This sermon was delivered on the First Sunday of Luke (Luke 5:1-11), September 22, 2019, at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Shrine Church in Flushing, New York.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In today’s Gospel lesson, the Evangelist—and iconographer—Luke paints a vivid picture for us. The scene he lays out for us today is one full of life and motion, intensity and tension, strength and effort, and of heartfelt surrender to God.
We encounter Jesus, standing on the banks of the Lake of Gennesaret—another name for the Sea of Galilee—having been followed there by a crowd eager to hear from this person who had begun performing and teaching astounding things. There, Simon Peter and company were cleaning their fishing nets from the previous night’s fruitless work. Anyone who has ever used a net knows that they can pull up all kinds of things we don’t want in them. We can imagine that the fishermen were probably exhausted and frustrated.
So it was with some temerity that Jesus presumed to step into one of Peter’s two boats, let alone ask Peter to shove off. Yet, Peter agreed and did just that. After all, Jesus only wanted to better position himself to be able address the crowd that had gathered.
Imagine, then, Peter’s initial hesitation when Jesus was done speaking and turned to him and said, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” We can of course hear it in his voice when he responds “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” But what does he say next? “At your word I will let down the nets.”
What follows is a scene of blessed chaos. Here the men—Peter, Andrew his brother (no doubt in the boat with him), and the brothers James and John—and their boats were nearly overtaken by the number of fish that swelled their nets. There in that clamor Simon Peter fell down before Jesus, overcome by wonder and his own insignificance, and said to him “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
In turn, to comfort Peter and the others, Jesus tells him “Do not be afraid,” but immediately he says something truly unexpected: “from now on, you will be catching men”. The disciples were hooked. After what they had just experienced his words hit home with visceral power. For after returning to land, even with so great a catch of fish and its potential value at market, we are told “they left everything and followed him”.
That was then. Nearly two thousand years later, all of us here today exist as proof that Jesus’ words came true. We are the product of generations of faith; a net, if you will, being woven through time, guided by the hand of Christ, made up of each passing generation of apostles and bishops and priests and faithful laypeople, of saints and simple folk just trying to live their lives humbly and with an eye to Christ.
The work begun by Christ with that first crew of apostles has continued unabated for centuries. The net of salvation has been cast wide, over all of time and space. It has filled the boat of the Church—the Ark of Salvation—to near sinking with all kinds of creatures. We like to think of ourselves as comported, rational beings. But I have to wonder, on some level, does God see us like fish: slimy, with our unintelligent and huge eyes staring at nothing, gasping and flapping and squirming around pointlessly—all our mundane concerns, our complaining, our griping, our self-centeredness? The image is perhaps not a pleasant one, but if we consider our old selves, our passions, our overinflated or undervalued opinions of ourselves, don’t they make us seem like what was just described? Thus to be caught up in the net of salvation is to let those aspects of our being suffocate and die, so that we can be born again.
Something else to consider here is the indiscriminate nature of the net. Any commercial fisherman no doubt has stories of unimaginable things that have been dredged up by their nets. The net of salvation is like this. It is let out, and we are all drawn into it—the anxious with the calm, the intelligent with the dim-witted, the healthy with the sick, the liberal and the conservative, the creative and the stodgy, the faithful and the rebellious, the black, the white, the Greek, the Korean, the Ugandan, the Swede, the cop and the robber, the straight and the gay. The Gospel is cast out over all men, of all races, of all persuasions, regardless of whether our peculiarities are God-given, circumstantial, or self-imagined.
When it is reeled in, those who do not slip through (you see, the net of Christ has enormous holes; we are free to escape salvation if we so choose) are pressed closer and closer together, writhing and finding a way to fit into this new reality oriented to Christ. Yet if a ‘fish’ turns to an ‘eel’ and says “You are not welcome here because your skin is different from mine!” or a ‘crab’ to an ‘urchin’ says “This is my part of the net! Go be with your own kind!”, the master of the vessel will clean his net of these ignorant and bigoted creatures, casting them back into the deep, dark sea of sin.
Let us consider this imagery in yet another way. Here we are, continuously being hauled onto the deck of the Church. Wasn’t St. Luke’s description powerful of that moment on the water—that the boats were about to sink because of the commotion and the great haul of fish? Isn’t this a powerful image of the Church? And there is a detail in his story that we may overlook, namely, that Jesus was in the boat while all this was happening. The boat was heaving and rocking. The force of the net and the weight of the fishermen on one side of the boat were causing it to heel dangerously, no doubt taking on some water in the process. But Jesus was there. Does it seem strange to you, to picture our Lord being tossed about with the boat? Maybe he laid a hand on a net? Maybe he was laughing? Maybe he was shouting directions? Maybe he was leaning on the opposite side of the boat to stabilize it? But there he was.
The Church can be tossed about. Whether we think of our home life, our local parish, or the worldwide Church, we know that disruptions and crises and other such troubles arise. We can get caught up in this commotion, and fear for the stability and seaworthiness of the Church itself. Yet if we believe that Christ is at the helm, if we believe that it is he who set us out on this course to begin with, if we look to him, if we fall on our knees before him in a mix of awe and gratitude and repentance like Peter did, we know that he stabilizes the jostled craft.
On that fateful day, those fishermen could have had no real sense of what lay before them as they walked away from their boats and nets to follow Christ. Yet because they did, you and I are gathered here today, drawn into the ark of salvation to be with Christ. On the feast of Pentecost, we commemorate the fulness of the Gospel and the beginning in earnest of the work of the Apostles. If you think perhaps I’ve made too much of the imagery of fishing, let me simply draw today’s homily to a close with the words of the principal hymn we sing for the feast of Pentecost:
Blessed are you, O Christ our God.
You made the fishermen all-wise
by sending down on them the Holy Spirit,
and, through them, you drew the world into your net,
O lover of mankind, glory to you.
Indeed, Lord, it has happened. Help us remain in your catch, and use us as strands in your net of salvation to draw up the next generation to your glory.