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Gone fishing!

'Obedience to the call of Jesus, against all the evidence, is a good qualification for a disciple.'

Read Luke 5:1-11

Here's a well-known passage, with an equally well-known phrase of Jesus

"I will make you fishers of men", or similar depending on the translation you use. It's a story that is not unique to Luke's Gospel

Matthew 4:18ff While Jesus was walking along the shore of Lake Galilee, he saw two brothers. One was Simon, also known as Peter, and the other was Andrew. They were fishermen, and they were casting their net into the lake. Jesus said to them, "Come with me! I will teach you how to bring in people instead of fish."

Mark 1:16ff As Jesus was walking along the shore of Lake Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew. They were fishermen and were casting their nets into the lake. Jesus said to them, "Come with me! I will teach you how to bring in people instead of fish." Right then the two brothers dropped their nets and went with him.

A similar story appears In John's Gospel, but here it comes after Jesus' resurrection, so we might rightly assume that we have two such incidents recorded, not two versions of the same story.

Luke adds a lot more detail to the story than the other writers, and it's interesting to stop and think why he might have done this. Was he privy to a more detailed account of the incident, or was there a particular point that he wanted to bring out. Why is there a miracle in Luke's account but not in Mark or Matthews?

When we look at any story, what does it do to us? Does it wash over our head and mean nothing to us? Does it make us Laugh? Cry? Does it leave us wanting more? In other words, does it speak to our head or to our heart?

Some stories have that effect on me. Some are easily forgettable, others leave me feeling that the author has shared something really meaningful with me.

So when you listened to the reading, what were the pictures that went through your mind? Was it the historical or geographical setting, Jesus stood by that large lake, teaching the crowd of people. Was it the scale of the miracle, a catch so large that it almost sank the boat? Was it Peter's response followed by Jesus' famous words….. did that ring bells for you? Or did it simply come across as a lovely story about the early days of Jesus' ministry on earth?

I want us to look at three different ways in which a simple story like this might talk to us. That's not an excuse for gluing three mini-sermons together, honest. Just an attempt to open your eyes to the possibilities of reading God's word.

So let's begin our examination with the deep and mystical, perhaps the hardest way to look at a bible story. Looking to read between the lines, find some hidden message that the Gospel writer was trying to say to his readers. There is a lot of symbolism in the bible - look at the book of Daniel or in the New Testament, Revelation. Even in the Gospels we find the writers occasionally using symbolism to bring out a particular spiritual point for the reader. To us, a totally different culture 2000 years on the symbolism might be lost, but it is still there if we scratch beneath the surface, and can help our understanding of the message.

If we look at a possible symbolic and mystical explanation to the story we have to, in a sense, ignore a lot of the detail that Luke gives us and instead bear in mind the life of Simon Peter and his future mission in the early Church. The deep water of Lake Galilee could represent the Gentile World. His reluctance to set sail could be a foreshadowing of the story in Acts about the Roman officer Cornelius.

If you remember, Peter was reluctant to take the message to the Gentiles or indeed have anything to do with a Gentile until prompted by visions and the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. Once he'd said "Yes" to the Spirit's prompting then something tremendous happened - the Gospel was opened to the Gentiles officially.

We get those wonderful words at the end of chapter 10

44 Even as Peter was saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who had heard the message. The Jewish believers who came with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles, too. And there could be no doubt about it, for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter asked, "Can anyone object to their being baptized, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?" So he gave orders for them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Is this what Luke was alluding to? Certainly there's no reason why we can't see it that way, as there is a sort of similarity there. But seeing it that way rather depends on how well we know our Bible and the life of Peter. So perhaps that's not the obvious connection we might make.

Let's look at the story from another perspective. In the previous chapter of Luke's Gospel Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, now he is at the lakeside. In Jesus' time the shoreline of Lake Galilee accommodated 9 townships, all with populations of over 15000 people. This wasn't some isolated desert experience. There was a thriving fishing industry around this huge lake 13 miles long by eight miles wide, it was a hive of activity and industry with all the hustle and bustle that there used to be around our own fishing ports not so many years ago.

We're at one of those turning points in Jesus' career. He would go back to the synagogue to teach, but very soon the doors would be slammed shut to someone very definitely thought of as a threat to the order of the day. So Jesus takes to the open road. He's not going to wait for the people to come to him, although as we read the Gospels it's pretty obvious that wherever Jesus went the crowds would soon follow. No, Jesus made a definite commitment to take his message to as large an area as would listen in the short time that he had.

"Our societies were formed from those who were wandering upon the dark mountains," said John Wesley. "I love a commodious room, a soft cushion and a handsome pulpit, but field preaching saves souls."

Now William Barclay in his commentary on this passage takes a different angle in his reading of Luke's story. He lists what he calls three conditions of a miracle to be found in this story.

  • There is the eye that sees. Just for a moment put aside in your mind the idea that Jesus created a shoal of fish for Peter to catch. The Sea of Galilee was packed full of fish, that's why such a large industry had grown up around it. Did Jesus have a keen eye perhaps, see that shadow in the water that indicated the presence of a shoal of fish, and did his keen sight appear as a miracle to those around. The eye that sees is important. Many people saw an apple fall, but only Isaac Newton went on to think out the law of gravity. The earth is full of miracles for the eye that sees.

  • There is the spirit that will make an effort. If Jesus said it then, tired as he was after a days fishing, Peter was prepared to try again. For most people the disaster of life is that they give up just one effort too soon.

  • There is the spirit that will attempt what seems hopeless. The best hours for fishing were past, there seemed little point in pushing the boat out again, but Peter said 'Ok, if you say so!' Too often we wait because the time doesn't seem right, but if we insist on waiting for the perfect set of circumstances, we might never begin at all. If we want a miracle, we must take Jesus at his word when he asks us to do the impossible.

When I first read this commentary I thought 'Hang on, is the good Mr Barclay one of these folk who deny the existence of miracles and always look for a natural explanation.'

But no, I've read a several of his commentaries and it's plain that he does believe in miracles. What he's doing though is looking at the story from a different perspective than perhaps I would have. You see, I've always taken this at face value. A shoal of fish? No problem for Jesus! And while we're at it let's not just have any shoal, let's have one so big it nearly sinks the boat. A bit like the 180 gallons of wine that Jesus gave to a certain wedding in Cana of Galilee. Jesus didn't do things by half measures!

But think for a moment, says Barclay, you're living in a world that seems to deny the presence of the supernatural. We say things like "It'll be a miracle if so and so happens" and then when it does we explain it away as a strange coincidence. Perhaps the truth is simpler than we think, the miracles are there but we with our skeptical eyes just fail to see them. Peter's eyes were opened as soon as he started hauling in the net. Whether or not the shoal of fish was assembled in that spot by Jesus or not was beside the point. In Peter's eyes the connection was made, and it brought him to his needs ready for Jesus to utter those immortal lines "Come with me! I will teach you how to bring in people instead of fish."

If Peter hadn't made the effort, had simply packed his nets away at the end of an unsuccessful fishing trip, if he'd just not been prepared to do what on the surface seemed ridiculous, then there wouldn't have been a miracle. The fish wouldn't have been caught, Peter wouldn't have been brought to his knees, and maybe Jesus would have had to choose someone else to be his 'Rock' upon which to build the Church.

So we look at the story not from the point of view that says quite simply "Jesus created the shoal of fish and Peter was amazed by His power." and instead look perhaps at ourselves. When was the last time something rather amazing happened in our lives and we simply dismissed it as a lucky coincidence. When was the last time we opened our eyes to the possibility that Jesus is performing miracles in and around our lives and we simply refuse to do what Peter did - make the effort, do our part, be prepared to do whatever He asks. Maybe that's why miracles are so rare.

Now let's look at a third way of reading this story, and this time taking it more at its face value. Here's a busy shoreline at the end of a day's fishing, with most fishermen probably already putting their nets tidy and sorting out the days catch, or lack of catch in Peter's case. Jesus had been teaching in the synagogue, discussing the law with the teachers and scribes, and now he was heading to where the common people were, down on the shoreline earning their living. His message touches all people in all places, it's not one that he kept to the synagogue on Holy days, it was a message that went to where people were. He didn't wait for the people to come to Him.

Peter was an experienced fisherman. He's just spent a long time in his boat catching very little and was presumably very frustrated by his lack of success. But, and it's a very big but, he's heard something about this carpenter fellow, was maybe there when Jesus healed his mother-in-law of fever just a short while previously, or maybe it was something in Jesus' tone of voice - a confidence or an air of authority maybe. For whatever reason, Simon Peter does what Jesus asks him to do and the resultant catch almost sinks the boat.

Obedience to the call of Jesus, against all the evidence, is a good qualification for a disciple. The effect on Peter is immediate, and reminds us of Isaiah when he saw the glory of the Lord. A feeling of inadequacy, of being full of sin, overwhelms Peter. He asks Jesus to leave him. Peter, together with his fishing partners James and John are convicted and convinced. A miracle it certainly is, whether that shoal of fish were summoned to the spot by Jesus, or whether it was Jesus' supernatural insight that saw them there. The miracle was in a sense less to do with the fish, and more to do with the hearts of Peter, James and John.

It's one story, on the surface a simple enough story but there's more than one way of looking at it, more than one way that the words can speak to us, more than one way in which it can convict us. That's why it's good to revisit old favourites, see them in a fresh light. That's also why it's important to read or listen to God's word, because he speaks to us sometimes through the most well-known of passages, convicts us, feeds us and equips us for service. Just as He did through that moment when Peter said 'Yes' to something which seemed ridiculous and cast his net out that final time. When something in the authority of Jesus' words convinced him to act. It was a moment that brought Peter to his knees in repentance, it was the moment that he believed.

And that most certainly was a miracle.

 

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