I am not a fisherman. Or a fisherwoman for that matter. I’ve only gone fishing once in my entire life. My cousins’ family had a summer cottage at Atwood Lake. They all decided to go fishing, but they said I couldn’t go because they didn’t have enough fishing rods for me. So, I took matters into my own hands. I found a long stick. I tied some string to it. I tied a safety pin to the end of the string, and I sat down on the dock, a little ways away from my cousins. I don’t remember what I put on the safety pin for bait, but it must have been a good choice, because I was the only one who caught a fish that day. Sometimes, believing you can do something, even when you don’t know what you’re doing, can lead to great success.
Peter, James, and John knew what they were doing that day on the shore of the Galilee. They were commercial fishermen. Simon at least owned his own boat, so he had to have been fairly successful. But, the night before had been a bust. The three fishermen were there on the shore with their crews, cleaning out their nets, with nary a fish to show for their night’s labor.
Jesus was standing there on the shore, too, with crowds gathered around him, waiting for him to speak God’s word to them. They probably were hoping for another miraculous healing or two as well, since Jesus had already healed a man with a demon and cured Peter’s mother-in-law of her fever. Maybe Peter and the others were hoping the crowd would be too occupied with Jesus to notice their empty nets.
But Jesus sees Simon’s empty boat and decides it would be the perfect place to teach from. He jumped in and asked Peter to move out from the shore a little bit. Peter agreed. After all, what else did he have to do? After Jesus was done teaching, he gave Peter some odd instructions: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Now, as I said, I know nothing about fishing. And, from these instructions, it sounds like Jesus didn’t either. Because, according to author and angler David Roper, in the morning, fish school in the shallows, not in deep water, something Peter would have known. Some people try to explain away the coming miracle by saying that Jesus spotted the signs of fish out beyond the shore, but how likely is it that a carpenter would spot something that a professional fisherman would miss? It could have been beginner’s luck, like I had that day on that dock at Atwood Lake, but I doubt it.
Peter’s answer is full of doubt. “Master, we worked all night and didn’t catch anything. But if you say so…” I wonder what he was thinking as they made their way out from the shore. Was he thinking, “This is nuts. What does Jesus know about fishing that I don’t know? We already tried this and it didn’t work. I don’t even want to think about the razzing I’m going to get from the other fishermen when I get back. What are James and John going to think when they see me taking the boat and crew out again? I’ll have to pay the crew overtime; what’s that going to cost me? I already washed out these nets and now I’ll have to do it again. I’m tired, and all I want to do is have breakfast and get some sleep.”
And yet, Peter and his crew keep going. They get out into the deep water, and lower their nets as Jesus said. And what do they get? Not just “a catch,” as Jesus had so casually mentioned. They have so many fish, the nets are breaking. They start waving and whistling and yelling out to James and John, and they come, and they fill their boat, and both boats are so full they’re starting to capsize from the weight of all those fish. Sometimes, trusting someone else, even when you don’t understand what they’re doing, can bring great success, especially if that someone is Jesus.
Peter was overwhelmed. The nets full of fish opened his eyes to who Jesus is in a way that even the healing of his mother-in-law didn’t. Earlier, Peter had addressed Jesus as “Master”; “Master, we’ve worked all night and caught nothing.” In Luke’s Greek, the word “master” referred simply to a superintendent or overseer. “OK, boss, if you say so.”
But after witnessing the enormity of the catch, Peter drops to his knees before Jesus and calls him “Lord.” In this word, we learn that Peter has given himself to Jesus. He now belongs to Jesus. Just as the abundance of wine provided by Jesus at the wedding in Cana caused the disciples to move from mere following to believing in Jesus, the abundance of moves Peter from being a mere onlooker to being Jesus’ own possession. Peter sees in the abundant catch a sign of God’s goodness and grace, offered through this man Jesus.
In Luke’s telling of this story, Jesus doesn’t tell Peter to follow him. He doesn’t need to. Peter has already decided. Peter has already given himself over to Jesus’ lordship. So, Jesus blesses Peter’s decision with a description of the new work Peter will take on: “From now on, you will be catching people.”
Jesus described the work and mission of all his disciples, including us, at the end of Matthew’s gospel: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” It’s just a little more detailed version of what he told Peter: “As my followers, you will be catching people.”
Even the most skilled anglers may need some instruction from time to time. As we go about our work of “catching” people, we need some instruction, too. We can look to this story for our fishing lessons.
The first lesson is that we need to trust Jesus about where and when to go fishing. Peter was sure that he knew the best time and place for fishing. But Jesus told him to go at a different time and to a different place. We may feel the same way as Peter did when we hear Jesus calling us at a time or to a place or to a group of people that we are pretty sure will prove to be fruitless. Maybe we’ve tried going then or going there or going to them before, and the fish weren’t biting. Maybe it’s a part of the lake that everyone says doesn’t have any fish in it worth catching. Maybe we’re suspicious or even afraid of what may be lurking below. As all our doubts begin to surface, we may do as Peter did: try to explain to Jesus why that’s not our idea of good fishing. It’s then that we need to take a deep breath and say, as Peter did, “OK, boss, if you say so,” and start moving toward that deep water.
The second lesson is about what kind of equipment to use. Ancient fishermen used several kinds of nets: a circular net that a fisherman would cast out into the water from a boat or the shore, a drag net hundreds of feet long that was pulled behind a boat, or the one that Peter was probably using—a “trammel net.”
A trammel looks like one net but is actually a set of three layers of nets that hang down into deep water, one after the other, like a sandwich. The outer two are made out of large mesh. The inner one has smaller mesh. The fish swim through the larger holes of the first net and get stopped by smaller holes in the second. When they try to swim out through the larger holes of the third net, they pull the finer mesh with them and create a pocket that holds them in. Jesus’ words are the clue that Peter was using a trammel net: he tells Peter to let down his nets in deep water.
Trammel nets offer some advantages, whether we’re fishing for fish or catching people. First of all, a trammel net is designed to catch specific kinds of fish. The size of the mesh will determine what kind of fish will be caught. We, too, need to decide what kind of net will work best when we go fishing. We need to think about the needs of the people we want to reach. Are they struggling with simply getting by every day? Are they lonely, or sick, or addicted? Have they been hurt or rejected by the church in the past and are now fearful of being hurt or rejected again? We need to be aware of the needs of the people in our community, and figure out what it is that will draw them to Jesus and hold them firmly in his presence.
Trammel nets require patience. They aren’t thrown out over the water or dragged through it by fishermen moving here and there. The nets are let down into the water and left to stand there, allowing the fish to enter on their own timetable. We can’t force people into our nets. We can’t make people believe. But we can be a dependable presence they can count on to be in place when they are ready to know Jesus. We can remain steady in our love of Jesus and in our confidence in him, and they’ll know where to find us.
Trammel nets are the safest ones for the fish. This is an important thing to consider in our day and age. So many people have left the church because they have been hurt in some way. They’ve been told they are unacceptable, unlovable, unsavable. They’ve been silenced when they dared to ask questions or express doubts about Scripture and doctrine. They’ve been abused by someone who claimed to be a Christian—even by those who have been given the high privilege of being ministers of the gospel. How do we offer those whose spirits have been damaged by poor fishing practices in the past a way back into the Church of Jesus Christ? We need to choose equipment that won’t hurt the ones that Jesus sends to us.
From our fish story today, we also learn that success can come with a price. We work and pray for abundant catches like Peter’s. But success also changes the equilibrium of the boat. The fish that flowed in began to tear Peter’s nets and nearly sank his boat. So many churches want new people to join them, but they don’t want anything in the boat to change. If we truly want to be successful fishermen and women, we need to be prepared to change the way we do things—to find a new balance as we take on all those fish that Jesus blesses us with.
The last thing we can learn from this story is found in the Greek word Luke uses when he describes what Jesus said to Peter, as Peter knelt in front of his Lord. It’s a different word than the one Mark and Matthew chose. According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus told Peter he would be a fisher of people. They chose a word that literally means “fisherman.” But Luke chooses a different word—one that means “to catch, to take alive.” It is a more nuanced word that suggests an embrace—the kind of catch that happens when we reach out to someone who’s falling. Just as the trammel net catches the fish by enfolding them, we are to enfold others in our embrace—to love them and show them what it feels like to be held by the God of love through Jesus the Son.
I read some reports about commercial fishing in the U.S., and they said that commercial fishermen are leaving the business in large numbers. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which the U.S. is part of, found that our fishing fleet decreased by more than 25% between 2005 and 2012. The work is hard and dangerous, and the return is small. The changing climate is having its effects.
Fishing for people is hard, too. Fortunately for us, it’s not dangerous, in the way it is dangerous for our brothers and sisters in many other places in the world. But it can be risky in terms of how it affects our relationships and our comfort zones. And, the social climate is changing. Many of you have mentioned how you grew up in families like mine where going to church was just “what you did.” But that’s not the case anymore. In fact, it hasn’t been the case for a couple of generations now.
That just means that the potential catch is that much greater. And the need of those who have not yet swum into a relationship with Jesus is that much greater. A little later in Luke, Jesus speaks of a plentiful harvest waiting for the few laborers. We have the privilege of being sent out to gather those whom Jesus died to save by embracing them within a net made of the love Jesus wants them to know.
So, let’s be ready to let down our nets when and where Jesus tells us to. Let’s let down our nets, drawing on the fishing lessons of Scripture and trusting Jesus to guide us when we feel like we don’t know what we’re doing, or understand what he’s doing. Let’s let down our nets, expecting a miraculous catch—a sign of the abundant goodness of our gracious God, poured out to us through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young