Three sides of the one coin 

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 6.1-8

Psalm 138

1 Corinthians 15.1-11

Luke 5.1-11

Sunday 6 February, 2022

Three sides of the one coin                                             ©Suzanne Grimmett

Do you ever wonder what kind of story you are living? If we are to talk about our lives as inhabiting the Christian story, what kind of narrative is it?

Based on the readings we have been given today, we could compare the way of telling and living the story to a three act play. We could trace a story of divine calling, then a move of repentance/ forgiveness and finally the taking up of mission. It seems to be there in all our readings today; in the vision of God and response of Isaiah, underpinning Paul’s witness and in the story from Luke’s Gospel of the abundant catch.

In the text from Isaiah we hear that the prophet encountered a vision of the immensity and wonder of God. The prophet is awestruck and aware of the great distance between himself and the one who is unutterably holy. He suddenly knows himself to be a man of unclean lips who lives among a people of unclean lips.

Something very similar happens to Peter when he is directed by Jesus to put the boats out into the deep water. I think we should notice for a start the depths where he is directed. This move is going to take him beyond the shallow awareness of his everyday life to an encounter with the depth of the presence of God- something akin perhaps to the immensity Isaiah experiences.

With the evidence of his fishing nets straining at the enormous catch, you can picture Peter turning to Jesus with that same awareness of himself as a sinner who suddenly sees himself as he is, by the searing light of holiness. I wonder about our feelings if, at any moment, we suddenly realise ourselves to be literally in the same boat as God.

The response of repentance is so immediate when God is encountered throughout stories of scripture. I wonder how this equates with your own experience of the holy? One thing that is a great privilege in ministry roles is hearing the tender, vulnerable stories of people’s encounters with God, and to often hear just how similar our experiences are. As we look at these two scriptural stories we can discern a revolution of grace that seems to be not a two step process but a single movement that simultaneously encompasses presence … awe…repentance… forgiveness. When I listen to people who speak of a moment of holy encounter they so often describe great gentleness and peace, of feeling seen as they are, accepted as they are and held in belonging and connection with all others and creation.

So perhaps our three act play is really a two act play. The forgiveness of God is always there before we arrive at repentance and it is the very grace of an encounter that leads our heart to humility and wonder. None of these movements can be separated from another.

And so what do we make then of the final move? The move to action and mission? In the reading from Isaiah the prophet is set free to hear the voice of the Lord ask, “Who shall go for us?” and then to respond, “Here I am, send me!” We might hear that in the sense of our contemporary church mission and our own personal call to discipleship, but it would be unwise to presume that same sense in the Hebrew prophetic tradition. Rather, the prophet is sent out to proclaim over and again a difficult message of judgement, speaking for the Lord in ways that were confronting and frequently stirred great hostility.

But what about the move to mission we read in the Gospel? In words of comfort and understanding Jesus tells Peter to not be afraid and promises, “from now on you will be catching people”. This is something you may have grown up with, as I did, as an expression of the mission of the church in conversion.

I know my Methodist Sunday School had me singing “I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men…if you follow me.” I always believed this is the moment when Peter and James and John became instant evangelists, setting out upon their mission of saving souls, and we were called to do the same thing.

I wonder how you really feel about this metaphor? There is an uncomfortable sense of “hooking people in” or “trapping them in our nets” and coercive violence in this language which sits uncomfortably with the liberating Jesus.

Fishing can be a rewarding interest and the individual throwing out of a line is far more ethical and sustainable than the mass trawling of our seas which are emptying our oceans of species and robbing us of a future food source. I personally lost interest in fishing when I was on the water around the Whitsundays and hooked a large reef fish. I watched as this beautiful creature flopped on the deck of the boat and was drained of its vibrant colours before it died. I felt so sad that I never returned to fishing. It is hard to separate this metaphor of “fishing for people” from hooking or trapping for the purposes of killing and eating. With those overtones, the image becomes a bit problematic.

Perhaps some answers can be found in a better translation. “Catching people” misses that the Greek text is saying something more like “saving people alive for the kingdom.” As Peter Eaton notes, “to take men and women alive is a very different image from simply catching them as though they were food to be consumed…the kingdom requires not dead fish, but human beings fully alive—not creatures writhing in the last gasps before death, but people living the life of the good news in all its fullness.”[1]

But this is not all that is going on here. Jesus was a good Jew who knew the Hebrew scriptures and it pays to give attention to how such metaphors have been used before. In Jeremiah 16:16 there is the use of the fishing metaphor as a judgement of Israel. Elsewhere the ‘hooking of fish’ is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Amos 4:2) and powerful (Ezekiel 29:4).

 Ched Myers argues that Jesus is not encouraging missionary work that people may accept him as their personal saviour, but is drawing on this prophetic meaning of ‘catching fish’ to invite common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.[2] This interpretation is astonishing when first considered, but in the context of the scriptures Jesus knew and honoured, makes far better sense and harmonises with his other teachings. The idea of joining with Jesus in this struggle for justice flows naturally from encountering the holy- if this God is here and if this God’s word is truth, then I need to release attachments to other ways of being in the world and follow. Just like Peter and James and John who left everything, this moment is a total reorientation around the way of Jesus.

It is also an interpretation that will challenge the idea of the Christian story staged in two or three acts from conversion to action. There is a revolution of grace present in any encounter with God.  Forgiveness and repentance are part of the same move where one is never present without the other. But neither can this be separated from the gentle teasing out of our other attachments as our lives are joined with this Jesus who is imagining and ushering in a kingdom of justice and peace. We are called to ‘save people alive for the kingdom’ because our ways of ordering the world through power, privilege and with violence will kill us, trapping us as surely as those fish gasping for air and writhing on the deck of the boat.

This Christian drama maybe then, only has one act. It is an act which is initiated only and ever by God, who comes to save not because we are particularly deserving but because we are beloved. It is an act that surprises us when we are drawn out into the deep awareness of our own lives and the nearness and holiness of God’s presence. This may be something that like St Paul, we experience dramatically once, or as a slow growing awareness. However, and how often it occurs, our repentance and God’s forgiveness are two sides of the one coin, because God has already and is always moving toward us in grace which stirs us to repentance.

But perhaps with the usual impossible paradox of Christianity, we are dealing with three sides to the one coin. Not only are repentance and forgiveness caught up together, so too is the move that joins us with the life of Jesus. It is this joining rather than any will of our own which causes us to cry, “Here I am, send me!” and enables us to release all that does not further the dream of the peaceable kingdom. This is what it means to be united to Christ. God hedges us around on all sides- behind us, within us and before us. We are called, graced, and sent in a story that is not linear, but encircled by love.

+Amen


[1] Peter Eaton in David L. Bartlett; Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.”

[2] Myers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (p. 132). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

Leave a comment