This Sunday's readings: 3rd Sunday before Lent

01 February 2007

by John Pridmore

Isaiah 6.1-8 (9-end);

1 Corinthians 15.1-11;

Luke 5.1-11

THE NIGHT’S fishing has been a failure. They’ve caught nothing. But, at Jesus’s bidding, they lower their nets once more. This time, the catch is so great that their nets are about to break.

William Barclay tells us that what must have happened was that Jesus located the shoals the fishermen had missed. Like most such explanations of the miraculous, the natural account of what happened tests one’s credulity as much as the supernatural one. It’s as hard to believe that Jesus the carpenter was a better fisherman than Peter as it is to believe that he created fish that weren’t there before.

The question where exactly the fish came from is not only unanswerable: it is wholly unnecessary. Luke himself, for all his concern for the historical, would surely have been baffled and exasperated that we should ask it. For Luke, it is the response of Peter that is crucial. Peter perceives in what has happened truth about Jesus and truth about himself. That is what the Gospel miracles — or, for that matter, any other Christian ones — are for.

We read that they were all “amazed” at the catch of fish. More is implied here than astonishment at a display of extraordinary and inexplicable power. Astonishment of that kind is our reaction to magic. Fr Roger is a magician who lives down the road from me here in Brighton. Forty years ago at Ridley Hall, he astonished us all by his capacity to extract eggs from our ears. We were astounded by what he did, but we didn’t drop everything to follow him.

There is all the difference in all the worlds between magic and miracle. For the disciples, it was not a case of the magical blowing their minds, but of the miraculous touching their hearts. The word Luke uses to express their amazement suggests a sense of wonder as well. “Who is this”, they wonder, “that even the fish obey him?”

Peter sees in the one who does such things the beauty of holiness. That is what was different about the work and the words of Jesus. What distinguished his miracles from those peddled by the hedge-exorcists and peripatetic wonder-workers of his day (not all of them charlatans) was their moral significance. For Luke, as for Mark and Matthew, miracles are signs that God’s righteous reign has come near in Jesus. John will tell these stories, including one much like this one (John 21.4-8), because they reveal the glory, the overpowering goodness, of who Jesus is.

Peter takes the point of what he has seen. For him, the miracle is a theophany, a glimpse of God, and he is overcome by a sense of his own unworthiness. Jesus’s remedy for Peter’s lack of self-esteem (or, if we’re talking old-time religion, his “conviction of sin”) is to give him something to do — to fish for people instead of fishing for fish.

By setting the story of the call of Isaiah as our first reading, our lectionary editors suggest that we read the Gospel in its light. Both Isaiah and Peter “see the Lord”; both feel deeply guilty; both are entrusted with a great commission. But the differences between the two stories are as striking and as important as their similarities.

The most significant difference between the two theophanies is the absence from Luke’s story of altar, live coals, and tongs — all the paraphernalia of absolution. Isaiah has to be thoroughly shriven by all manner of religious mummery before he can do God’s work.

Jesus can’t be doing with any of that. He doesn’t keep Peter on his knees, stewing in his sins. Jesus doesn’t contradict Peter’s damning verdict on himself, but neither does he go off and leave him, as Peter asks him to. Jesus requires of Peter no ritual of repentance; nor does he impose any penance on him. (Old chestnut time: was Peter ever baptised?) Instead, Jesus simply tells him what he must do. God knows the worst about me, but employs me just the same. It is the surest of pardons.

A footnote for weary clergy: Peter is despairing. “We have toiled all the night and have taken nothing.” We know the feeling. God called me to care for people, but my headache these days is the church roof. My vocation is ministry; my job is management. He called me to serve his Kingdom; and I’ve ended up on synod.

 “We’ve caught nothing.” But then there follows — at least in the Authorised Version — one tremendous word: “Nevertheless”. (The Revised English Bible has the ludicrous “If you say so . . .”) “Nevertheless, at thy word I will let down the nets.”

All of faith is in that “nevertheless”. It’s not the last time we hear that “nevertheless” in Luke’s Gospel. From Gennesaret we look to Gethsemane, and to him who said: “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22.42).

1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:

Isaiah 6.1-8 (9-end);
‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’

6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ 9And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
10Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’
11Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said:
‘Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
12until the LORD sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.

1 Corinthians 15.1-11;
1I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain.

3For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

1 Corinthians 15.1-11
1I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain.

Luke 5.1-11
1While Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signalled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.



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