life.
In fact the boats are getting dangerously low in the water from all the extra weight, and so you tow the net behind you as you, very laboriously, begin to row back to shore.
And you see Jesus. It’s hard to put into words, but you really see him. The healings, the profound teaching, this astonishing power over nature. You get this hint of what Jesus means, and suddenly, almost involuntarily you fall to your knees. And it’s terrifying. It’s like looking up into the night sky, or gazing at the holy of holies, or when your son was born, or your father died.
Awe falls upon you.
And you are also completely aware of who you are. And your mind goes back to the vision of Isaiah in the temple, which you had always wondered about. And you say:
“Go away from me Lord, because I’m a sinful man.”
And Jesus makes the most surprising response:
“Don’t be afraid.” And, suddenly, you aren’t.
“From now on, you are going to catch people.”
And you look at the enormous mountain of fish you’ve caught, and your trusty old boat your dad left you, and your crew. And then you look at James and John with an unspoken query. And they shrug ruefully, quite aware of the market value of the fish.
And you say: Sure. Why not.
And you follow Jesus.
Peter sees Jesus. He suddenly understands who Jesus is and what he means.
We live in a culture that has limited capacity for awe. It’s one of those degraded terms that just means “really good.” But behind the surfers high-fiving each other and saying “awesome tube dude”, there is a concept that’s closer to terror. The feeling you get sometimes looking up at the night sky, or being confronted with the absolute and completely impenetrable mystery of life and death. When you’re present at a birth or a death, or you look at the damage to your car and realise just how close you were to meeting that mystery face to face.
It’s the feeling mortals get when they encounter the wholly other, when they get as close as humans can to gazing on the face of God.
We saw how Isaiah responded to his vision of the living God in the great temple of Jerusalem.
And that is how Peter responds to Jesus. I’m not saying that Peter had a complete understanding of Trinitarian theology as we have developed in the previous two thousand years, but Peter saw Jesus and understood that he somehow had something to do with the divine. And so he falls on his knees.
One way of expressing the gospel is this: look!
So: question one. Do you see Jesus? Do you see who he really is?
I said awe is looking at the night sky and feeling the dizzying weight of time and space pressing down on you. But the thing about the universe as a whole is that it doesn’t seem to have any particular need of you – you are, after all, infinitesimal. And the universe ploughs on regardless, like an oil tanker remorseless bearing down on a tinny.
But here, in Scripture, in Isaiah, and concentrated to exactitude in Jesus, God, the source and sustainer of all, wants something of you. It’s as though the setting sun addressed you by name. The universe-as-such calls you out, calls you to be a disciple, companion, friend.
Jesus called Peter: Jesus calls you.
Leading to question two: How will you respond?
Sermon preached at Glen Iris Road UCA on 10/2/2019