Fisher of mortal men, them that the saved be,
Ever the holy fish caught up from the depths of the sea,
Out of the world’s tumultuous sea of sin
Enticed into thine embrace, forever to be held therein .
(Clement of Alexandria)
Post-modern man seems wholly afraid of being caught –caught in an embarrassing situation, caught off guard, caught red-handed, caught asleep at the wheel, or caught out as incompetent. The fear is caused by an absence of spiritual integrity that reacts angrily to a world whose expectations he has been denied but are still being asserted by his neighbors. The post-modern fearful man has told us all that we ought not to have any hope for betterment since we are all genetically pre-determined to be less than mediocre. We are meant to congratulate such a man on his genius as if he had discovered something profound. He is Big Brother and we are all the incurably ignorant plebian masses. When other people’s natural instinct for certain norms of law and order react to his imbecility, they are met with the juvenile gibes of derogatory derision. For the adolescent, judgment moves in one direction –away from the self and onto others.
Fortunately for us, today’s Gospel turns us around and encourages us to move in a better direction, to be self-consciously caught out in our sinful condition so that we might be caught up and into the net of Jesus Christ. For whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth; And scourgeth every son whom He receiveth. (Hebr. xii. 6) Prior to today’s reading, St. Luke tells us that Jesus had been healing those who were sick with divers diseases. (St. Luke iv. 40) Exhausted, He then went into a desert place (Ibid, 42) to pray, only to be interrupted by the multitude who would have kept Him from leaving them because they were caught up with His miracles. He said, ‘I must preach the Kingdom of God to other cities also’. But they nevertheless followed Him. Today we read that As the [same] multitude pressed upon Him to hear the Word of God, He stood by the lake of Genesaret, and saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets. (St. Luke v. 1) This crowd pursues Jesus pressing upon Him to hear the Word of God, that He is nearly driven to take refuge in the sea! The sinful world they inhabit can offer no peaceful refuge or shelter from their sin. And so with all zeal, alacrity, and dispatch, caught by the short hairs in the devil’s lair, they are determined to be caught up into the salvation that Jesus brings.
But the zeal and passion with which men press upon Jesus must be tempered and moderated. When we press upon Jesus overzealously or impetuously we run the risk of being caught up in passion and emotion. Zeal must be converted into spiritual love that yields sober detachment, needed to discover Christ apart from our passions. The crowd is quieted, Jesus is silent, the sea is still, and the only activity we discover comes from fishermen who were gone out of their boats and [were] washing their nets. (Ibid, 2) We ought to be caught up in the stillness of this event. These are men whose worldly success and failure depend upon the uncertain moving winds, stirring sea, and elusive fish.
These men are caught up anxiously over the seas of chance and fortune. Isaak Walton says, Blessings upon all who hate contention, and love quietness, and virtue, and angling. (The Compleat Angler) Angling is fishing, but with A. K. Best we must remember that often the fishing [is] good, but the catching [is] bad. And that, They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep. (Ps. cvii. 23, 24) The rising and falling of the great deep aggravate the fisherman’s art of following and catching his prevaricating prey. Two motions blend to confuse and confound the fisherman’s science of the seas. Walton says that Angling may be said to be so like mathematics that it never can fully be learnt. (Idem) Driven by persistent curiosity and wonder, fishermen aim for a precision they never obtain.
So we read that Jesus entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land: and He sat down, and taught the people out of the ship. (Ibid, 3) Jesus doesn’t force Himself upon any man. Archbishop Trench reminds us that the work of the fisher is one of art and skill, not of force and violence. (Miracles, p. 106) So He prays or asks Peter to thrust out a little from the land so that spiritual men might be caught up into the net of His preaching. He has no pulpit, and thus, as Matthew Henry reminds us, must ask St. Peter for the loan of his fishing boat. (Comm: Luke V) The multitude –the hoi polloi, must learn of the distance and differentiation between their condition and that of the fishermen. The multitude on the shore had zeal aplenty, but
Peter and his fellow fishers –James and John, were humbled by another night of laborious failure.
Jesus commands Simon Peter: Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draft. (Ibid, 4) Simon responds, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing….(Ibid, 5) Peter confesses the impotence of the fishermen. Yet, they pressed on, washed their nets, and cleansed theirs boats hoping for a better return the next time round. Oddly enough, now Jesus takes them out in the clear light of day. He will take their craft and trade into the clear light of day. Peter is perplexed. We know that we are fishers, but is Christ a fisher also? Christ presses upon Peter. Peter presses upon Christ. Peter obeys humbly. Nevertheless, at thy Word, I will let down the net. (Idem) Peter the fisherman may doubt his profession’s precision, but he does not doubt his Lord. He and his fellow men have already been caught out and seized by the consciousness of their fallen condition. Now they are caught up and into the commands of their Christ. Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. (Ps. cxxvii.1) Peter’s hope for accomplishing anything on his own has been thrown overboard; but he knows that they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. (Is. xl. 30, 31)
And when they had this done, they enclosed a great multitude of fishes, and their net brake, and they beckoned to their partners in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both ships, so that they began to sink. (Ibid, 6,7) The word of Jesus is obeyed, and God can catch man up into a new life.
But what is the real miracle? Is it merely the miracle of the draught of fishes? The answer can be found in the response of St. Peter. As Isaac Williams explains, [St. Peter had] no thought of his own profit at such a supply, no sense of relief after having so long toiled in vain occurred to him, but all was lost in the feeling of God’s presence and of his own sinfulness. (I. W. ‘The Peaceable Ordering of the World.’) Peter falls down before Jesus and says, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ For he was astonished, and all that were with them, at the draught of fishes which they had taken. (Ibid, 8,9) Archbishop Trench writes, Peter, while drawing the multitude of fishes into his net, has himself fallen into the net of Christ, taking a prey, he has himself also been taken a prey, and now the same man as ever after, yielding as freely to the impulse of the moment…can no longer, in the deep feeling of his own unholiness, endure a Holy One so near. (Idem)
St. Peter can do little by his own ingenuity and effort. Man’s craftsmanship and science can produce only unpredictable and impermanent gains in comparison of what God in Jesus Christ can do for us. There is a miracle of fishes. Jesus’ power is manifested. This is the first miracle. Next, the same power of God in Jesus Christ converts Saint Peter. He is drawn and caught up into Christ’s net. His heart sinks, as he discovers the Wisdom and Love that alone can draw the migrating soul back out of the tempestuous depths of human sin into the net of that love that can reconcile all men to God. Peter senses the loss of himself; he is drowned in the sea of spiritual death. This is the second miracle. Peter dies to himself. He is poor in spirit. Peter comes alive to Jesus Christ. Grace abounds. Father Mouroux reminds us that man must realize that [he] is dust and ashes before his God; however much he abounds, he is always a poverty-stricken thing hanging on the Divine Mercy, and however much he may be purified, he is still a sinner face to face with Holiness. (The Meaning of Man, p. 217)
The fish which the men have caught are still alive –flailing, thrashing, and thwacking with all their might to return to their life in the sea. Peter falls down, surrenders himself, and begins to die in order to embrace Christ, the New Life. Jesus says, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. (Ibid, 10) At the conclusion of our Gospel we then read that when the [Apostles] had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed Him. (Ibid, 11)
The Apostles were on their way to becoming fishers of men for Jesus. Their forsaking all is a spirit of self-abnegation. To be caught up in the net of Christ elicits spiritual death to oneself. If we would become Apostles of Christ, in ourselves the contradiction [must be] felt between the holy and the unholy, between God and us sinners. (Trench, 102) For then we shall become spiritual fish out of water, caught up into the net of Christ, so that other men might see that even our postmodern sea of tumultuous sin is not beyond the powerful craft of the Fisher of Men. So let us close by singing along with Mr. Walton, not only caught up by Christ into His net, but also pressing upon Jesus that we too might become fishers of men.
The first men that our Saviour Dear,
Did chuse to wait upon Him here,
Blest fishers were, and fish the last
Food was, that He on earth did taste.
I therefore strive to follow those,
Whom he to follow Him hath chose.
(The Compleat Angler, Modern Library, p. 112)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons