The 4th before Lent.
St Mary’s Rye
Isaiah 6:1-8 [9-end], 1 Cor 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I love living in Rye.
One of the many things I enjoy about being here is the fact that Rye still has a fishing fleet, which I get to see from my bedroom window and get to walk past almost every day when I take Luna along the river.
Sadly, I have never been to sea on a working fishing boat, and I suspect that because of insurance or health and safety concerns that it may not happen. But, if any of you know anyone then I am up for it.
But I do know that being a fisherman is hard work and it is hard to make a living – that is true now because of things like over-fishing or changes to rules about exporting and it is clear that this was also true 2000 years ago for the fisherman in Galilee.
When Jesus asked Simon Peter to put his boat out into the water his initial response was:
“Master, we have worked all night long, but have caught nothing.”
The reality of that must have been exhausting and dispiriting. Imagine: All night, sailing from one spot to another, dropping the anchor, letting down the nets, hoping, waiting, pulling the nets back to find them empty. Until the dawn breaks and you realise that there are no fish for the market or for the table.
You sail back to shore, in low spirits, and you see a great crowd and in front of them, a man who asks to use your boat so that he can get some distance from the crowd and address them. You are happy to do him a favour, and you may even get some compensation for a bad night’s fishing. This is probably the first time you have met Jesus but you can tell that he is no fisherman, not least because you know all the fisherman around here. He looks more like a carpenter.
Despite his obvious lack of fishing knowledge when he has finished speaking to the crowds this man doesn’t ask to be dropped back onto the shore and perhaps drop a coin into your hands. Instead he says something quite outrageous – ‘put the boat out into deeper waters and let down your nets.’
No wonder you say: “Master, we have worked all night long, but have caught nothing…”
Have you ever been involved in one of those conversations where someone wants to try something different but it was tried 20 years ago and didn’t work? Of course, I have never experienced such a conversation, but I am getting those vibes from this part of the story.
Despite his experience of fishing all night for no return, despite telling Jesus that we have been there and tried that, and despite the fact that the sun is now up and the fish will be retreating deeper into the lake for the day, Simon Peter agrees to give it a go.
We know the outcome – so many fish are caught that the nets are almost overwhelmed, Simon Peter’s boat is almost overwhelmed, and they have to call in extra boats to help with the catch.
Having produced this miraculous catch, the catch of a lifetime, Jesus says that they are to leave it all behind because, from now on, these fishermen will become fishers of men – and they left everything, presumably including the bumper catch, to follow him. I shall come back to that in a moment.
If you know me on Twitter you may have seen that I made a jokey comment to the effect that if using the language of shepherds and flocks is problematic in our society, because no one wants to be a sheep anymore, then this could also apply to the metaphor of being ‘fishers of men’ because the poor old fish, which we are sent out to catch, rather get scooped up against their will. If there is one thing worse than being in a flock it must be being one of those fish in the net.
Metaphors always have limits, and sometimes I test them too far.
But there is a part of this story which I skipped over, and which it is too easy for the preacher to skip over, partly because it interrupts the narrative and partly because it disturbs our somewhat modern preconceptions about what it means to come to faith. However, it is important because it ties all of our readings together and, therefore, something I suspect that something important is being said.
When Simon Peter started pulling the nets that were full to bursting into the boat, and when his boat started to sink under the weight of the catch, he realised that he wasn’t simply in the presence of an eccentric carpenter, but in the presence of true holiness. His reaction to that presence may surprise us:
“Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
When Angels appear as messengers their first words are usually: “Do not be afraid”, presumably because the appearance of such a being is scary. But, there is something a bit different going on here. Jesus doesn’t look scary but the holiness, the connection with God, implied by this miraculous event makes Peter acutely aware of his apparent distance from God, his sinfulness, and that makes him afraid – the clean should not mix with the unclean.
And we see something similar in Isaiah 6, which tells us how the prophet was first called by God.
Isaiah’s vision of God, surrounded by the 6-winged Seraphim who are singing ‘Holy, holy, holy’ could not be described as a cosy vision. The throne is high and lofty, God himself is so immeasurably big that even just the hem of his robe fills the whole temple, the angel’s song is so loud that the pivots on the thresholds shook and, I apologise to those who don’t like incense in church, but the whole temple was full of smoke. In the midst of this awesome holiness Isaiah, like Simon Peter, becomes acutely aware of his sinful humanity:
“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 6-winged Seraphs flew to the brazier by the altar, picked up a hot coal with a pair of tongs and flew to Isaiah. I don’t know about you, but this would have done little to take away my fear.
Anyway, the coal was touched to Isaiah’s lips and the Seraph declared that his sin was blotted out, he was now clean. And then God said, “Whom shall I send?”, and now Isaiah had moved beyond fear to offering himself in the service of God.
Which brings us to St Paul in Corinthians. In this letter Paul is talking about the resurrected Jesus appearing to his followers and to the church. Paul says that Jesus appeared first to ‘Cephas’ who, of course, is the same Simon Peter that we saw called a moment ago. Then Paul lists the others to whom Jesus appeared before getting to himself:
“Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
Like Simon Peter, and like Isaiah, Paul recognised at a deep level that he was not called into the presence of Jesus, into the presence of God, because of his own holiness or worthiness. His call, like their call and like our call, is not because of our holiness, but because of God’s holiness.
We become worthy and able to be in God’s presence, and to serve him as his people, not by pretending that we are perfect but by recognising that we are imperfect, and then allowing God to cleanse us from our sin. Not through live coals, I am pleased to say, but through prayer, confession, absolution and sacrament. We are not worthy, but we become worthy because God makes us worthy and then we give God worship here but, more importantly, through our lives out there.
Which brings me back to the Fishers of Men. If we follow Jesus in our actions and in our lives, even when we think we know better then the miraculous can happen. Firstly, we are cleansed of our sin, which is miracle enough for some. But we are also sent out, like Isaiah, like St Paul and like the disciples to live and to be the Good News for the people of Rye. We are a forgiven people, we should be a joyful people. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see so many people scooped up in Rye that we were bursting at the seams and we had to call in extra help with all the new baptisms and all the extra services we would need?
So, yes, know that you are cleansed, know that you are worthy and go and be fishers of men and of women and of children (although observing proper safeguarding at all times) and let us land such a catch here as never before.