Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 6, 2022 (Luke 5:1-11)

Originally preached at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church, East Setauket, New York.

“The Miraculous Draught of Fishes” (1515), by Raphael (1483-1520), Victoria and Albert Museum.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Back in the late 1980s, my dad served a brief stint as an American fisheries observer onboard a trio of Japanese trawlers on the Bering Sea.  As any of you who have watched Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel know, fishing on the Bering is serious and dangerous business.  It’s a very cold sea, and stormy when winter comes.  Anyone swept overboard in a squall without a survival suit stands little chance of surviving long in the water, which can have surface temperatures colder than 34°F.  Hypothermia sets in quickly.  So it seemed the perfect place for my dad, a Nebraska farm boy who couldn’t swim, to spend three and a half months in the autumn and winter seeing what fish the Japanese would catch.

And during his cruise, my dad watched the crews of these small fishing vessels catch all sorts of commercially important fish.  If you’re unfamiliar with how trawling works, essentially, a large net called a trawl is dragged behind the fishing vessel to scoop up and net the fish that come into the trawl’s path.  Alaska pollock, Greenland turbot, Pacific Ocean perch, black cod, and Pacific cod, with some squid on occasion, all were netted for market aboard those trawlers.  But one day, they got a surprise in the nets.  A truly miraculous catch.  You see, one day, the crew caught one of the most elusive creatures to inhabit the sea: daiouika, a giant squid.  It was a small one, a juvenile, but a giant squid nonetheless, with its tentacles stretching the length of the boat.  I’m not sure any of the fishermen my dad was working with had seen such a squid before; my dad certainly hadn’t.  And none of them had imagined that they would pull up such a fantastic animal that day.  But my dad would never forget that day and that squid because his crewmates took a photo of him holding it by its mantle, which was almost as long as he is tall.

Dad with his squid. You can’t see the full length of the tentacles in this photo.

The fishermen on the Sea of Galilee likewise didn’t expect the great catch that miraculously filled their nets.  They had been out all night, letting down their nets, great dragnets or seines, in hopes of catching the musht or redbelly and blue tilapia that shoal together in the lake.  (The Sea of Galilee isn’t a sea so much as a great freshwater lake, so no giant squids for them.)  They had no expectation of catching anything that day—indeed, it was time to wash their nets free from any sand and gravel that might have become entangled and ground into their fibers.  A clean net is a net that has a longer service life.

But the man who had borrowed their lead boat for preaching to the crowds on the shore had told them to put out once more onto the lake and to let down their nets again.  It seemed an odd request given that by day they would be unlikely to catch anything—you who have tried your own hands at fishing know that fish like to make themselves scarce when the sun is high.  But there was something different about this man—Simon had called him “Master.”  He was a teacher of great importance, it seemed.  He spoke the word of God.  So perhaps he knew a thing or two.

And lo and behold, it happened—more fish than they had ever seen in their lives, more fish than they were ever likely to encounter, ever.  So many fish that just one boat wasn’t needed to haul them all in, but two.  These men who daily plied the Sea of Galilee to seek their fortune in fish-flesh suddenly had more than they knew what to do with.  But they knew one thing—their careers for now were made.  They could sit pretty.  They would be fine for a long time.

Or would they?  There was something they missed, though Simon got it.  This man who told them to cast down their nets just one more time was no ordinary man.  He spoke the word of God.  He was holy.  And he was more than holy.  He did things that only God can do.  By his word, by his suggestion, things happened.

Now some of you might say, “so what?  In stories people with supernatural powers speak all the time and stuff happens.  All those spells in fairy tales make things happen, create something out of nothing.”  But the thing is, in reality, it is God alone who can do that.  God alone speaks and brings the world into being.  God alone speaks and creates creatures that He delights in.  His word alone creates and destroys, and God does not share His power with anyone.  He says in Isaiah 42:8, “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.”  So this holy man, this Jesus, the Master—he is doing God things.

And this is why Simon (later to be named Peter) falls on his face in front of Jesus, saying, “Depart from me, I am a sinful man.”  Peter sees in Jesus the full power of God and is rightly struck with awe and terror.  Have you ever wondered how you would react if God himself stood before you, and you understood what that meant?  Would you be excited, happy?  Or would your sins suddenly flood before your eyes?  Would everything you ever regretted doing suddenly reappear in a cavalcade, flooding your memory, reminding you of just how inadequate you are, just how imperfect you are, just how much you have loved evil and despised good when it should have been the other way around?  Seeing God face to face is a scary thing.  It would be an experience of growing, mounting horror at ourselves, seeing just how much darkness we have within ourselves as it is illuminated by his glorious, holy light.

But Jesus dispels Peter’s fears.  “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”  Or, it’s more accurate to say, “from now on, you will be catching men alive” (the word Jesus uses, ζωγρῶν, means “to catch alive,” not merely “fishing for men” as Matthew and Mark relate).  Do not be afraid.  This is the word of angels to men.  This is the divine word that takes away the fear of judgment.  This is the word that absolves the sinner of sin.  Because Simon Peter fears for his sins, here, Jesus is telling him not to fear.  His sins can no more terrify him.  The one who forgives sins has come to him.  It is a word to soothe the sin-sick soul, a real balm in Gilead.

Jesus has come to make Simon and his brothers and friends his disciples.  He has chosen them.  It may be even more fair to say that Jesus has caught them in his metaphorical net.  He has pulled them up from the depths of sin and despair like a fish caught in a net.  But instead of striking them over the head with his fish bat to stun him and end his life—unlike the fish they caught, Simon Peter and his companions are given new life in Christ.  New life and a new identity.  Jesus has caught them alive, saving them from the depredations of the denizens of the deep, and they will go on living.  They will go on living and bring up others from death to life in their own nets as well.  For that is what it means to be a “fisher of men,” one who “from now on is catching men alive.”  Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John will now bring others trapped in the clutches of sin up out of the depths into new life with Jesus, bringing them into contact with his life-giving word, bringing them to him and to his forgiveness and life.  Perhaps the “miraculous catch of fishes” recounted here in Luke isn’t the real miracle in our Gospel account.  Perhaps what happens to Jesus’ new disciples, these newly minted “catchers of men alive” is the real miracle.  These Galilean fishermen set aside everything—even the huge catch of fish they had hauled in—to follow Jesus and sit at his feet for the rest of their lives.  They won’t be safe, they won’t be sitting pretty like they had been—briefly—upon catching all those fish.  But they will be made for life.

And do you want to know something?  We have all been caught up in Christ’s net and given new life—that happened when we were small and were brought here to the baptismal waters, where God made a covenant with us that he would never forsake us but would be with us always.  That happened when we first heard the Gospel and understood what it meant for us, that Jesus had taken away our sins.  That’s how Jesus catches us in his net.  Years ago, when I had a radio program on WDCE 90.1 FM in Richmond, one of my fellow DJ’s, Josh Urban, had written and recorded a song he titled “The Good Lord’s Lasso.”  It’s a song reminiscent of that old Gospel tune made famous by Johnny Cash, Moby, Charlie Parr, and others, “Run On (God’s Gonna Cut You Down).”  Sooner or later the good Lord will catch you with his lasso and then you’ll have to answer him.  Well, instead of using his lasso for judgment, what Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading today is that he uses his net to save us from the judgment we deserve.  And because we have been caught in his net, alive, we are also given the charge like Peter and the others.  We, too, have been tasked with catching people alive.  We have been tasked with sharing that life giving word.

As Anglican scholar Tom Wright says in his book, Luke for Everyone, “Jesus doesn’t want to leave anybody out. His call to Peter and the others—that they should now help him in catching people—came precisely in order that the good news would go out wider and wider, reaching as many as possible. Ultimately, there are no bystanders in the kingdom of God. We are reading Luke’s gospel today because Jesus kept his promise to Peter, despite Peter’s initial reluctance and subsequent failures.”[1]  Jesus invites us to follow him, to leave our nets and to take up his net.  It can be daunting, it can be scary to share the Good News with those who may not be so inclined to hear it.  But, as Spencer Tracy’s Manuel says in Victor Fleming’s 1937 film adaptation of Captains Courageous, “the Savior, I think he is the best fisherman.”  Jesus will tell you when and where to let down your nets, and through him, the catch is miraculous. 

Amen.


[1] Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 55.

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