Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Sunday 10 February
1 Corinthians 15.1-11
Forget fear and give in to adventure © Sue Wilton
“Once….” begins today’s Gospel reading. It is a word that does function rather like the fairy tale “Once upon a time…” beginning, meaning that this is not a chronological story but is revealing a theological truth. The miraculous catch of fish only appears elsewhere in the Gospel of John, and on that occasion comes after the resurrection of Jesus. Yet I think this story, particularly in the life of St Peter, reveals a narrative of deep conversion and rich insights about the pathway to transformation. Peter will have many changes ahead of him, but the passionate adventure of his life is shaped utterly by a moment of shock recognition- he has experienced a moment of seeing who Jesus is and seeing with equal and devastating clarity, who he himself is.
Think, for a moment of who you are right now. Think of that whole complex of experiences, stories and relationships that have resulted in you being exactly as you are, and think too of the reasons you are here, sitting in these pews and joining the chorus of voices in liturgy and song. We have all rich and varied stories, full of joy and disappointments, shining hopes and secret heartaches that we often don’t share but which nevertheless shape our lives. If we imagine who we will be in five years’ time, or ten years’ time, that vision too will be informed by all we are now yet will have an expectation of change. If you think about this moment right now as a departure point for the future adventure of your life, you will likely be looking ahead with every sense that things will be in some way different and hopefully better.
Often that idea of change we have is caught up in our beliefs about progress. The start of the year may have seen us embark on a self improvement project, and our projection forward to years ahead may have us imagining all kinds of ways we will be a better person or in a better situation. Progress, if we are honest, often doesn’t mean doing better in an absolute sense, but is more about progress in a relative sense- are we doing better than the next person?
Economic growth and prosperity are often part of the human vision of progress. After all, having money is not for its own sake, but how it can help us acquire and engage with things that matter to us. We all know that while money does not buy happiness, stupid poverty – the sort of poverty where there is never enough to buy food or pay the bills
certainly begets misery. But just because we have more money does not mean necessarily that our well-being has improved, or that we are wiser or more fulfilled. Growth, when understood as progress towards success or financial gain, can be a goal that leads us away from, rather than towards, life in its fullness.
If the models that pervade our culture can do little to help us to the kind of growth that creates real and lasting transformation, where do we look? I think symbols from the natural world may be of more help here. All around us, from our gardens to our oceans, are examples of growth coming not from successful accumulation and invulnerability, but of new strength coming through weakness, of plants that die so that the seed may fall to the ground and germinate, of the smallest and tiniest beginnings multiplying and dividing into an abundant and complex web of life. Death and surrender, not individual achievement and prosperity, are the pathway to life.
So when we listen to this story of these exhausted, fed-up and fish-less fishermen instructed to head out into the deep water and the resulting catch which breaks the nets and nearly sinks the boats, we have to look at what it is teaching us about where such abundant life can be found. I think the answer can be found both in the vision of Isaiah and in Peter’s moment of shock recognition. In our first reading today, where we find the revelation of God in glory, surrounded by the seraphs crying “Holy, holy, holy”, the prophet describes not exhilaration but a moment of calamity;
“Woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
To have come face to face with the Divine is to live through the excruciating moment when the light of God shines upon you and reveals you as the person you truly are. It can cause you to fall on your knees in a sinking boat, surrounded by helpless flopping fish, and cry “Go away from me, Lord- I am a sinful man…a sinful woman.” It is a moment of searing, desperate honesty and vulnerability. It is a moment of pain and loss, recognising all one is and all one is not but would like to be. But it is also, thanks be to God, the moment of grace.
At that very moment when we feel all is lost, when we are faced with the horror of our own darkness, it is then that the light of God searches us out, names us as a precious beloved member in the family of all things, and send us out into the adventure of our own precious life- graced, blessed, given for others. This is the paschal mystery of death and resurrection, and it has been discovered by others observing the human condition. One such is Joseph Campbell, mythologist and chronicler of what he called “The Hero’s Journey”- an archetypal pathway that echoes this cruciform pattern to life and freedom. His poem, “The Hero Path” captures the essence of the way;
We have not even to risk the adventure alone
for the heroes of all time have gone before us.
The labyrinth is thoroughly known …
we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.
And where we had thought to find an abomination
we shall find a God.
And where we had thought to slay another
we shall slay ourselves.
Where we had thought to travel outwards
we shall come to the centre of our own existence.
And where we had thought to be alone
we shall be with all the world.
There is a necessary dying- to self, to our need for control, to everything to which we have attached our identity. It is a stepping out on an unmarked path. Peter, when he senses this new path, is filled with awe and fear, but Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid.” From now on, life will be different. From now on, Peter, you will be part of transforming the world. It is one of many moments of revelation and conversion for Peter as he responds to Jesus’ radical call on his life.
When we sense that same call to adventure we have the choice to keep playing around the shallows, catching enough fish to get by on, or can respond to the invitation to put out into the deep water. It can be dangerous and we will encounter suffering as we seek to live lives of love and authenticity. But there is another kind of suffering that comes from keeping our lives small, never risking vulnerability and conforming comfortably with dominant culture. This is a description of so many who secretly are leading lives of “quiet desperation.”1 In an attempt to create safe structures for our lives, we constrain ourselves until those safe walls almost burst from the swelling potential of all that which we are refusing to live.
So hear the call of Jesus. Put out to the deeps and do not be afraid. There is a holy invitation on your life that beckons you to a life lived fully, one that provides sustenance and joy, and one that will turn the page to a new way of being. Yet this adventure is not for you alone. As you allow yourself to fall in love with the mercy of God and be swept up and possessed by the One who is love, your life becomes the gift to the world it was always intended to be. And that, perhaps, is the greatest adventure of all.
1 A phrase coined by Henry David Thoreau in his book, Walden.