This year, most Sundays, we will hear St Luke – the great storyteller. We have today. And I think that, for St Luke, there’s something really key about the Gospel we’ve just heard, chapter 5, verses 1-11, the story of the unexpected catch of fish and the call of Peter.
There’s a close parallel familiar to us from Eastertide and the Gospel of John: the appearance of the risen Christ beside the lake, the catch of 153 fish, the breakfast with the Lord. And again St Peter is prominent. But let’s eat what’s set before us. Let’s have breakfast with St Luke.
Somehow he has packed the whole of Christianity into this story.
Peter is overwhelmed by what happens: the huge catch of fish, and he falls at Jesus’ feet and says, “Leave me / depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” According to the Gospel, he has already met Jesus. He has already heard him proclaiming God’s kingdom. He has witnessed exorcisms. He has already had him in his house and watched him freeing his mother-in-law from fever and curing many of the sick in his own hometown. But now something different happens. He is taken to as new level. He ‘realises’ Jesus in a new way. This haul of fish happens, as it were, on Peter’s home turf, in the area of his own professional expertise, in his own boat. He didn’t want to go out into the deep after a long, fruitless, fishless night. Anyway, what did Jesus know about fishing? But then the wonder happens, and the reality of Jesus hits Peter and throws him, rather uncomfortably I imagine, onto the floor of the boat – among all the fish, I suppose. He’s floored. He has glimpsed the Lordship of Christ, his otherness, his holiness. It’s borne in on him that the Lord’s thoughts are not his thoughts. He has an Isaiah experience: “Woe is me…I am a man of unclean lips…and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts”. He feels what Job felt when after all his moaning, the Lord makes himself known to him. And Job can only say in reply: “I had heard of you… but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42: 5-6). “Leave me, says Peter; depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” He realises the unbearable gap between his littleness and the Lord, between creature and Creator, between a sinner and the Holy One. A few years later, the same will happen for Saul / Paul.
Nowadays, there are so many pressures on our Christian faith, the tide is so against us, so many of the old supports have crumbled that, without some personal version of Peter’s experience, Peter’s awakening to Jesus (and himself), we will be washed away. Like Isaiah, we need to have a vision of angels and glimpse the Holy One, however fleetingly. Like Job, we need to pass from merely hearing of God to a moment of seeing – and seeing ourselves. In one of his poems, G. K. Chesterton asked this grace of our Lady:
“Mirror of Justice, shine on us; blaze though the
broad sky break
Show us our face, though it shatter us; shatter
And shake us awake” (St George of England).
We can at least put ourselves in the way of this experience.
Here’s a truth to reflect on. We are worse than we know. And we are better than we know. We are less, and we are more. We are poor creatures, poorer than we know, and yet we are loved, loved more than we can grasp. There was a rabbi who carried in his pockets two slips of paper. On one was written, “I am less than dust and ashes”, and on the other, “For my sake God created the heavens and the earth.”
Peter meets the Lord and in the light of his Reality realises his own hollowness. But then, the Lord cries out in the Temple, “Whom shall I send?” and takes on sinful Isaiah as his prophet. He blesses Job in his dust and ashes, and he says to Peter: “Do not be afraid; from now on, you will be catching men.” And Paul the persecutor rises from the ground an apostle.
WE need Peter’s experience to keep hold of Christ, and we need to be of use to others. “Do not be afraid” – even of your own nothingness, sinfulness, flaws and weakness.
“Fishers of men.” Perhaps we can have a share in this part of Peter’s experience too. It flows mysteriously from his own new realisation of the Lord and of himself. Peter, who fell among the fish, is fished out by the Lord and given back his nets. Our Lord, the great Fisherman of souls, said to St Teresa of Calcutta when he called her to go to the poor, “I cannot do this by myself.” Peter is co-opted. Peter is asked to help. “From now on, it is men you will catch.”
It’s worth asking, what does this metaphor mean? Why does our Lord use it? Some three years later, on Pentecost Day, Peter stands up and throws out the net of the word. He proclaims Christ’s Resurrection, and he catches three thousand souls. It’s St Luke in the Acts of the Apostles who tells us this. He must have seen the connection. But there’s something deeper here. Why this metaphor? If we take a fish out of water, it’s not good news for the fish; it’s death. Human beings, though, don’t live, don’t flourish in the sea. If anything, we need rescuing from water, like Jonah. When the book of Genesis wants to describe a universal catastrophe, it tells the story of a flood. When the book of Exodus celebrates the liberation of Israel, it tells of the passing through the Red Sea. When enemy armies sweep over the Holy Land, the prophets talk of a flood again. When the Psalmist is threatened by hostile circumstances, he says, the waters have risen to my neck. In the Gospels, anticipating the dramas of Church history, we hear of the disciples caught in a storm at sea. Peter himself will need the hand of Jesus to save him from drowning. So, when our Lord calls Peter to catch men, it means to rescue them from everything that threatens our lives, from harm and evil and self-destruction; to use biblical language, from the waters of sin and death. When Peter draws three thousand people to the faith, he says, “Repent and be baptised.” They would have been immersed in water and then lifted out. It was an acted parable, a symbol, of what it means to be rescued: kept from drowning, drawn out of the waters of death into life, like Christ who died and rose again for us. The Greek word the Gospel uses for “catch” literally means to “take alive.” Take a fish out of water and it dies: that’s not evangelisation. Call human beings out of the perils of selfishness into a life of true love: that is evangelisation. Peter became the first purveyor of the good news: Peter knew what it meant to be rescued, even from his own denial.
May Christ do something to us of what he did for Peter. May we live in his truth, and learn its good news to pass on.
St Mary’s Cathedral Aberdeen, 6 February 2022