Sermon | Epiphany V | Luke 5:1-11 | “An Astonishing Catch of Fish”

A sermon given February 6, 2022 at New Creation (Anglican) in Hagerstown, MD. A parish of the community of Hagerstown, MD and a mission of the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic.

If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you most definitely seen the Christian fish symbol. Probably on a car or on a t-shirt. I hear they’re even making ones now that come with a cloaking device – for those times when you’re driving too fast. Totally kidding.

What you might not know, though, is that that symbol, although it’s become incredibly cliché in our time, was so deeply meaningful to the first Christians. And it’s meaning comes from this passage. The fish symbol derives its meaning from the Greek word for fish (ἰχθύς). That in turn became a Greek acrostic for the core of the Christian faith: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. It became a way of identifying one another as those who had been caught up in the great and miraculous net of salvation. In Christ, fish show up even where they shouldn’t be found. In the wrong conditions and even in the dark depths where no catch is thought possible.

This passage is a great example of what we talked about last week. The miracle itself is amazing enough, but it catapults us forward. It’s about real fish…but it’s not about so much more than fish. It points beyond itself. Jesus supplies the miraculous catch of fish, but the fisherman leave the fish to become fishers of men! This is all about mission, and the means Jesus gives to accomplish that mission. Arthur Just says, “[This passage] is about ‘catching men alive’ – through the ministry of the means of grace. This is what establishes the church.” (Arthur Just, Luke 1:1-9:50, pg. 207)

The Setting & Jesus’ authority (vs. 1-3)

Let’s first notice the setting of this miracle, though. Jesus leaves the synagogues and begins to teach and preach in the midst of the crowd. In the midst of their workday. Their ordinary lives. Jesus goes out to them, showing us that Jesus’ power and authority extend to every sphere of life. He has the audacity to high jack Peter’s boat (Peter is, after all, in his debt – Jesus healed his mother-in-law). Then, he asks for Peter’s help as he sits to teach, not now in the seat of Moses in the synagogue, but from a briny, smelly commercial fishing boat.

Friends, the Gospel has power, not only in these walls, not only when we are gathered on Sunday to receive God’s promises, but everywhere and in every place. In every vocation and in every calling. What would it mean for you take the Faith with you in greater measure into, say, school? Into your job? At the dinner table? Everywhere.

Sometimes, this passage has been used to say that we ought all to be like the Apostles, leaving their nets behind. But that’s not true. Some of us are called to leave our nets and follow Jesus. Many others are called to pick up their nets in service to Christ. Jesus is Lord there, too. Jesus desires to be known and worshipped there, too.

The Boat & the Fish: Christ’s Work in the Midst of the World (vs. 3-7)

This boat on the sea of Galilee, with Jesus in it, becomes an image of Christ and the reign of his kingdom in the midst of the world.

It was Peter himself who would later go on to compare the church to the ark (a boat) into which people are brought, through baptism and faith, into salvation (1 Peter 1:20-22). That is why we call the place where we gather the nave. Nave is Latin for ship or boat. And look at verse 7: one boat is not enough for this miraculous catch! So many fish have been caught in the nets that one boat can’t contain them! As the fish multiply, so do the boats. Theologian Arthur Just sees a deep encouragement here to the first Christians:

There is a ‘pattern of mission’ suggested by this movement from one boat where Christ and Peter are to boats of other apostles (carrying out the same work). In the early church, Christians gathered in house churches. When a house church (fifty to a hundred people) reached full capacity and was overflowing, a group of the baptized split off from that church and formed another house church in another house (another boat). The foundation of this house church would be those who had been hearers of the Word and had been brought across the boundary between paganism and Christianity through the net of preaching, catechesis, and Baptism. These were always eucharistic communities of the baptized, who would then go out fishing for those who were lost in the deep and needed to be brought over that same boundary in that same net.” (Arthur Just, Luke 1:1-9:50, pg. 209)

And let’s see: this miracle began on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, but it has never stopped. Church, I will never tire of reminding you that we have 2000 years of concrete experience to affirm that Jesus never stop doing this work until he returns. The boats and the fish will continue to multiply. Men may stamp on word, persecute believers, make preaching illegal, and take away buildings, but all it will do is spread the Gospel. It’s Jesus’ work, church. We take solace in that here and abroad – in Hagerstown, in Chambersburg, and Frederick. Christ is multiplying his kingdom in the midst of the world! And, a church doesn’t have to be huge to be effective!

Each one of you are the multiplied fish, caught up in Christ’s net. Just as these showed up where they shouldn’t be, so Christ brought life to you, out of the empty depth of your sin. When fisherman catch fish, of course, the fish die. But when Jesus catches fish, they live. In verse 10, when Jesus tells Peter that he will be catching men from now on, the compound word literally means that they will be “caught alive.” In Jesus, and through the miracle of forgiveness, dead people come alive.

The Calling of Peter (vs. 5, 9-11)

I want to think about closing by zeroing in on what is Jesus is doing with Peter in this passage. This is Peter’s calling from Jesus, though James and John are caught in Christ’s net, too. For Jesus is a better fisherman than the fisherman!

When Jesus comes to Peter, Peter is exhausted. He’s been out all night with nothing to show for it. He and his partners are businessmen. This is sometimes lost in our appreciation of the Apostles. As the bumper sticker says, they’re rural, not stupid. They knew their craft. They probably did business in Greek as well as Aramaic, maybe even Latin. So, when the teacher/healer Jesus shows up making demands, telling them try it his way, they’re probably not in a great mood.

In his excellent book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, theologian Ken Bailey paraphrases Peter’s response like this: “Listen Teacher! My boys and I are professionals. We know where the fish feed – its along the shore, and the best time to catch them is at night. That’s why we were out on the lake all last night. … We have just worked the fishing areas and caught nothing. We are now dead tired, and I have stayed awake a few more hours – to serve you. You rabbis think you know everything and now you order me to fish during the day in the deep waters. Very well! Let’s go out and we’ll see who knows what about fishing!” (Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, pg. 141)

But in return, Peter receives a haul so big his nets begin to break and his boats sink. Peter and his companions are just trying to make a living, but in Christ, they meet someone who is lowly and yet superabundant in his provision. Jesus is radically undaunted by Peter’s pressing need to make ends meet and care for his family. He gives greater grace and excessive supply. Again from Bailey, “Peter faces a man who wins the ‘fishing lottery’ but doesn’t want it. Stunned, Peter realizes the inadequacy of his own values and priorities.” (Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, pg. 146) So often, we operate out of a mindset of scarcity, but that day, even as they were caught in Christ’s net to their unique role, Jesus taught the Apostles that where God calls, he provides. Jesus does in a moment what Peter and his companions can do in many day of back breaking work. How long do you think that haul provided for Peter’s family? Three months? Six months? The answer is, long enough.

In response, Peter makes his first confession of Christ. In verse 5, Peter calls Jesus “master” or “chief.” By verse 8, Jesus is Lord. Peter is undone. On some level, Peter knows that he is in the presence, not just of a good teacher, but the Holy One of God. His response echoes the response Isaiah, who in the purity of the presence of God said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5) Peter knows enough of himself and enough about Jesus to know that he doesn’t belong with him. But then, that same surprising word of Jesus that caused the fish to leap into the nets comes to Peter himself: “Don’t be afraid.” It’s pure gospel.

In verse eight, Peter is called “Simon Peter.” That’s the name Jesus gave him. This is the sinful man who, by the grace of Jesus, became the mighty spokesperson for the apostles, and a truly great fisher of men. In the miraculous catch, Christ is ultimately the one doing the catching, catching the Apostles and establishing the foundation for his church upon his grace and mercy shown to sinners.

For all this and more, we give all the glory, all the honor, and all the praise to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.