…The people pressed upon him to hear the word of God…
(St. Luke v. 1)
Are you spending your life pressing upon [Jesus] to hear the Word of God? (Idem) And if you are, what good has it done you? Do your neighbors recognize the Word of God alive in your souls? Or does your Christianity involve rather more of an institutional identification that has made others think no further than this address or location? Jane is a quaint gal. I believe that she goes to that Anglican Church near the Mexican restaurant. Perhaps you come to this church and hear the Word of God on Sundays. Does your religion travel with you out of these doors? St. James tells us, Be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only. (St. James i. 22) Are you doers of the Word or hearers only? Hearing is one thing; doing is quite another. Today we are invited to press upon Jesus to hear God’s Word so that hearing it we might then obey. Obedience will be the key to doing God’s Word.
Prior to this morning’s Gospel Lesson, Jesus had been thrown out of His home town of Nazareth, barely escaping with His life. No prophet finds acceptance in his own country. (St. Luke iv. 24). So, He travelled into Capernaum where His Word was both authoritative and effective. In Capernaum, Christ had cast a demon out of a possessed man, driven out a fever that gripped Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and had cast unclean spirits out of many others. Finally, He had retired to a desert place to recuperate in prayer.
Next we read that Jesus moved down into the fishing village of Genesaret, thronged by a mob of people who would hear the Word of God. That the crowd was now determined to hear God’s Word is a sign that they were alert and awake to the spiritual power that must have been beneath and behind the signs and wonders that He performed. To see Christ alive and at work in the mundane compels seekers to hear God’s Word and to follow Him into another dimension. Because the crowd was so large and its press upon Him so great, Jesus entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. (St. Luke v. 3) If we would press upon [Jesus] to hear God’s Word, we must allow the Word to thrust out a little from the land. (Ibid, 3) The land signifies the established world of human reason, commerce, and busy-ness. The business of the land is characterized by that clamor, confusion, hustle, and bustle that always accompany man’s obsessive pursuit of earthly ends. Christ must thrust out a little from the land in order to be freed from those earthly distractions that compete loudly and selfishly with the Word of God that the people would hear.
But notice too that our Gospel image provides us with an image of two kinds of people that are involved. First there are the people who must be content to remain on the shore to hear God’s Word, and then those whose hearing will yield to obedience. Of course, Christ intends that both groups should be caught up in His net as spiritual fish eventually, as Archbishop Trench reminds us, but the Apostles must be converted from hearing to doing first so that later they could become fishers of the other men for Christ. So, Saint Peter in particular, and then Saints James and John who were with him in the boat, represent the fish that are first caught up into Christ’s net. The people on the shore represent the fish that will be caught on land once the Apostles return from having been culled from the deeper waters of Christ’s spiritual sea. Each group signifies the different stages of hearing and doing that characterize man’s nearness and distance from God in Jesus Christ.
Now we read that both the fish out of water on the land and the fish out of water in the ships hear the Word of God preached by Christ. One group is invited to hear and then to launch out further onto the sea through obedience. Simon, like his fellow fishers, has had a long, unsuccessful night of fishing. Matthew Henry tells us that One would have thought this should have excused them from Christ’s sermon; but it was more refreshing and reviving to them than the softest slumbers. (Comm. Luke V) The people on the shore would hear Christ’s preaching, but they did not have the same need for its immediate refreshment. The fishermen on shore washed their nets and went to bed. The Apostles would turn from their failure and fatigue not only to hear the good Word that Christ would speak but also to discover its power through obedience. Obedience perfects hearing. When Christ had left speaking, He said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon answering said unto Him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing…(Ibid, 4,5) The Apostles worked hard to catch their fish, but Christ always has a better work for them to do when earthly occupations fail. With all the same industrious zeal that made them try their hand at good fishing, they would turn to Christ for succor. Christ would take their perseverance and passion and inflame it anew with His plans for them. For though Peter’s natural gifts might falter and fail, he entrusts himself to Christ with hope for another kind of gain. Nevertheless, at thy Word, I will let down the net. (Ibid)
And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. (Ibid, 6,7) The miracle does not arrest them all in the same way. Peter, James, and John call on their partners to pull in the haul of fishes that caused the boats to sink. James and John remain still and speechless. Peter alone will give voice to their wonder and awe. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken: and so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. (Ibid, 8-10) St. Peter is overwhelmed by the power of God that he experiences in the Person of Jesus Christ. Nature’s creatures which had only recently refused to cooperate with the fishermen’s efforts were now jumping to obedience at the Lord’s command. No natural need, no natural alarm accounts for this unanimous tendency amongst the fish; drawn by an unseen force, they forget their favorite pools…and all head one way. The Lord of Nature has bid them come. (R. Knox, Parochial Sermons, Ignatius, p. 501) Both Christ’s rule and nature’s obedience compel Peter’s self-abnegating collapse. Archbishop Trench describes what Peter must have felt: The deepest thing in a man’s heart…is a sense of God’s holiness as something bringing death and destruction to the unholy creature. (Miracles, 102)
The crowd on the shore heard the Word of God from Jesus. The fish heard the Word and offered themselves to Jesus as instruments in the conversion of the Apostles. Peter obeys and the natural world acknowledges Christ’s power. Father Mouroux reminds us that man must realize that [he] is dust and ashes before his God, that however much he abounds he is always a poverty-stricken thing hanging on the Divine Mercy, and however much he may be purified he is still a sinner face to face with Holiness. (The Meaning of Man, p. 217) The fish only and ever hang upon the Divine Mercy for their existence. The strength of Jesus and the humble submission of nature’s creatures coalesce. Peter falls down and joins his friends –the dying fish. The fish die in order to become useful to the living God. Peter must die spiritually in order to do the same. Peter is a fish caught up into the net of Christ.
Yet it is Christ’s will that this death which Peter, James, and John begin to endure should be turned into new life. Again, with Archbishop Trench, they find themselves in a state of Grace, in which all the contradiction is felt, God is still a consuming fire, yet not any more for the sinner, but for the sin…[for they are in] the presence of God…[whose] glory is veiled, whose nearness…every sinful man may endure, and in that nearness may little by little be prepared for the…open vision of the face of God. (Idem) Jesus says, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. (Ibid, 10) Peter, James, John, and the other Apostles are called to become fishers of men. But not before they have begun to move beyond their outward and visible, fleshly, and bodily natures into the spiritual, inward, and immaterial ground of their being. What they must see is that once God’s Word’s is heard it must be obeyed, and that once it is obeyed it will yield the power that coverts and saves all manner of men.
So what does it mean to be caught up as spiritual fish into Christ’s net and to become fishers of men? We read at the conclusion of our Gospel that when the [Apostles] had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him. (Ibid, 11) Our Gospel seems to make clear that the Apostles became not only hearers of God’s Word but doers also, and doers because they became obedient to Christ. So forsaking all means that doing that industriously and zealously acclimates man to the will of God. Forsaking all means that obedience that surrenders to Jesus. Hearing God’s Word from time to time will not do. Our doing must be Christ’s working of deliverance from sin into our lives.
In closing, let us remember that the power of God in Jesus Christ can flourish and bloom [only if] it is welcomed; it can act [only if] it is activated, [for] all the infinitude of its power comes from the adoring passivity in which it lies open to God. (Mouroux, p. 217) The Apostles had every natural reason to return to their earthly fishing because of today’s miracle. But instead their hearing of God’s Word in Jesus Christ drew them out of the deep waters of sin to become doers of the Word through obedience. Obedience is, of course, a virtue of supreme importance if Christ would draw us into the net of salvation. And that salvation had better be evident in our lives both in Church and beyond. Christ wants to recognize in us what other people have too –that we are fish out of water. Amen.