On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, [Jesus] was standing by the lake of Gennesaret 1 , and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down 2 your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:1-11 ESV)
Have you had the experience of things not going as you expected? I’m sure you have. One day things turn out better than expected and another day things were worse despite your best laid plans. And then there are days when something happens that was so unexpected that it made you stop and take notice.
The story of Jesus and the miraculous catch of fish has the expected and the unexpected in it for me. I’m used to hearing about Jesus’ teaching – so that didn’t surprise me – and getting into the boat was somewhat a novel style but it’s good acoustics. And when there’s a miracle – because I believe that Jesus can perform miracles – I wasn’t surprised with the big catch. I wasn’t shocked by the fishermen becoming disciples and following Jesus (though my practical mind wonders at some of the details – like how often did Peter see his wife and how much did they get for all the fish?) so that was pretty expected for me.
But there is something in this story that I didn’t expect. For me, it seems out of context. I have to stop and think about it. Why did Peter get so frightened having Jesus in the boat after the miracle? Why does he fall down – won’t look up sort of thing – and asks (begs?) Jesus to go away? I think that if I had seen a miracle and I was close to it, then I’d be getting the camera (you know, me next to the miracle worker – arm on shoulder sort of stuff) and putting it on Facebook or tweeting the moment. What a buzz it would be! Anyway that’s what I think I’d do.
So what has Peter seen that I’ve missed? Have others reacted as Peter has? I thought of other people in the Bible who were frightened and scared by something they’d seen or come close to. There were Adam and Eve, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, the people of Israel at Mt Sinai, David, Isaiah, Ezekiel – people who reacted in fear when they came close to God’s physical presence – it’s almost as if they sensed something of his power and majesty and realised that they weren’t so powerful or majestic after all; that they saw themselves in a new light. Is this what Peter sensed? That the person whom he thought was a miracle worker and a teacher – someone he was prepared even to obey – was someone much more – God himself? The holy, almighty, righteous God and he was … “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” … a sinner.
With nearly 2,000 years of history Christianity agrees with Peter – yes, Jesus is God who has come among us in a way that doesn’t freak us out. He has come as one of us – but occasionally we still may sense that he is sovereign, supreme, and can do what he jolly well likes to us and with us. I talk about God’s love a lot and perhaps this makes God into some sort of cosmic teddy bear but when I look at God from the perspective of his holiness then I am facing something totally other to me. In literature we are in the realm of C S Lewis and Aslan and the children for the first time discovering that Aslan is a lion and Mr Beaver explaining that of course he isn’t a tame lion but that he’s good! 3
A society saturated even with a veneer of Christianity – like ours today – expects God to be good by definition – but there is simply no reason why he should be. It is not an automatic situation – and yet so much of the-all- religions-lead-to-the-same-God idea has implicit in it that God is on our side. Well, why should he be? And if we could get a conversation going with the world, they would answer something along the lines of “Well, that’s what’s expected of God” – a hope that is grounded in wishful thinking rather than anything certain.
Peter’s world is turned upside down by the miraculous catch of fish – even though he was obedient and let down the nets. If he didn’t expect anything, why do it? We don’t know his expectation but we do know his reaction – and the reaction of the others – ‘astonishment’ in English – but in Greek and Hebrew there is also a sense of terror, shock, quaking, trembling, rumbling as well. Jesus is more than anything human – and Peter has the sense to request distance – not for Jesus’ sake but for his own. And Jesus extends grace again to him – he’s been incognito with the people so far and now even with this theophany – this revelation of God – Jesus continues to be gracious – “Don’t be afraid” – you will gather people for the kingdom of God. And they follow him – still learning – this miracle was not the defining moment of their lives but part of the jigsaw that finds completion with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection – which reveals clearly and unambiguously that Jesus is who the demons kept claiming “the holy One of God” – present to rescue, wanting to rescue, doing everything in conjunction with the Father and the Holy Spirit so that people are rescued and yet who will judge and destroy those who reject the rescue, rebel against the rescuer, even spit the rescue out of their mouths, and who insist and demand to meet Jesus on their terms.
Today Jesus comes among us through worship. The congregation sits in the nave – which is Latin for ‘ship’ and Jesus is still in the boat but in a way that is safe for us. Worship is not so much about what we do but about what God does – speaking to us, washing us, forgiving us, nourishing us, blessing us.
We can be complacent – we’ve been here before – this is our church – it’s just the usual, routine, maybe even boring worship. We’d love a miracle we say. I wonder about that. But what is true is that we are in the presence of the same God who sat in Peter’s boat. We don’t have to be scared of him – Peter is not recorded as from that day onward being a gibbering wreck in the presence of Jesus – though Jesus remains awesome and supremely powerful and we can’t tame him. And yet there are moments – and we would be wise to remember that God is not tame, domesticated, and defined by our own definitions of good – when we do have personal experiences of Jesus’ closeness and presence – and it is brought home to us – when a miracle does happen for us – when our sins are absolved and the burden is lifted – when communing is not cafeteria consumption but a dining with Jesus – a moment of personal awareness that Jesus suffered and died for me – when the words “for you” hit home – and Jesus is helping us now to live in spite of our sinful flesh, our forthcoming death, the attacks of the devil, and the mockery of the world – yes, there are moments when this comes home to us with some force but for most of the time we receive Jesus through faith.
Regular communing develops its routines – as does regular worship – Bible Study – prayers and devotions. This is not to say ‘make them irregular’ (!) but that our complacency and doubt can be jolted when we are made aware that we are in the presence of the holy God who comes to us – and our faith is strengthened because all we still have is his Word to us. And should our sins make us wander away and even ask God to leave – and people can quietly do such things by not regularly worshipping – or we are among people who are simply afraid of Jesus and his claims on them (even though they’d deny profusely anything of the sort) – then we need to look at the greatest miracle of all – not abundant fish – but abundant love – and check out Jesus’ hands and feet.
The message that comes from the cross is truly unexpected and definitely undeserved – God says: I do know who and what you are but listen, I love you, follow me.
1 That is, the Sea of Galilee
2 The Greek verb is plural
3 The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
- Luke 5:1 - 11