Fifth Sunday of the Year. Fr Richard Finn preaches on the response of faith to God’s call.
It’s unfashionable to say so, but God often makes us afraid! Just look at today’s readings. Isaiah’s vision of God leads the prophet to cry out that he is ‘lost’. In the Gospel, when Simon sees Jesus command the riches of the sea, when the fishermen fill the boats with their catch until they start to sink, Simon cries out in fear for Jesus to leave, so aware is Simon of his own sinfulness. We might then wonder how far a largely unacknowledged fear of God, of God’s holiness, hides within the hearts of many who prefer to keep God, and all things religious, at a safe distance. We might also wonder if such a fear doesn’t hide within our own hearts. Can the very goodness of God disconcert us, as it lights up those parts of our mortal lives we prefer to remain out of sight or remembrance?
Yet in these readings fear does not have the last word. God’s words and actions bring about a profound change, turning these people into God’s servants or apostles. The seraph takes a burning coal from the altar to sear the future prophet’s lips. The coal symbolizes God’s power to burn away evil, but also His divine life that can animate us, as the fire glows within the coal. The seraph speaks God’s powerful word of forgiveness. As St Paul elsewhere told Christians at Rome, those whom God calls he also justifies. So, when Isaiah hears the Lord Himself say, ‘whom shall I send?’ (in the Greek of the Septuagint: τίνα ἀποστείλω), he now has the courage, the resolve to answer ‘send me’ (ἀπόστειλόν με). On the sea of Galilee, Jesus responds to Simon’s outburst by telling him plainly not to be afraid; tells Simon that he will now be catching men. The terse dramatic exchange turns this fisherman and his companions into faithful disciples. There’s no explicit proclamation of divine forgiveness, but that forgiveness is surely implied. Discipleship should be understood as faith in action, and faith as the acceptance of prior forgiveness.
Or perhaps we should say that the Gospel sees the gift of faith less as a simple or single event, more as the outcome of a longer process. When the Gospel opens, the fishermen are already cleaning the nets – the night’s work over with nothing to show for it. Tired, no doubt disappointed, why start again, perhaps catch nothing, only to mend the nets a second time? Why listen to this visiting preacher? That Simon does listen might already indicate the gift of faith. And we are shown the virtue of his faith. Against the odds, by trusting in Jesus, the fishermen haul in that huge shoal. Christ’s word holds good, is trustworthy. For He is the Divine Wisdom, God’s all-creative word which brings into being that of which it speaks. His word has authority for he is our author. And this word promises abundance. What God wants to give each of us isn’t something miserly, small or mean. Cardinal Newman once asked the rhetorical question: ‘What is more elevating and transporting than the generosity of heart which risks everything on God’s word?’ From this perspective, Simon’s fearfulness, and our own awareness of sin, are themselves part of a graced journey of transformation within a deepening life of faith. They prepare us to experience God’s forgiveness with thanksgiving, a joyful recognition of graces given and received. Better to be afraid, to be discomforted, even repeatedly, than to lose these gifts.
We should also reflect further on what it means for Jesus to say that Peter (and by extension, his co-workers) will now be catching men. It might sound at first like a joke that depends simply on changing the object of their fishing expeditions. After all, that’s pretty much how it goes in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, where Jesus tells his would-be disciples he will make them ‘fishers of men’. But Luke presents Jesus as using a different word altogether, a word that means to ‘capture alive’. The fish, once caught, are dead; not so those people won to a new life in Christ. There are all sorts of ways you might gain a following in this life – by brute force, money, lies, or propaganda. We can see all that from the newspapers! What Jesus points towards is something far rarer: the power of holiness. It is holiness that wins hearts without trapping them. It doesn’t kill what it catches. It dissolves fear through love to replace it with a courageous faith in God. And that is the fishing we too are called to practise.
Image: detail from ‘Fishers of Men’ by Fr Ted