4th Sunday before Lent 10-02-19
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
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. 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.’ When they had done this, they caught so many
fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signalled to their
partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both
boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at
Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ For he and all who were with him were amazed at
the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of
Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. 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.
Fishing. If you spell it phishing it is a rather nasty and underhand way of internet fraud. Slightly less nasty but still annoying is fishing in the sense of ‘fishing for compliments’. Either way ‘fishing’ implies a way of obtaining something from other people to boost your own advantage at their expense.
And I suppose it’s a similar reason why I’ve always felt rather uneasy about this story. Not about the idea that God could perform a miracle. Not about the catching of fish in itself. But about the remark of Jesus that ‘from now on you will be catching people.’ Or, as he says in St Matthew or St Mark’s gospels, in the Authorised Version, ‘I will make you fishers of men.’
What it has always suggested to me is the cartoon version of evangelism. The idea that most people are lost, maybe doomed to hell, unless those of us who know better, who ‘possess the truth’ fish them out of the shark-infested waters.
I can’t believe that is what Jesus meant. But I’ve always found it difficult to understand what he does mean. There are many Christians who believe quite sincerely that anyone who doesn’t explicitly say they believe that Jesus is the Son of God, will be lost for eternity. That is to take far too literally some words in the Bible and to ignore many others. Such as when Jesus says ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’
From the first fishermen-disciples whom Jesus called, right through to our own day, the Church has always been called to evangelise, to take part in the mission of God. I missed the conference at St Dunstan’s last week when I believe the theme of evangelism was looked at in a different way from that literalistic almost fundamentalist approach that we’ve often been faced with. If any of you did go to that maybe I’ll sit down and let them take over!
We’ve got to take that call seriously. Unfortunately the Church – not just the C of E but the whole Church in Western Europe and European influenced cultures like America – is seized by panic that it might be dying, and that the only way to survive is to persuade more and more people to join us. Evangelism comes to be seen as a desperate strategy rather than the heart of the Church’s life. So it will seem forced and won’t convince.
So let’s look again at that story of the miraculous catch of fish, and of the call to the disciples to fish for people. Obviously dragging fish out of the water is a bit different from persuading people to come to church. The obvious difference is that we’re not trying to help the fish. We catch fish knowing that they will die, but that we and others will be able to eat them. Our life comes through their death. I know that is a difficult idea for vegetarians and vegans, but bear with me. In the culture of the Bible, the work of fishermen was very important and the harvest of the sea was celebrated. As indeed it is in many places to this day. Every May in the fishing town of Camogli in Italy they celebrate the Sagra del Pesce, the festival of fish. And they have this enormous frying pan mounted over the harbour, the size of a small swimming pool, with gas jets underneath it, and fry enormous quantities of fish which they hand out to all and sundry in exchange for a small donation to charity. I don’t know how many people they feed but when I was there it seemed to be at least five thousand.
And Jesus says, go out and fish for people. But how would it help them, any more than it helps the fish, to be dragged out of their natural environment? When a fish is caught, and taken out of the water, it dies. Isn’t the idea of fishing for people to give them life rather than death? So we’re saying that catching people is a different matter from catching fish. If we, the disciples, go and make more disciples there will be more life. As our diocese’s strapline has it, a bigger church making a bigger difference.
We catch the fish so that we may eat them. We catch people so that they may have life, and have it in abundance, or so the gospel tells us. But as always it’s not as simple as that. How many of the people you know, either as friends and neighbours, as work colleagues, or family members, are active Christians? I’d guess not many. How many of them do you think are unhappy, or dissatisfied with their life… well, maybe a few. But for many different reasons and much the same reasons that might make any of us unhappy. So there’s not that much difference between them and us except that we go to church and they don’t.
Maybe when Jesus tells us to fish for people he believes there is more in common between his disciples and fish. We too have been fished out by other disciples in order to become disciples. And so our job is to make disciples of other people; to fish for them. Being fished out is not like being rescued from the flames of hell, in any dramatic way. Becoming a disciple is going to be hard work at first, maybe a bit disappointing. But bit by bit as our discipleship, our prayer, our life as a follower of Christ grows we will more and more realise that our life is being deepened and enriched, that we are indeed experiencing life in abundance.
But only because of that central Christian paradox. As Jesus says, ’those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ In other words, just like the fish we give our lives for the sake of others. Our discipleship is about feeding others. Just as at the same time we feed on Jesus Christ.