The Rev. Peter Faass
So, this is an odd scenario. Simon Peter and the fishermen have been out on the water all night fishing. And they have come up empty. Jesus then tells Simon Peter, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." And so, they do and the next thing you know there is such an abundant haul that the nets begin to break from the weight of the fish, and the boat begins to sink.
Of course, Jesus always knows where we only see despair and hopelessness, he sees possibility. Yet instead of seeing the hope of a financial boon in the abundant fish, Peter is struck with fear. He falls to his knees – an interesting maneuver as he had to kneel on some slippery fish covering the bottom of the boat – and declares himself to be a, “sinful man.”
And here is what makes this scenario so odd: Jesus replies, “"Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." Does Jesus think that Peter is fearful of having to catch fish versus people? Is he implying that people are easier to catch – read evangelism – than a net full of fish? If so, and it certainly reads like that, this is to be the only time in Christian history that anyone has made a statement implying that catching people will be easier than catching fish! That evangelism of humans is easier than fishing, or anything else for that matter. Good heavens, I know people who would rather walk across hot coals barefoot than ask anyone to come to church. Episcopalian’s approach to church growth is a bit more laid, back, reticent, if you will.
I saw a cartoon recently by Episcopal cartoonist, Jay Sidebotham that captures perfectly our reticent approach. There’s an aquarium set up by the ocean’s edge. An Episcopal Church Welcomes You sign is planted next to it in the sand. The caption states, “Any fish from the ocean are invited to jump into the aquarium if they happen to be passing by and feel like it.”
Yep, that’s us. Our church is the aquarium in the sand. Warrensville Center Rd. is the ocean. Any fish passing – or more likely, driving - by are invited to jump on in . . . if they feel like it.
Now if they do. . . well, we do quite well with those fish. Newcomers repeatedly tell me that one of the things that attracted them to Christ Church is the authentic and warm hospitality they experienced when they came here . . . once they jumped into our aquarium. I have seldom heard anyone say they experienced a warm invitation to come to Christ Church when they were out doing breast-strokes in the big wide ocean. In other words, we like our humans caught, and in the net, before we engage them in our faith community. Caught fish may have caused Peter to be afraid, but they give us our highest confidence.
Yet, we have so much to offer. So much good news to share. I am not going to list all of those reasons now. You already pretty much know them. And if you are unsure, I invite you to reflect on what attracts you here. What about Christ Church enriches your life, drawing you into closer relationship with God in Jesus?
Peter was compelled to reflect on that very question, repeatedly. What about God in Jesus attracted him to a closer relationship with Jesus? To want to be a part of that community of disciples that followed him, to the point of dropping everything to do so? But being a bit of a cheese head, it took a while for the epiphanies Jesus and God presented him, for the reasons to do so to sink in.
You see that net and its myriad of abundant fish made a critical statement about God and the reign of God Jesus came to proclaim. It was an epiphany. There were all kinds of fish in the net that morning. The three most prevalent fish in the Sea of Gennesaret are a flat white fish, commonly known as St. Peter’s fish, carp, and catfish. Interestingly the first two are fine for Jews to eat as they have scales and fins. Catfish on the other hand do not and therefore are not kosher. In Leviticus we read, “Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the streams—such you may eat. But anything in the seas or the streams that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and among all the other living creatures that are in the waters—they are detestable to you and detestable they shall remain.” (Lev. 11:9b-11a)
Yet all these different types of fish are in the net. By the way, the fish do not represent fish. To paraphrase W.C. Fields, sometimes a fish is not just a fish. For the purposes of this story the myriad of fish represents people from all iterations of humanity: Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. The inclusion of all types of fish in that net informs us that the salvation Jesus brings is for all, not just for a few, This message gets powerfully bookended for Peter in the book of Acts (which Luke is also the author of) in the story of Peter’s revelatory vision. Another epiphany. This vision occurs during a great controversy in the early church about who can be a Christian and who can’t; who’s in and who’s out. Peter adhered to the official church policy that in order to become a Christian one needed to convert to Judaism first, as the early church believed it was a sect of Judaism. The two central issues debated were the necessity of male circumcision and following dietary laws; or keeping kosher.
In the Acts story, Peter is invited to the home of a Roman centurion named Cornelius, who is a Gentile. And he goes. Now this is pretty brave as Jews were considered ritually impure if they stayed in the home of Gentile. While there he has a vision of, as the text says, something like a sheet coming down from heaven. “He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.” (Acts 10:11-16)
Okay, think about it. “Something like a sheet” and a net are pretty similar. And both are filled with kosher and non-kosher critters. Like the fish in the net, the critters in the sheet represent humanity in all of its iterations.
Peter’s vision is not primarily about eating non-kosher food, although it does help persuade the early church to give up its insistence that Gentile converts keep the dietary laws.
The message of the sheet – like the message of the breaking fishing nets – is that God’s reign will include all types of people, from every family, language, people, and nation, as one of our BCP prayers states.
That’s an evangelical message that people are ready to hear, although they may be surprised to hear it. For too long they have been, like Peter, believers who thought that a whole lot of prerequisites were required to be a part of the faith community. And that a whole lot of people would never make the cut. And many of those prerequisites were onerous and difficult and ended up driving people away instead of accepting them, embracing them all, just like Jesus did.
Maybe we too have put a bunch of prerequisites up, some of them of our own creation, preventing us from telling people the good news about the Gospel. Maybe we do this because, like Peter, we feel we are sinful people, or like Isaiah when he is called by God to be a prophet, that we are unworthy, “a [person] of unclean lips,” as Isaiah says as he tries to avoid doing what God called him to do. But God abjured from accepting that excuse and instead he cleanses Isaiah of his perceived unworthiness. Then God asks him again: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And [Isaiah] said, "Here am I; send me!"
Peter too eventually got the message . . . better late than never. He stopped seeing himself as a sinful man and heeded God’s call. He learned to embrace all people and worked to include them fully in the life of the church. Will we?
There’s a lot of fish in the ocean. They swim by us all the time. We have a really nice aquarium at Christ Church. Will we go out into the ocean and tell all those wonder fish about us and invite them in? Or will be we content to wait to see if they jump in . . . if they feel like it. Like Isaiah, let our response be, "Here am I; send me!"