The Fourth Sunday before Lent
Reading: Luke 5:1-11
As we saw on the Third Sunday of Epiphany, St Luke chooses to begin his account of Jesus’ ministry with Jesus’ visit to his hometown of Nazareth. St Luke has previously described both Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and his temptation by the Devil in the wilderness. St Luke knows that Jesus has been engaged in ministry, particularly at Capernaum, before his return to Nazareth. Indeed, St Luke gives a summary statement of Jesus’ ministry before going on to describe what happens in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:14-15).
After Nazareth, St Luke writes about a visit Jesus makes to the synagogue at Capernaum where Jesus demonstrates his authority by freeing a person possessed by a demon (Luke 4:31-37). After this, Jesus goes home with Simon Peter to Peter’s house in Capernaum. Here Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law who is ill with a high fever (Luke 4:38-39). In the evening, as the sabbath comes to an end, Jesus heals those who are sick and casts demons out of many people (Luke 4:40-41).
Not surprisingly, the next day the people in the village don’t want Jesus to leave and try to persuade him to stay with them (Luke 4:42). Jesus replies:
‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’ (Luke 4:43)
At Nazareth, the people try to get rid of Jesus by killing him; at Capernaum, they try to keep him with them. Jesus’ sees both as attempts to prevent him from doing what he was sent to do. St Luke concludes:
‘So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.’ (Luke 4:44)
This is an interesting verse as in the first three Gospels Jesus’ work in Jerusalem and Judea is only described towards the end of his ministry. When they were copying the Gospel, some scribes, aware of this, altered the phrase ‘synagogues of Judea’, to ‘synagogues of Galilee’, but ‘synagogues of Judea’ is the better reading (Luke 4:44). This means that although St Luke doesn’t describe any of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem and Judea until the end of his Gospel, he is aware that Jesus ministered in Judea throughout his ministry after his baptism.
All this gives us an important insight into the nature of the St Luke’s Gospel. When St Luke writes in the Prologue to Theophilus that he is giving Theophilus an ‘orderly account’ (Luke 1:3), St Luke doesn’t mean a chronologically ordered account. His account is orderly, but the order is a theological rather than a chronological one. St Luke has selected events and teaching from Jesus’ ministry in an attempt to convey to us what Jesus was like, what he did, and what he taught.
Ironically, it is often said of St John that, in his Gospel, St John is ordering events for theological reasons. Ironically, St John may present a reasonable chronological structure for Jesus’ ministry, while it is the first three Gospel writers who write and structure their Gospel with other aims in view.
For example: I take many funerals, and, at a person’s funeral, there is normally a eulogy when someone close to the person who has died will speak about them. There are two types of eulogy. In the first, the speaker will go through the life of the dead person and give a short biographical outline of it, talking about the deceased as they do so. In the second, however, the approach will be more topical. The speaker will attempt to describe various aspects of the deceased person’s character and will illustrate them with stories from the deceased’s life. These stories will be arranged around what the speaker wants to say about the deceased rather than in the order in which they took place. This is St Luke’s approach in his Gospel.
St Luke indicates that this is his approach by how he links together the different stories about Jesus. So, in our Gospel reading this week, St Luke begins:
‘Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God …’ (Luke 5:1)
The calling of Peter and the other disciples that St Luke goes on to write about may have happened before or after the events St Luke has previously described. It probably happened before them, given that it was Peter’s house that Jesus went to after attending the synagogue in Capernaum. But, while it would be interesting to know when it happened, that is not St Luke’s concern. Having begun his account of Jesus’ ministry by giving us an idea of what Jesus’ ministry was like, St Luke now wants to describe how Jesus calls the people who are going to be his witnesses after his death and resurrection, and who will continue his work when he has returned to the Father. Although not in order chronologically, it makes sense logically, from St Luke’s perspective, to describe the disciples’ calling now.
In our reading, the focus is on Peter, who will become the leading apostle. It also mentions James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who together with Peter form the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus has by now become well-known, and he is attracting a crowd wherever he goes. St Luke describes how, on this occasion, Jesus is by the sea of Galilee, also known as the lake of Gennesaret. It is some time in the morning and the fishermen have returned from fishing all night without, it seems, much success, and they are busy attending to their nets.
In order to address the crowd who have gathered to hear him teach, Jesus gets into a boat belonging to Peter and asks Peter to push it out from the shore. In this way, Jesus can address the crowd. ‘One good turn deserves another’, and Jesus tells Peter to put the boat out into the deep water and let down his nets. Peter is naturally sceptical about what Jesus tells him to do, having spent all the night fishing without catching anything. Nevertheless, out of respect for Jesus, he agrees to do as Jesus tells him.
To the amazement of Peter and those who are with him in the boat, they catch so many fish that they have to signal to James and John, who are Peter’s partners, to come in their boat to help them bring the catch to the shore, and even then, they only just manage to do so without the boats sinking.
Peter is overwhelmed by this and experiences an awareness of his own inadequacy in the presence of Jesus. Falling before Jesus’ knees, Peter says to Jesus:
‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ (Luke 5:8)
Jesus, however, reassures Peter telling him not to be afraid, promising Peter that from now on he will be catching people instead of fish. The story concludes with Peter, James, and John leaving everything and following Jesus.
As an aside, it is worth noting that the Gospel writers, each in their own way, simply give us a thumbnail sketch of the calling of the first disciples. The full picture, however, is likely to have been much more complicated. St John suggests that this is the case by telling us that the fishermen were originally disciples of John the Baptist who meet Jesus through their mutual association with John (John 1:35-42). It is possible that they all knew one another even before this. We simply don’t know and can’t know.
What we do know is that these disciples were fully committed to Jesus, so committed that they were prepared to leave their day jobs to follow him. It is a commitment that Jesus will himself acknowledge. I say this because we tend to judge the disciples in the light of their abandonment of Jesus when he is arrested. Whatever their faults, Jesus chose and called them, and they responded in commitment to him.
In commenting on this passage, I want to address an issue that has been bothering me for some time now. I have become increasingly dissatisfied by the way we as a church as and as individuals approach our faith. For some time now, I have felt that we need to re-evaluate how we seek to follow Christ in the age in which we live. I want to suggest that in this passage St Luke provides us with the basis for such a re-evaluation. I also want to point to what the outcome of such a re-evaluation might be. I will do this by highlighting three phrases from the passage, though, taking my cue from St Luke himself, not in the order they occur!
1. ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ (Luke 4:5)
Much of our church life is disturbingly superficial. Church, whatever else it may be, should be about an encounter with God. Such an encounter, no matter what benefits it might ultimately bring, needs to have at its heart an awareness of the holiness and majesty of God. If such an awareness is genuine, it will always be accompanied by an equivalent awareness of our own sinfulness, weakness, and inadequacy. Indeed, one can tell the extent to which we are aware of God’s presence by the extent to which we are aware of our own sinfulness.
In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah has a vision of the glory of God, his reaction is one of despair and fear. He says:
‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.’ (Isaiah 6:5)
St Catherine of Siena, who I have mentioned in previous sermons, related how the Lord said to her:
‘Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you have beatitude in your grasp. You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS. Let your soul but become penetrated with this truth, and the Enemy can never lead you astray; you will never be caught in any snare of his, nor ever transgress any commandment of mine; you will have set your feet on the royal road which leads to the fullness of grace, and truth, and light.’ (Raymond of Capua, The Life of Catherine of Siena)
Any experience of God that does not lead to this self-knowledge of our own nothingness is not an experience of God. Such an experience of God and knowledge of ourself, however, cannot be induced, and we should avoid pretending we have it, while not believing or feeling it. Instead, we should ask God to grant it and then reflect on our own faith and the way we worship and function as a church in the light of it.
For what were originally good reasons, the emphasis in the church today is on openness, welcome, and friendliness. Our approach to church life is based on a relaxed attitude in worship and a positive acceptance of each other. This was once a much-needed corrective, particularly I have to say for Anglicans, whose churches were often cold, formal, and judgemental. In the past, our churches were anything but welcoming.
I still remember the first time I went to an Anglican Church as a young teenager. Whatever word you would use to describe the experience, ‘welcoming’ would not be it. We have been right in our churches to seek to correct this. But we have done so using the techniques of businesses who seek customers rather than of a God who seeks sinners. We have sought to make God more user-friendly and approachable. In the process, familiarity has bred contempt.
Instead of God being the holy and majestic God of Isaiah’s vision, the God who is and whom we need to exist, as St Catherine describes him, we have made him into a God who himself sounds needy. We give the impression that God is happy if we simply turn up to see him from time to time and who is just grateful when he can feel he is useful. God loves us, but he doesn’t need us. He wouldn’t be God if he did.
In our desire to be seen to welcome and accept people, we give the impression that God is willing to accept anything from those we welcome as long as they make the effort to come to church when they feel like it. Yes, as we will see as we read through St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus does welcome sinners, and he goes out of his way to do so. He is severely criticized by the religious people for it. Later in this chapter, when Jesus goes to the house of Levi, the tax-collector, for a meal, we read of how the Pharisees question why Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus answers:
‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.’ (Luke 5:31-32)
But it is sinners that Jesus calls and the sick that he heals. To respond to Jesus’ call to sinners, we need to know that we are ourselves sinners. To be healed by Jesus, we need to know we are sick.
Our strategy as a Church so often seems to be to reassure people that they are not only welcome but well. But those who are well have no need of a physician. They have no need of Jesus.
One encouraging sign at the moment is that some young people are seeking more in worship than a happy atmosphere, a friendly get-together, and a lively sing-song. A few, and it is only a few at the moment, are seeking more from church services than to be made welcome and entertained. Evidence for this is to be seen in the numbers attending worship in churches using the Tridentine Latin Mass and in those who are joining the Orthodox Church, whose worship is anything but easy.
Worship is about the God we worship. Our worship should bring us into his presence and that will not always be a pleasant or initially a happy experience. If it is real, it will result in us, like Isaiah and St Catherine, becoming aware of our sin and failure. In this self-awareness, we will be frightened and fearful, sometimes terrifyingly so. It is then, and only then, that we will hear Jesus speak the words that he spoke to St Peter who had fallen, terrified before him:
‘Do not be afraid …’ (Luke 5:11)
These words, however, will have no meaning for those who are not afraid. They are not for them, but for those who dare to risk opening themselves to God; they come as words of absolution with the offer of peace and forgiveness.
2. ‘Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”’
Jesus told Simon Peter not only not to be afraid, but also what would happen next. From now on, St Peter would be catching people. The fear of God leads to forgiveness from God, which, in turn, leads to being sent forth by God. An encounter with the living God gives us an awareness of both who God is and of our own absolute need of him. Our experience of the love of God can only lead to us wanting to share that love with others who also need God. St Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth that the love of God compelled him (2 Corinthians 5:14) and that knowing the fear of the Lord he sought to persuade others (2 Corinthians 5:11).
It was this same love and fear that compelled and motivated the first believers; it drove St Catherine in the 14th century; and it has driven many others before and since.
Paradoxically, alongside the present-day desire in the churches to be welcoming and accepting of people there is an increasing reluctance to reach out to people outside the Church. We find the idea of ‘catching’ people both distasteful and offensive.
Accepting people, we argue, means not only accepting them in their sin, but also accepting their beliefs. We are highly critical of the church missionaries in the past who were sent from those parts of the world in which there were churches to places where there were none. We condemn those who went to countries that were foreign to them with the intention of converting people and establishing churches for those who were converted to belong to.
It has become routine to accuse these missionaries of being guilty of not simply being messengers of Christ who spread the Gospel, but of being agents of western imperialism who spread western culture. The missionaries were certainly from the west, and being from the west they inevitably brought their culture with them (how could they not?). Many, however, were often more aware of the dangers of doing this than today they are given credit for. Whether what they did was quite so reprehensible, as modern-day critics of western civilization believe, is at least a moot point.
We now, however, go even further in our criticism of the missionaries. We argue that the missionaries in going to other places should not only have been more conscious of the dangers of confusing the Gospel and the culture they came from, they should not even have gone in the first place. Alongside this criticism of the missionary effort of the past, there goes an unwillingness to engage in it in the present.
Not only do we now think we should be welcoming towards people who do not share our faith, we think we should affirm them in theirs and even celebrate their faith with them. The missionary project of preaching the Gospel to people of different religions in the hope of converting them to the faith of Christ is today largely dead. Instead, we now have inter-faith dialogue and services of ‘multi-faith worship’.
Mission, which was once understood in terms of converting people, has itself been converted into something else. Mission now is not primarily about ‘catching’ people spiritually, but serving them materially. More often than not, it’s not about ‘catching’ people at all. We may see the value of helping those who have no particular religious affiliation to develop a personal spiritual awareness, but we are fearful of giving the impression that we are putting any pressure on them to do so. What people choose to believe must, we think, be entirely their own decision.
So, instead of actively trying to ‘catch’ fish, the most we are prepared to do is to wait patiently by the side of the lake in the hope they will swim into our own little pool. We will make it as nice as possible for them while they are there, so that they might want to stay or at least will want to swim back to it from time, when, that is, they are not exploring other parts of the lake.
This was not how Jesus saw his own mission, and it should not be how we see ours. Our faith in Christ is not simply one possible religion amongst many. The Church is not a place where people can find their own truth, but where they meet him who is the Truth. We, like St Peter, are given the task of bringing people to Jesus, who calls sinners to repentance and who alone can heal those are sick.
We should no more affirm the validity of other religions than a doctor should deliberately prescribe the wrong medicine or ineffective cures. We want to heal the sick, but we do that by offering treatment that works rather than false cures that do not.
Isaiah was sent by God with the command to tell people the truth that God had given him, regardless of whether they believed it or not. Indeed, Isaiah was warned that they would not believe him or accept his message. Jesus applied what God said to Isaiah to his own ministry, as did St Paul to his, and as we should to ours.
Witnessing in truth to him who is the Truth will make us unpopular. We will be mocked, scorned, and ill-treated. Some of us may even pay for devotion to him with our lives or, at least, with our livelihoods. But we should already know that may happen. Isn’t that what Jesus said that his followers must expect?
Jesus has called us to catch people. The very nature of the command itself tells us it won’t always be easy. But Jesus didn’t promise it would. He never does.
3. ‘But at your word I will let down the nets.’
I am arguing, then, that we need to rediscover both as a church and as individuals an awareness of the holiness and otherness of God and in that awareness to become aware of our own sinfulness and dependency on him.
Such a rediscovery would, I believe, have far-reaching consequences for us in our life as a Church. Not least, it would challenge us in the churches to end our relentless pursuit of relevance, acceptance, and influence in the world. It would also, I believe, lead to a renewed sense of mission. Not mission as it is now understood, where the church is little more than a religious welfare agency catering primarily for people’s physical needs. No, mission in the sense of wanting to convert people, to call sinners to repentance, and to cure them of their sickness by offering them the forgiveness of Christ. What Jesus describes in our Gospel reading as ‘catching people’.
For us as individuals, rediscovering the greatness and glory of God would have far-reaching consequences for how we see ourselves, encouraged as we relentlessly are to believe in ourselves and our abilities. It would lead, I again believe, to a new desire to serve him unconditionally, one that all too often is missing in our lives.
Isaiah, after his vision of the glory of God, willingly and without hesitation responds to God’s call for someone to go for him: ‘Here am I; send me’, he answers (Isaiah 6:8). St Peter, St James, and St John likewise respond, leaving all and following Jesus.
After an encounter with the reality of God in Christ, nothing else seems real. This is because, in a sense, nothing else is real. What exists, including each one of us as individuals, exists only inasmuch it exists in him. The history of the human race has been one long attempt to deny this truth as we seek to assert our independence and break free from God. St Paul writes:
‘… for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools …’ (Romans 1:21-22)
We, as humans, are so pathetically proud of our feeble and limited intelligence. We don’t need God, we tell ourselves. God is for those without the strength to cope for themselves or without the education or understanding to know better. The Psalmist responds simply:
‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”’ (Psalm 14:1)
Jesus challenges us to let go of our own understanding and learn to trust in God. This is not a call to abandon our minds or to reject a thinking approach to our faith; it is to assert that our reason, intellect, and understanding on their own can never lead us to God.
Imagine going to the doctor who after giving you some tests explains that you need medical treatment. You feel fine and don’t understand why you have to take the medicine the doctor wants to prescribe. But you trust her and have confidence in her judgement. You know that she understands more than you and so you take the medicine. It is this way in many areas of our lives. We don’t necessarily have the knowledge or expertise to make various decisions on our own, but we trust the advice of those who do. Just because we don’t fully understand doesn’t make our trust irrational. So too with God. God alone knows all and he can be trusted, whether we understand what he tells us or not.
‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing’, St Peter says to Jesus when told by Jesus to put out his boat into the deep and let down his nets. What Jesus tells him to do makes no sense. St Peter, St James, and St John are experienced fishermen. If there had been fish to catch, they would have caught them. Jesus is a carpenter by trade; what does he know?
‘But at your word …’
St Peter doesn’t understand, but he obeys.
To such a faith, you and I are called. We too often don’t understand, but we still must obey his word because we are following him who is the Word, the One through whom all things came into being, and without whom not one thing came into being (John 1:3). He is the Word made flesh in whom we meet the God who is and ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).
To leave all for Christ is to leave that which is nothing for him who is everything.
May God grant to us all the grace we need to do so.