If I was advising St. Luke on the presentation of his version of the call of the first disciples, I’d suggest that before we find Jesus standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, he should give us a little backstory. We’d see that the two boats at the shore of the lake are old, worn out, leaky tubs that have to be bailed out regularly just to keep them afloat. We’d see that the nets the men are fishing with are more hole than net, patched with string, and just barely holding together. We’d see that the fishermen, who indeed were fishing all night, have brought practically no bait with them. And we’d be shown that perhaps the reason these men passed the night without catching any fish at all is because, although they were short on bait, they had brought plenty of beer with them. And smokes, too. Come morning, they’d be tired, and they’d be dirty, and they’d be unshaven, and they’d stink of alcohol and old fish that somebody else caught. But they hadn’t caught any fish because they aren’t very good fishermen, and they aren’t even trying to be. Their girlfriends or their boyfriends (or both) would have left them. They’d be feeling sorry for themselves. And they’d generally be a mess.
Believe me when I tell you that no one else was going to write about these guys and assign them their place in history, let alone in scripture, if St. Luke and the other evangelists had not done so.
You think I am making all of this up. But actually, I think St. Luke has left clues in his text, that back up my backstory.
We know the nets are junk, because they fail at the very thing they are intended for: catching fish. They start to break once fish are actually being collected in them.
We know the boats are junk, because you can’t actually sink a boat by filling it with fish - even a lot of fish - unless that boat is already pretty compromised. And yet, that’s exactly what happens to these boats when they start to fill with fish: they begin to sink.
And we know that Simon is a loser, because at the first sign that something good is happening in his life he, a) tries to stop it from happening; and b) reveals his guilty conscience: a conscience that we have every reason to believe is guilty for good reason.
And we know that James and John are losers too, because they are partners with this guy, Simon, with whom they have just spent the night getting drunk and high out on the lake, and not one of them could catch a single fish.
We can guess that even St. Luke thinks that Simon is a loser (at least at this stage of his life) because, as a writer, he (Luke) can’t even wait to start calling Simon by his new name, Peter, which he (Luke) doesn’t even tell us is Simon’s new name until the next chapter.
And we can assume that even Jesus knows what losers these three are (or at least Simon), since he has to tell Simon not to be afraid, even though there isn’t an angel in sight. And usually, the assurance to “fear not” is only found in the scriptures when there are angels around.
So, what you have are lousy boats, filled with lousy nets, manned by a lousy trio of lousy men. There’s your backstory: frightened, fishless, failures.
The backstory is important because it’s important that we see what Jesus does to the lives of these men. And it’s important that we understand that Jesus’ recruiting technique is unconventional. And it’s important that we realize that Jesus doesn’t call them because of their skills, or their talents, or their good looks, or their charm. Jesus doesn’t call them because they have the right stuff. They do not have the right stuff. They’ve got nothing, and they bring nothing. And Jesus provides no indication at all as to why he calls these men, except, perhaps, that they are available, with nothing else to do but sober up.
It’s a trope of modern life that nothing and no one is what it seems to be; that public success often hides deep private failure; and that the facade of prosperity often masks deep dysfunction and unhappiness. But our frightened, fishless, failures are not presented to us with any such pretense. They are exactly what they appear to be, and we are allowed to see them for what they are. And what they are does not amount to much.
See how different the dynamics of this part of the story are from St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, only a few chapters ago. The evangelist took pains to describe the angelic visitations that precede Jesus’ birth, and foretell his identity. Simple shepherds can see that this child is holy. And the testimonies of Simeon and Anna are presented to reaffirm the case. St. Luke knows how to make the point that a person is special, anointed, chosen by God.
But here, at the shore of the lake of Gennesaret, the three men who will become the innermost circle of Jesus’ confidants and friends, to whom will be revealed mysteries that the rest of the disciples will have to read about later... these men are presented to us as they are, with no embellishment whatsoever: frightened, fishless, failures.
We are meant to relate.
Remember that these verses are not a parable. This is just the story of how Jesus called his disciples. But in many ways this episode of the story of salvation is a perfect parable for our times, for the church today. All around us on the shore of our lake are aging boats that have seen far better days. I could show you a few holes in our own boat too, and where we keep the bailing buckets. The church is no longer a place where the world expects to find people of much consequence. Perhaps in the pews there might be a few of you, but among the clergy you won’t find many. This is not false modesty, I’m just saying this is the way it is.
We have proved ourselves, in the church, not only to be inadequate at the metaphor (we don’t catch any fish); we are actually also inept at the very thing Jesus called his disciples to do: fish for people. I have statistics to back up this assertion, and believe me when I say that the statistics are more depressing than any sermon could be. I will grant you that we may not have been out all night getting drunk. We may not even be losers, and I certainly don’t want to attach that label to anyone. But as the church around us gets smaller and smaller, and less and less effective at her mission, it might be time to admit that the church is seen by many as delusional if we think we are an institution of any consequence, when what we really are is frightened, fishless, failures. Yes, we are meant to relate to these men who are clearly inadequate to the mission that lies before them, even though they don’t know it yet. But we can see it, and we are meant to relate.
If I am correct that this passage of Luke’s Gospel is a parable for our time, however, it would be important not to miss the point.
The conventional way to bring this sermon home would be to point out how wonderful was the unlikely draught of fish that the men caught with Jesus in the boat, when they did what he said and put out into the deep water. Bring Jesus into the boat with you, and see how many fish you catch: hallelujah! I have preached such a sermon before, I am certain. I don’t object to this conventional reading of the story. But if this passage of the Gospel really is a parable for our time, the draught of fish cannot be its point. You can tell that St. Luke does not see it as the point of the story, since the fish fill up the boat in verse 6 - halfway through the story, which ends at verse 11. No, Luke has not yet made his point in verse 6, and if we conclude that he has, then we will be missing the real point. It’s so much easier that way, though. Easier to decide that the point of the story is to ask Jesus into my boat. In that case, not only has my boat just shot up in value, but also, everything that improves from then on is mine: my catch of the day, my partnerships, my business, my profits, and my bottom line. Everything is still mine, and on my terms! What could be better?
Manifestly, that cannot be the point of the story, which is still only at its mid-point, when everything is still essentially the same as it was before. For although circumstances have changed, nothing about Simon, or James, or John has yet changed. So the draught of fish cannot be the point of the story, in verse 6.
No, this story is headed unstoppably to verse 11, where St. Luke tells us this: “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”
They left everything and followed him. And if we understand that this has been the point of the story, then we realize that the consequence of the story is not that some fishermen caught a lot of fish - no! The consequence of the story is that the lives of these three men have already been changed by following Jesus. And now they will follow him as he goes on to teach and to preach about the kingdom; to heal and to forgive as signs that the kingdom is near; and then to suffer and die and rise again in order to seal the victory of that kingdom.
The consequence of the calling of the disciples is not what happens in the boat; it’s what happens on the way with Jesus, when you let go of what prevented it, and you decide to follow Jesus. And if that was the point of the story for Peter, and James, and John, (who, after all, left behind that enormous catch of fish for Zebedee to deal with and profit from), then it is also the point of the story for us. It’s not what happens in the boat; it’s what happens on the way, when we follow Jesus.
Two conclusions seem clear, if we read St. Luke’s account of the calling of these disciples as a parable for our time.
First, when we relate to the fishermen who are inadequate to the task, then so be it. Is our boat the worse for wear? Are there holes in it, and does it leak? Have the nets seen better days? And are we, ourselves, less than perhaps we could be? Are we sometimes frightened? Haven’t we known failure? Do we clearly lack the right stuff? OK. Then we are in the company of saints who have gone before us, and our feet will nicely fit in the footsteps of the apostles who first followed Jesus, who doesn’t call because you are good enough, or smart enough, of holy enough. Jesus just calls.
Second, it is too light a thing to suppose that God has called us here to tell us that we could fill this boat with fish if only we’d rely on him. I mean, it’s true, but it’s only verse 6!
God is calling us because God calls. God calls, and he beckons us to follow, most often where we would not otherwise choose to go. And often, he asks us to leave something behind in the process.
God is calling us to follow Jesus because to do so is to follow Truth and Justice and Righteousness in a world that is quickly forgetting what any of those words mean.
God is calling us to follow Jesus because in a world that is trying to get us to buy everything, the only god worth believing in is the One who frees you to leave everything aside.
God is calling us to follow Jesus because we are all headed toward death, and rather than perfect the various arts of avoiding death, Jesus wants us to know that he has conquered death for us, so there is nothing to fear.
God is calling us to follow Jesus because he sees how much and how often we resemble those frightened, fishless, failures he first called, even when we would never admit such a thing.
God is calling us to follow Jesus, because only by following him does the path to his Cross unfold. Only by following him does the path lead us to his tomb. And only by following him do our footsteps find the way to his resurrection life, which he has promised to share with us. And God knows that if we will follow Jesus we need not be frightened, we will never be fishless again, and we cannot fail… if we will let him lead us.
If all St. Luke expected of us when we read this story was that we’d decide it would be a good idea to ask Jesus into our boats so we could catch more fish, then he’d have gone into the church consulting business. But St. Luke is an evangelist. He wanted us to hear the saving word of God’s truth. He wanted us to forget about our own boats, leave them behind, and follow Jesus. So St. Luke doesn’t end the story at verse 6, since verse 6 gets you nothing but a boat full of fish. But if you go all the way to verse 11, and follow Jesus, you’ll get a life that never stops being renewed by his grace and love.
And he wants us to know that God has always called where the boats are leaky, and nets are ripped, and the fishermen are not necessarily all that good at what they do, and might still be a little hung over.
God calls. And from frightened, fishless, failures, God builds a church of astonishing beauty, and power, and mercy, and love, that can easily remember who we used to be, but who now rejoice to leave every that hinders us behind, and follow Jesus, take up the Cross, and bask in his glory!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
10 February 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia