Sunday, February 10, 2019

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 5
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret,[a] the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. 2 He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
5 Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
6 When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

Well, it wasn’t quite Hogwarts, but there were a few similarities.

Studying theology at Queen’s did not include a sorting hat, or houses, or paintings of long dead luminaries that could talk (although, in some cases the eyes seemed to follow you). There was, however, the start-of-class trip to the campus bookstore, in a somewhat creepy basement, run by the Engineering Society, who had a somewhat fearsome reputation. A sort of Daigon Alley, minus the wands and gowns—the gowns, of course, would come later.

First on the list was A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, more commonly known as Brown, Driver & Briggs or BDB, for short. First published in 1906, it is helpful as a doorstop, a paperweight, a way to press flowers, or a teaching resource for future professors of Hebrew. Next, it was The Ancient Near East, Volume 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, and the most I can say for it is it has pictures. Too thin to be a doorstop.

Two Bibles were required, Hebrew and Greek, in this case, gifts from the Bible Society. For generations, the poor person from the Bible Society has looked on as eager seminarians flip through the shiny new books, excitement turning to horror as they realize they need to learn what these squiggles on the page mean. Back to the bookstore, there is one final book that every hatchling minister must get: Throckmorton’s Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels.

It’s quite magical, really. Matthew, Mark, and Luke presented in long columns, page after page of places where these three Gospels line up. So that’s what it is, but what does it do? Well, imagine your favourite parable or story, which sounds familiar as you hear it, but something seems different. A quick look at Throckmorton will show you that your favourite passage may be told three times in three gospels, each telling it a little different than the others.

I now realize that buying Throckmorton’s was just the first step in a long journey through biblical studies, realizing that each Gospel found a different way to express the story of Jesus, sometimes a word here or there, sometimes a very different version of the same story. Those who want the Bible to be free of errors or maintain some sort of internal consistency are going to be disappointed as they study the Bible in depth, and Throckmorton’s helps cushion the blow. You learn immediately that Mark (written first) gives a thumbnail sketch, and the other two say more. You see that they don’t line up perfectly, but the words we treasure are still there.

I share all this because our passage seems familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Jesus teaching from a boat near the shore. An invitation to put out a little from shore and do some fishing. Peter’s objection—he’s tired and a little cranky—and a miraculous catch, so many fish that the nets begin to break. Peter feels the need to repent, though we’re not really told why, and general astonishment is shown at the catch. Finally Jesus says “don’t worry, from now on you will be fishing for people.” They left their nets, and followed him.

Again, familiar and unfamiliar all at once. Getting into a boat to teach takes us to Mark 4, where we actually get to hear the lessons. He shares a few parables: the sower, the lamp and the basket, the parable of the measure, the parable of secret growth, and the parable of the mustard seed. Mark 4 also includes heading out from shore, only to encounter a violent storm, which Jesus promptly stills.

The miraculous catch takes us to John 21, and while not covered by our old friend Throckmorton, it’s still instructive on how these things get told and retold. The outline is the same: Peter’s frustration after a long night on the water, and invitation to try again (using the evocative phrase ‘try fishing from the other side’) and a catch that stains the nets—153 fish in a single catch. Scholars will spend eternity arguing over that number, but I think it just means a lot, more than expected, like God’s grace.

Peter’s repentance takes us to a completely different time and place, in the cold and dark before that fateful day, when the words “get away from me, for I am a sinful man” will be made manifest. The outline of the threefold denial is known to us, but it’s the dialogue that sticks with you:

“You were with that Galilean, Jesus.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”
“I don’t know the man.”
“Surely you’re one of them—your accent gives you away.”
This time he swore, and said “I do not know the man.”
At that moment, the cock crowed, and Peter remembered.

Finally, the invitation to become fishers of men and women is well-known, but in this setting less known. In Luke 5, Jesus gives them an object lesson, an alarmingly large catch of fish, and an invitation to follow him in this new project. Neither Mark nor Matthew give this invitation any context, it’s just ‘come and follow me.’ Luke, however, gives a foretaste, the miracle before the miracle, the astounding catch of people that will someday include you and me.

Why is this important, this free-association that links one passage to another? First of all, reading scripture is an act of imagination. It’s not just words on a page, it’s a living text that includes you. There is the usual code that we follow: whenever we hear ‘the crowd, the people, the disciples’ we have to look for ourselves in the text. Wherever people have fallen short, or overcome their limitations, or displayed the grace that only God can give, we can see ourselves in the text. That’s the first act, finding yourself in the pages of the Bible.

The second part is more difficult, and it stretches our ability to understand the living document before us called scripture. The Bible generates new meaning each time it is read. When you change, your reading will change. When you grow, your reading will change. When you are challenged in some way, through the difficult things life can send, your reading will change. The Bible will present new meaning—seeing things we didn’t see before—and the Bible will generate new meaning, a new way of seeing, a new way to understand the words and their message for our lives.

As Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were standing by and hungering for the Word of God. He stepped into one of the boats and told Peter to put out into the deeper water of meaning, beyond the everyday concerns of the shore—of homes and family, work and worry—and into the depth of God. ‘Let down your nets,’ he told them, ‘explore the deep.’

‘Master,’ Peter said, ‘we’ve plumbed these depths before: dragging our nets through empty words, tales of no consequence, the murky water of worldly wisdom.’ Peter hesitated, but then gave it a try, saying simply “Lord I will, because you say so.” Soon, of course, they are straining at the nets, catching parables and promises, lessons of the Kingdom and words of grace. In their nets they find forgiveness, and mercy, and a vision of the new creation that will feed them for all time.

But grace can be hard to accept, and Peter declares himself unworthy. “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” Sometimes it is obvious that God is doing precisely what Jesus does that day by the shore: ignoring our protests and saying ‘do not be afraid of the person you think you are—become the person I see, the person who will help me, as we fish for people instead.’ So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

You don’t need a degree in theology to read the Bible or find meaning in the text. You don’t need Brown, Driver & Briggs or any other way to press flowers to find meaning in the text. You don’t need the best teachers or preachers to find meaning in the text (but I think we’re nice to have around). What you do need is an open mind, and an open heart, and a willingness to engage the text over time.

And when I say engage, I mean really engage: sit with it, struggle with it, play with it, argue with it, and give yourself to it as much as you can. Free-associate and see where it takes you. Hear a news item, and imagine what passage it suggests: How would Jesus respond? Or Mary, or Martha? Or Paul? Then how would you respond, as a neighbour, or a citizen, or a follower of Jesus? Find someone in need, and respond to them from the pages of the Bible, extending compassion, describing hope, reminding them that they never walk alone.

One of the gifts of congregational life is reading together, in worship, and having a shared experience of God’s Word. Even as the words are read, they are finding a home within us and within this gathered community. We respond together, and give voice to God’s hope for each other and for the people beyond these walls. May God bless us and continue to speak through us, Amen.


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