In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One of the reasons the Bible is so often misunderstood is because a number of its stories are deceptively simple, too simple to understand, too simple to contain the profound everyday truth that it does. Today’s gospel story is one of those. It appears to be just another fish story, that surprise, surprise, ends with the big catch of fish.
It’s not just another fish for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. The thing to notice is that what Luke wants us to know is that they when the fishermen encounter Jesus they were all done fishing. They were already “washing their nets,” packing up, and putting it all away. At one point one of them in the story who is named Simon, but we know him by the name Jesus will give him later, Peter (the rock). Peter complains to Jesus, “we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” They were only now coming in from being out on the water the previous day. When they had worked and worked and caught nothing as the sun went down, they doubled down and tried harder. They weren’t going to fail. Yet throughout the night, still nothing. It is story of futility, uselessness, and finally exhaustion. At one point, after they had watched the sun come up, completely defeated, somehow they decided to cut their losses and give up.
That experience of futility, of spinning your wheels and getting nowhere, of time and effort apparently wasted in achieving nothing is really dispiriting and human. In the pandemic, this is an experience a lot of people have run into from time to time. A lot of people have found themselves on that shore with Peter and his empty nets, thinking about what they ought to do next when fishing isn’t exactly working out and warding off feelings of futility and exhaustion. Today’s story is about what to do right then and there.
Jesus meets Peter on the shore with his empty boat. They seem to be strangers to one another at this point although we know that this meeting will be life-changing. Rather than giving Peter the help he needs, Jesus, instead, asks Peter for help. Peter did not have what Peter wanted (fish), but did have something Jesus could use–an empty boat. Oddly, the very thing Peter is ashamed of (his empty boat) is what Jesu sis going to use. The crowd gathering around Jesus had become so thick that there was no place for Jesus to stand for everyone to be able to see and hear him. He asked Peter to take him out on his boat very near the shore so that he could have a place from which to address the crowd. Peter, likely just wanted to go home with his no fish and go to bed. Instead, sleepless and tired Peter, invited Jesus into his boat and started a new day right then and there.
Jesus taught the crowd. We are not told a word of what he said because that is not what this story is about. This story is about saving Peter. Peter waited for Jesus to finish instructing the crowd. You can practically hear Peter ask, “Are we done now so I can go home?” Jesus turns to him and says, “Put out into the deep water and let down your [newly cleaned and folded up] nets for a catch.” That is when Peter snaps and hollers, “Master [or Teacher], we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” What does Jesus know? He was no fisherman. He was the carpenter’s son. Was Jesus taunting him, making fun of his failure? What, did Jesus think they hadn’t tried going all the way out to the deep water? We are not told why Peter said yes–maybe Peter didn’t even know, but with Jesus in his boat, they returned to the deep water and put down their nets once again.
They caught so many fish that it became a problem. The nets were so full that they were beginning to break. They had to signal to another boat to come out and to fill it also with fish. They were all amazed, including Simon Peter’s business partners, James and John, sons of Zebedee, who together with Peter would one day become the inner circle of Jesus’ eventual twelve (12) disciples. This origin story of Christianity isn’t just about fish. It about an experience where somehow scarcity loosens its grip and gives way to abundance. It’s about how your thing, whatever it is, can grow stale and sterile. And how inviting Jesus into your thing can have unpredictably wonderful results and turn it all around for you and for others.
How does that happen? We can be more specific. The biblical story is more specific. Notice that in the middle of all of this Jesus says to Peter, “from now on you will be catching people.” By adding Jesus, fishing for fish becomes fishing for people. And that has a lot to do with the experience of abundance. In every gospel story and in our world, somehow inviting Jesus in always leads to other people in a really good way.
For example, I have a friend named Mike who is one of the most daring pastors I know. He once had a church that was really proud of its after-school tutoring program for kids. It took a lot of effort, they were always short of volunteers and pressing church members into service, but they felt like they were helping until they started looking at their results. The really tough realization was that it turned out that their tutoring was having no measurable result at all for the kids. They were just bad at it and had to admit that the only thing they were accomplishing was helping themselves feel like they were good people because at least they were trying. That church had the collective experience of knowing what it was like being Peter laboring all night and catching no fish. It was dispiriting all around. What inviting Jesus into that tutoring program looked like was that they discovered a woman in their neighborhood who was not a member of the church, but who tutored kids out of her own house and had fantastic results. She was truly gifted at this. The church ended its failing program and, instead threw all its resources into supporting their neighborhood woman’s tutoring and, in the words of the gospel, it turned into a giant catch of fish.
At a later church, they ran a food pantry for the poor, but started feeling really bad about handing out what they felt like were cans of corn syrup and other preservatives. The congregation came to believe that much of the food they gave out to the neediest just wasn’t healthy to eat. They felt bad and failing. What did inviting Jesus into that failure look like? They confessed their failure to whole neighborhood and town they were in and asked all of who had any talent for gardening to grow fresh vegetables that would be given to the hungry. Gardeners showed up everywhere–most of whom did not even belong to the church. It was like when the boats in the gospel were so full of fish that they nearly sank. Not only did the hungry have fresh, healthy, produce in abundance, the people in neighborhood and the people in the church became friends.
Scarcity plus Jesus leads to people and abundance. Peter, James, and John could have walked away from that shore fretting about the lack of fish and believing that they could not commit to one more thing (including Jesus) until they first solved their lack of fish problem. They did not do that and that made all the difference. Peter did not know where any of this was going when he invited Jesus into his boat. He didn’t know what the turn around and change was even going to look like. Inviting Jesus into the situation happens first. No one knows what happens next, but Jesus has such a strong record by now that it is enough to know that if you are with him you can be confident that that is going to make the difference you need and that it will lead to other people, very often people we don’t even know yet, but that is what he does. Scarcity plus Jesus leads to people and abundance.
This story of Jesus and the great catch of fish is repeated in life and life through all of Christian history. Although it goes on and on, we’ll conclude with St. Paul’s own rehearsal of how it worked in his case. He confesses in our passage today, “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” His name, “Paul,” even means “small” in Greek, so much less impressive than Peter’s name meaning “rock.” He has to explain that he was the last of the apostles to see the risen Christ. But Paul added Jesus to that “least,” “small,” and “last,” and exclaims, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.”
Invite Jesus into your boat having no idea what will happen next. He is interested in you even if your boat is empty. When he says, “Let’s go out into the deep waters,” go with him knowing that it will lead to an abundance not of your making. And don’t be at all surprised if you end up fishing with him for people you’ll always be he introduced you to.
May Jesus find us whoever we are, wherever we are, and give us the grace to follow him wherever he leads, to try new things, to meet new people, and to discover joys that far outweigh their costs to the glory of God the Father. Amen