If you were a reporter covering this story, what would be your headline?
“Preacher’s Fishing Miracle Has Better Ratings Than Super Bowl.” Or-
“Local Fishermen Retire, Leave Lucrative Business to Join Cult.”
We bring our perspectives to the story. We might ask, “Is this story true?” Did Jesus really create a fishing miracle? How did he do it? Preacher Fred Craddock said, “Is this true?” is the most disrespectful question we can ask. We wonder if the writer is a fabricator, and we may miss the point. Here is a better place to start. What is the story trying to tell us? What truth does it offer for our life?
Let’s go with the story and see where it takes us scene by scene. Scene One. It is a good day by the lakeshore. Peter and his crew are cleaning their nets after fishing all night. They had to get all the gunk off, so they don’t rot, and check for torn places where fish could escape. If you didn’t have clean nets, the fish can see it coming and be scared away. Gennesaret is a fresh water lake, with very clear, still water, and high visibility. This is why they did most of their fishing at night. It was easier to catch the fish unaware.
If you like fishing, I doubt net cleaning is your favorite part. All jobs have tedious, dull things that must be done-paperwork, filling out forms, cleaning the bathroom, balancing the budget, changing the diapers. You may not like this work, but the cost is high if it is not done. These fishermen probably did things to make the work go by, by telling fish stories, maybe they sang sea chanties. We might listen to podcasts. It’s mind-numbing work, and you aren’t expecting to be awed while doing it.
The Jesus comes along. There’s a crowd around him, but they can’t all see or hear him, so Jesus asks if he can borrow a boat, and preach just offshore. That’s ingenious. Not only can people see him, but sound travels across the water. It’s as good as you are going to get without a microphone and speakers. Jesus is an innovator.
After preaching, Jesus comes over to talk with Simon Peter. Here is a detail the text does not tell us. We have no idea what Jesus preached, or what people thought about it. He might have been preaching about the Beatitudes, the Ten Commandments, turn the other cheek. We don’t know. It’s not important to the story. As a preacher I find this distressing. I want to hear how his sermon on the Prodigal Son made them weep, and they all wanted to follow him and become better people. Maybe Jesus had an off day, preaching some sermon about a spider hanging from a thread over a flame, and people said, “I heard that one. Been there, done that.” The point is the sermon is not the great inflection point of the story. It might have been good, but it’s just another Sunday, sing a hymn, the benediction and its over.
Just before coffee hour, Jesus says, “Simon, row your boats out and let down your nets in deeper waters.” Simon responds, “Jesus, I don’t really want to chair a committee. And besides we have tried that before and it didn’t work.” Inspiring response, right?! Simon knows you can’t argue with a preacher, sometimes you just have to show them they don’t know what they are talking about. Simon is not being obstinate, he fished all night. Now it is daytime. The fish are will see the nets and be scared off. He knows his job. He knows how the real world works. Which us to the first response to every great sermon ever preached. That is not how the real world works. You can’t forgive, or turn the other cheek, or bring justice for the poor, nor can you fish on Lake Gennesaret during the day, because that is not how the real world works. I’ll show you, Peter says. Jesus says, “Just row a little deeper. Give it a shot.”
Somehow Simon persuades his crew to take their boats out again. They throw their nets and roll their eyes, and pull their nets up, except they don’t come easy. Did we hit a snag? These are hard to pull up. OMG, they are full of fish! Get some more boats out here before the nets rip. It’s very likely the story is telling us that when we have faith and do what God asks, there is a great abundance, more than we imagined, when we least expected it. That is what faith and hope are all about. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The story is not done yet.
The abundant catch creates its own problems. First, it is sinking the boats. The obvious answer is the boats won’t sink if you throw some fish back. But the human tendency is to not let go so easily. We hang on to stuff. Just look at any church basement, filled with holy and sacred things which have outlived usefulness, but we hold on. They worked hard to get those fish. They will risk sinking, before they let go of their prize catch. We can sink clinging to our long-held beliefs, which may have been wonderful, innovative ideas in 1982 or 1992. We can sink defending our theology against all questions and challenges. We can sink clinging to every possession, every dollar, worried that the next day there may be nothing to catch. We can sink doing too many things, spread too thin, too many fish to handle. Sometimes, you have to throw a few fish back and keep your boat sea worthy, knowing that tomorrow is another day. We load the boat when God is abundant with us, fearing that God may not pass our way again.
How does Peter handle this? What would you expect his reaction to be? “Jesus, that was just awesome. How did you know all the fish were there? You were right all along, I really owe you one.” The text says in verse 9, “everyone was amazed.” But Peter is filled with fear and says, “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man?” At first you may wonder what he did that made him feel so terrible. (Did Peter put on blackface in med school, did someone hack his text messages with embarrassing pictures? Maybe he killed someone.)
What stirred Peter to say in fear, “Turn away from me!”? Verse 8, where Peter is experiencing distress, begins with the preposition “but.” But Peter. When you here the word “but” in a sentence, you are waiting for the exception. But I think …He is smart, but…your writing is good but…But Peter is an exception to what others are experiencing. They are amazed, but he falls down on his knees like a supplicant and pleads for Jesus to leave. What is Peter seeing that others are missing?
Remember Peter is the first one, when asked who Jesus is, replies “You are the Christ.” Leter he has a dream about non-kosher animals, and it opens him to welcoming Gentiles into the Way. Throughout the Gospels and Acts, Peter has dreams and spiritual insights. There is more to Peter than being a simple fisherman. Everyone is amazed by the fish, Peter sees God present in Jesus, and it frightens him.
We might think that is strange, but…but it is congruent with Luke’s Gospel. Angels appear to Mary and say, “Be not afraid.” Angels appear to shepherds and say, “Be not afraid.” This phrase occurs 96 times in the Bible, when God communicates to Abraham, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and so on. If we read the Old Testament lectionary from today is would be the call of Isaiah, where he has a vision of the throne of God and sees mystical creatures like six-winged seraphs flying around. He cries out, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips.” Peter is not alone. Being a first responder to the presence of God is unsettling. It has nothing to do with bad things Peter has done, it has to do with feeling unworthy and overwhelmed when encountering a divine, numinous moment.
While others joined Peter in fishing in deeper waters, Peter is alone in deeper spiritual territory. He doesn’t have the security of a boat, he is not prepared for this. The fish are amazing, but God’s presence is full of awe. Theologian Rudolph Otto called this experience the “Mysterium Tremendum,” meaning a mystery full of both fascination and terror, because it is beyond ordinary reality and feeling, it is being in the numinous presence of God.
So, the story leads us leads us to this point. Go deeper. God calls us to deeper things and experience. Catching fish is fine, like coming to church is fine. Singing in choir is good. So is building community, acting with compassion and being a witness for justice. But the biggest catch is not fishing in the shallows, it’s in the deeper waters. What are the deeper waters for you? It is wherever we are transformed as we encounter the love of God. It might be in prayer, where we get in touch with our deeper longings and experience God. Which is why we avoid it. It might be in choir rehearsal, when the moment is not about singing the right note, but a pure expression of joy and wonder. It might be while delivering food to the cot shelter, or at an event of witnessing for justice. But the moment is deeper than food or doing the right thing. It is an encounter with the humanity of another person, to sense we are all one in a Beloved Community, which causes us to experience life differently.
The message is not that we have to do something different, or you are doing it all wrong. It is a call to go deeper than catching the fish. The call is to move through our fear to allow something deeper, something numinous and transformative to happen to us. Be not afraid, for we will all be transformed, as we are open to the love and presence of God.