Caught by God

8th February 2022

Revd Jemima reflects on the call to become ‘fishers of people’

Like many others, I can be guilty of overly romanticising anything to do with the sea. I adore sea swimming and I find the entire seaside industry absolutely captivating. Last summer we went on holiday to the fishing village of Beer in Devon and I adored having fresh fish every day for dinner. We also decided that the boys were ready for a day trip mackerel fishing, joining a real fisherman on board his boat as it putted around the Jurassic coast. I waited on the shoreline as they arrived back many hours later; in my romantic vision I was welcoming my menfolk as they brought home a fresh catch for dinner. But do you know how many mackerel they caught? None, zero, not a single fish.

And that’s because fishing is actually not very romantic at all, but a very hard trade, beginning work at ungodly hours, even working through the night as the disciples have clearly done in our story, and battling inclement and often dangerous weather conditions.

In biblical times it was even harder. We know that getting a decent catch was by no means guaranteed. Archaeological evidence from the time shows that salting was a huge industry on the banks of the sea of Galilee and people would have mostly relied on stores of salted fish between fleeting catches. When that ran out, the staple was the salty fish-flavoured liquid left over from the salting process, known as tzir, eaten with a bit of bread dipped in it.

Fishing nets were expensive and they were a fisherman’s most important asset. Their livelihood depended on the meticulous activity we find the disciples engaged in our bible passage – at the end of every day, nets would need a thorough clean, removing corrosives and gunk, mending, and drying, ready to be used again the next day. It is no small thing that a fisher like Simon Peter, after doing this kind of finishing work, would let a non-fisher like Jesus direct him back into the depths to try again.

But Peter has already encountered Jesus, he knows him to be a respected rabbi and has known of his miraculous deeds, so Peter’s response is compliant and respectful – he calls him Master, a common word used for a person in authority, and Peter does what he is told, with the words: ‘because you have told me to, I will do it.’

But look how Peter’s address changes when the huge haul of fish is pulled in. No longer simply ‘Master’, Peter now calls Jesus ‘Lord’, and falling to his knees he exclaims, ‘Go away from me, Lord, because I am a sinful man.’ Something about Simon Peter seeing and understanding the meaning of this great catch leads him to see his own sinfulness with astonishing clarity.  But let’s look more closely at the word here: the word we translate as ‘sinful’ is hamartolos in the Greek, which means something more like ‘missing the mark’. Rather than sin being a list of specific moral failures, sin here is more like the distance we are from God’s holiness, it’s a state of being, a chasm we cannot cross. And sometimes the response to the reality of God’s goodness is to widen that distance, to run away, to feel guilt, and become even more entrenched in our sin. It’s a very common human experience – to double down on bad choices, to flee from our vocation as children of God.

But what is Jesus’ response to Peter’s attempt to widen that distance? He says, ‘Do not be afraid.’ He reassures him. And we’ve heard this exact phrase ‘do not be afraid’ before in Luke’s gospel – it’s there repeatedly in the Christmas narrative as the angels, God’s messengers, appear in glory to Mary and the shepherds. It is the word of assurance given to humans when they realise they are in the presence of divine holiness.

Jesus’ words here, do not be afraid, reveal God’s desire for a relationship with humankind that is not mandated or fear-based, but rather one that desires willing and free relationships with ‘friends’, something that is an unbelievable possibility for most people. It’s a relationship that begins out on the rough seas of life, in the nitty gritty, fishy, normal places of our lives, where he meets us with outstretched arms.  This offer seems too much, hence we run from it. We avoid this ultimate expression of intimacy that is too powerful and demands that we receive things we feel we don’t deserve: identity, dignity, and courage to accept our own unique calling.

And then comes the greater challenge found in the next line. Jesus’ assertion: ‘from now on you will be catching people’ — traditionally translated in church history as ‘you will be fishers of men’. But again it’s useful to look at the word in the Greek here which is ‘zogreo’, formed from zoos, which means ‘alive’, and agreo, which means ‘catch’. So the meaning of Jesus’ words is more like this: from now on you will be catching alive things.

The disciples, then, are being called to the new task of gathering men and women into the kingdom, and we see that being caught in the net of God’s love is less like being a fish, out of its habitat and gasping for air as it dies, and more like being seen, full in the face, and being known for the eternal souls that we are, and furnished with the dignity, identity and courage to see ourselves as made in God’s image. The order of the kingdom is this: once we have discovered who we are, we must be willing to give it away to another, to become fishers drawing forth the life of others.

The gospel is too often presented as a formula for what you need to do to be saved, counting and then repenting of individual sins, in order to then spend your Christian life fishing for other individual souls to rescue out of the ocean of lost sinners. This passage in Luke is often used as a call for this kind of score counting evangelism. But God’s offer and promise is much bigger than that, much more inspiring and more freeing. In the recognition of our distance from God, the sense that we are so far wide of the mark of God’s holiness that shuffling and counting individual sins in ourselves or others just won’t cut it, we can then open our hearts to the radical intervention of Christ who casts his net wide and sweeps us into his love.

It’s a love that shows us who we are and calls us to stand up in it, not cower away in fear, inhabiting the fullness of who he has created us to be in him. Out of this place of fullness we also then recognise the aliveness of others, their potential as children of God, and we in turn scoop them up in a work that is the overflow of who we are becoming. It’s a picture of abundance and blessing, of the Kingdom bubbling up out of our lives, not a lonely fisherman casting off in the hope that something will take the bait. Do you see the difference?

How then should we live? Precisely not as fish, caught on a line or in a net in the throes of death, but like the multitude of free men and women at the banquet spoken about in Isaiah. We live out of a surplus of grace, showing to others the same abundant measure we have been shown, which is our true evangelism. We are not a people dipping stale bread in fish paste, but inviting others in for the feast. But we must first take our place at the table.


Father God, thank you for your generous invitation to share the glory of your kingdom in friendship with us. This morning, where we are holding back, where we are not taking our place at the feast, where we are widening the distance between us, would you draw us closer again. Would you fill up any deficit we feel as you pour your grace into our hearts, that it would flow out to others as we share the good news of your gospel. Catch us up Lord in your vision, and send us out for the glory of your name, Amen.