Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He 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.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “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.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.
But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who are partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
What must Peter, James, and John must have thought when Jesus called to them on the beach that day? Not only were they asked for become followers of Jesus, but they were also told they were about to become, “catchers of people,” “fishers of men,” in the KJV. We are familiar enough with this text to not think too much of it. However, the word that Jesus uses – ζωγρῶν – is the same word to describe taking a prisoner of war or kidnapping someone. It is to take hold of someone while they are still alive, to hold them captive. It’s an uncomfortable way to talk about ministry, it sounds violent. We must not for a second though, think that Jesus was talking about taking prisoners in the name of the faith.
From the earliest years of the church though, the “kidnapping” of people that Jesus’ describes was understood as being directly connected to the fish that the disciples were catching moments before. We see this in sermons and in commentaries going back as far as John Chrysostom and Jerome. These bishops and priests were certain that God, in calling us on the shoreside, was asking us to put ourselves out like a fisherman in their boat.
What does it mean to be a “catcher of people”? For the Christian, it means preaching primarily. While we can go out and we can work among people to do good for them, good works divorced from good preaching are only that – good works. They are not baptized with the Spirit in the same way that they could be, not that it is wrong to do a good thing in itself, but that denying someone the Word of God while practicing the Work of God is ultimately a deprivation of the Will of God.
Specifically, I believe those who preach in any official capacity in the Church are to be doubly concerned about how they preach. We can very quickly descend into a Christianity that asks for people to sit down and shut up, or one that asks they speak out and act so that they never pause to listen to that still small voice. The Christian witness is unique in all the world, and we must be uniquely balanced in our administration of this gift. Balancing the contemplative and the practical, the intellectual and affectionate.
Luckily, Jesus provides for us in this lakeside call an example of how we can preach in good conscious to the people of God. We see Jesus walking out after doing his own preaching and finding his future disciples busily cleaning their nets. Now, for the purposes of our discussion on “catching people,” I’m stealing directly from Jerome in suggesting that our preaching is the “net” by which we capture those who will be called disciples. Because of this, if we wish to catch people for the sake of Christ, we must clean up our preaching.
I do not mean that we need to remove whatever makes people uncomfortable or sterilize the word of God so as to make it inoffensive. No, the word of God is sharp as a doubled edged sword, separating marrow from bone. It is offensive to all people, it strikes out against all our most human suppositions about ourselves and what God wills for us. No, I instead suggest that we are to clean our preaching of all impurities that we bring to it, all things we do to pollute God’s good word.
How can we pollute the word of God? By bringing our own assumptions and our own bigotries to the text. When we make God someone who never disagrees with us as preachers then we deny our prophetic witness to ourselves as stewards of power and deny our congregation the correcting convictions that will set them free. If I have something that grieves my heart, but does not grieve the heart of God, and I say that God hates it as much as I do – I am a liar. If I endorse cruelty or support the oppression of others in God’s name, I render the Gospel inert.
If we are to preach the word of God, we must purify ourselves before we step into the water. We cannot catch good fish if our nets are not cleaned thoroughly.
Likewise, we must mend our net. We must make sure we are coherent, consistent. If we do not have the full witness of scripture at our disposal, for example, then our testimony has gaping holes in it. A minister who does not know the scripture and the fullness of how it connects to itself will, like a net with holes in it, miss the vital connections that allow someone to be caught up into the Grace of God.
Once our nets are clean and ready for use though, where out we to fish? If we follow our own inclination we will go where we think the best fish are. For use preachers this may mean that we begin to preach to the hifalutin and proper people in society. Those with the connections, the power, the “moral high ground.” This is ministry to the crème de la crème will not be sufficient though. While all people need and can respond to the grace of God, and our prophetic witness is against the powerful in this world – we are not called to minister to the powerful alone. Jesus spent his time with the poor, with the people of bad reputation – those who are not sick are in no need of physician.
This does not mean that rich or the well put together do not need the Grace of God – on the contrary, their wealth and privilege often atrophies their heart and renders them resistant to God’s will, “Woe to you who are rich! Woe to you who are full! Woe to you who are spoken well of!” says Christ in pronouncing his woes against the “Respectable” people of his day. What it does mean at that coming to someone who is deeply ill, but does not see the symptoms of their illness, can oftentimes prevent a physician from doing their work. How do you heal someone who thinks they are perfectly well? They won’t take medicine, and they definitely won’t change their lifestyle for a disease they don’t even know they have.
So, after fishing where they though best for so long, Jesus tells the disciples what they should properly do. Fish against the current, fish so that you are in danger of capsizing. Yes, the way that Jesus recommends the disciples fish put them in danger – at best their nets would be washed away, at worst their boats would flip over and drown them. Still, they went out and cast their nets as God requested, and so too ought we to leave where we feel comfortable and preach the word of God in places that we fear to be in, among people we would not properly esteem.
What causes the fish to enter the net of the fisherman though? The hidden knowledge of Jesus about the patterns of sardines in the Sea of Galilee, of course not! It is a miracle that so many fish suddenly appear in a lake that, to this point, was producing nothing but frustrated fishermen. Jesus, not the skill of the fisherman or the strength of their nets, fills their boats with fish. So many that they have to call other boats in to help unload the catch.
This reminds me of the revival meetings in American history. Hundreds coming and being converted to the faith in the wilderness of America. People that so-called respectable society had long ago abandoned were now being brought into the fold of the faith. In the camp meeting race, gender, color, and personal history were for a time erased in the fits of religious ecstasy shared between the attendees. So numerous were the converts at these meetings that the churches in the area would meet to establish who was best suited to take care of the converts spiritual growth, boats coming to divide the catch if you will.
Lest we become absorbed in this metaphor and forget the humanity of those we are preaching too. The pericope ends, not with the fish being brought in – but with Simon declaring the Lordship of Jesus. This is what all this fishing metaphor amounts to – we who preach are given the unique opportunity to bring people into a place where they can see Christ as Lord and join the fold of the faith. We are not bringing in masses for the sake of numbers, but by casting our net wide we are bringing people into the community of faith and into a personal relationship with their creator.
Praise be to God who blesses ministers with the words which can light fires in the souls of those who hear them. It is not for the sake of numbers on reports, not as a result of our own skill in the craft, but from beginning to end as an expression of God’s love that we proclaim the work of God, the resurrection of Christ, and the comfort of the Spirit to the world. We are called to catch people, to seize them alive! We are not collecting people as prisoners though, we are instead freeing them to full participation in God’s love, God’s kingdom, God’s work. Glory be to God – Amen.