I don’t know for sure, but I suspect few here have experienced the disappointment of finding a net empty after an entire night of fishing—for a living. That experience, is pardon the expression, a different kettle of fish from recreational fishing. While we may not share this particular predicament of the disciples, most of us do know what it feels like to put all our effort into something only to have that effort to yield nothing. We might have poured out ourselves into something or someone without much to show for it in the end. As fisherman on a small but relatively densely populated lake with many competitors, the disciples lived with the real possibility of an empty net all the time.
Even in the best of times, fisherman on the Sea of Galilee eeked out a bare bones subsistence from their fragile little open air boats. With survival a daily grind, empty mouths always on their minds, and with no safety social safety net, they would not have come back to shore with empty nets if they thought there was catching anything, even a small haul. Jesus saw the boats on shore and the disciples cleaning their nets. Knowing all was not lost, he asked the disciples to go back out into the deep and cast out the nets one more time. It should be noted that the deep signified the dangerous and chaotic part of the lake. “Jesus, we have been fishing non-stop for 14 hours.” They all KNEW this was a futile attempt, a wild goose chase. Yet, the disciples had seen Jesus do amazing things already, so likely grumbling they set out on the water once again. The net was cast. In the blink of an eye all things would change, because to their surprise the nets were filled with a teaming catch which strained the nets and swamping the boat.
They had experienced God’s abundance with their own eyes and in the resistance meeting their arms as they hauled up a massive catch. It was beyond something they could have imagined in their wildest dreams. On that boat, an extraordinary event occurred through a very ordinary action of the disciples. They knew the waters well and the fish as well--what happened should not have happened in the normal course of events. How did this transpire?
Without Jesus, there would have been no miraculous catch.
At the same time, absent the participation of the disciples, there would have been no miraculous catch. Jesus and the disciples cooperate in netting a huge haul of fish. All this was preceded by an initial powerful draw to Jesus. He has caught their attention—the disciples are in the net of Jesus.
We likely have some reservations around the idea of being caught like fish. Being caught can conjure up images of flapping around without air and suffocating. But early Christians embraced the idea of being fish caught in the net of Jesus.
They did not feel trapped or ensnared by Jesus. They did not envision themselves as flapping around out of water and on borrowed time. Rather, they embraced the idea of Jesus as the fisherman who had raised them up out of the depths of their often dreadful daily existence. Jesus working through the Holy Spirit had drawn them into a new plane where it was possible to live life in anew. They embraced the death of old ways in favor of a new way, modeled after Christ. Christians so closely identified with fish, that images of fish would come to represent the church as a secret symbol during the persecutions. Early Christians clearly understood that a relationship with Christ meant being caught up and transformed.
What are the signs of a being caught up by God? In this passage, incredible abundance and great joy?
But we know that it is also possible for us to miss out because we don’t allow ourselves to be caught by Jesus, so we cannot in turn realize full nets in cooperation with Jesus. This is a joint venture operation folks. God allows us freedom to choose; freedom to be caught up in God’s love or not. How might we position ourselves to be fully in the transformative, peace and joy of Christ? Today’s gospel text gives us some strong clues and a blueprint for being caught upon in the love of God.
First, we need to put the effort in. It would have been easier for the disciples to ignore Jesus and to stay on the shore. But they needed to put the work in. How often in life might we miss out because we cannot muster enough courage and guts to go out on the water again?
Secondly, very often, the Spirit often moves us forward in very challenging circumstances—like venturing out into the deep, chaotic places of life and witnessing them turn into places where abundance happens. Put another way, the present reality is not necessarily the permanent reality—the future can change in unexpected ways guided by the Spirit, in ways beyond all our rational expectations or human hope. God can do such things.
Since March 2020, we have been living in a period where our nets have come up empty at times often because of the challenging conditions of pandemic and related social strife. We have had to cancel, postpone, shrink and give up many things. Many other staples in our lives have been altered, possibly for good. This is true of life in the church and in most all spheres of life. Efforts have often yielded no or little results during this time. There has not been one blanket reaction to this time. But it is common for many to exhibit fatigue, discouragement and at times anger.
Today’s gospel serves to remind us that Jesus calls us to work with him and the Holy Spirit, and to keep on casting the net out. How we act on the invitation is critical. The big catch is not just all laid out for us—the haul of fish was not just delivered to the disciples. But the text can come alive in our own experience and very likely has for us. Or will at some point.
-You might reflect upon a time when you experienced empty nets and the accompanying discouragement?
-You might reflect upon a time or times when God must have intervened to send you back out on the waters to cast a net for one more try?
-Maybe you experienced a time when after prayer and conversation with God, you were led to place where you net was filled—to overflowing?
If you recall such an experience which transformed sheer emptiness into fullness and wholeness, you might be called to share your experiences with others.
Now, this is a reference that will inspire either ”aha’s” or be a complete miss for some. Remember Sy Sperling of the Men’s Hair Club. The brilliance of that iconic ad campaign was that Mr. Sperling benefitted personally from the club, and out of his enthusiasm he spoke clearly to the world about its benefits. He was not embarrassed to speak of his hair loss and gain. He seemed genuinely enthusiastic. We might consider being the Sy Sperlings of faith, not waxing about our voluminous hair growth (although that can be a very good thing), but of voluminous growth in our peace and joy. And not embarrassed to say so.
Once caught up in the life of abundance, we are called to and need to tell people how the Spirit has benefited, made our life fuller, and brought us to the love of God, of which there is no higher love.
George C. Wong
is the Rector