Take it up and read: Luke 5:1-11
Scholars believe that the work we refer to as the Gospel of Mark should be regarded as the earliest canonical gospel. Dominant theories in the field maintain that Mark provides the narrative template for Matthew and Luke. The material shared by these gospels is known as the triple tradition. There would not be much to study if the triple tradition was simply a verbatim transcription from one source to another; luckily—or perhaps unluckily, if you are someone who does not like contradictions between the gospels—each of the evangelists shape the stories in their own ways. Sometimes the changes are subtle: a minor rearranging of words or a synonym inserted here or there. But in other places, like today’s passage, the changes tell us a lot about how, from the very beginning, we Christians have understood the same stories in vastly different ways.
To make sure we’re all on the same page about what scholars are saying, let me be more specific. The theory of Markan Priority argues that a written copy of the Gospel of Mark was utilized by the author or authors of both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. It is important to remember that none of the Evangelists were writing so that their texts would be included with others; none of them wrote with the dreams of one day being canonized; we don’t know who wrote any of the gospels, as the names are assigned later. That can cause confusion. For example, the Gospel of John is not written by John of Patmos, who is credited with penning Revelation. But names help us differentiate more easily than saying, “you know, that one with the thing in the place with that guy.” The work we call the Gospel of Mark was clearly popular and circulated between communities. At separate times and in separate places, the author or authors of the Matthew and Luke narratives had access to the Gospel of Mark. And they both used it, extensively, for the framework of their own gospels.
So, when we refer to the triple tradition we are talking about material shared by each of the evangelists. As I remarked above, how the material is presented says a great deal about not only the author or authors, but also the communities that gathered around the texts. We should never forget that these stories survived only because they made a difference to people. Because they make a difference to people. In people. Part of what is so wondrous about studying Scripture is that when we read closely and carefully, we see an ancient, yet ongoing conversation about who God is through Christ. Who Christ is through God. Who we are through both.
Mark and Matthew render the fishing for people story basically the same way. Jesus, fresh from baptism, temptation, and an incident in a synagogue, is walking along the shoreline. He sees two sets of brothers, one pair is mending their nets: Simon whom he will name Peter, and Andrew; the other set, the sons of Zebedee, John and James, are working in a boat with their father. Both Mark and Matthew describe Jesus as calling Simon and Andrew first, with the enigmatic promise of having them become fishers of people, before continuing to gather John and James, who violate the fifth commandment and leave their father high and dry in the boat. There are some subtle language differences between the Mark and Matt, but they are infinitesimal compared to the large changes wrought by Luke.
Luke takes Jesus away from a tranquil seaside stroll and instead places him amidst a crowd so large that he is backed into a boat; this is how he meets Simon, which almost seems like something out of a buddy comedy. A vaunted celebrity jumping into an unknown car and saying “Hit it!” to the unknown driver, who will soon become our hero’s BFF.
With Jesus on board, Peter pushes off from shore and gives Jesus some breathing room to teach. With the lesson completed, Jesus asks Simon to make way for deeper water and instructs him to cast out his nets. Simon responds that all night he has been casting, but only emptiness has been caught.
Let’s pause here and acknowledge the wonderful story that Luke has created around the call of Simon Peter; but let’s also note what has been lost. No Andrew. Just Simon alone with Jesus in the boat. Also, in both Mark and Matthew there is the detail that Simon and Andrew are mending their nets; upon being called, they drop their nets. I have preached before about how the Christian life concerns knowing when to mend the nets that help us catch our blessings, when to drop the nets that ensnare us in ugliness and anger, and how both are necessary to pick up the crosses that we bear in our communal walk with Christ. Luke largely removes this imagery. Gone as well is the detail about John and James leaving their father in the boat, which may have been done because it is an embarrassing element, this notion that God would ask us to leave our parents in the lurch; but we should take notice of these changes because it will help us to see what Luke is wanting us to see.
What is a simple, yet powerful call story in Mark and Matthew quickly becomes a miracle story in Luke, a sort of flash-forward (prolepsis) to the miracles of the loaves and fishes. Instead of mending nets, Simon and his partners are dealing with nets that burst from God’s abundance and blessings. Two boats eventually are weighed down with the heaviness of bounty, to such an extent that one boat begins to sink. To this, Simon responds by dropping to Jesus’ feet and saying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Luke tells us that Simon responds out of amazement, and is joined by his partners, John and James, named for the first time, and also by an untold number of others present. Jesus then delivers the punch, the ultimate, the coup de grace: “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Once they reach shore, the three named men abandon everything and follow Jesus, an ending much like that in Mark and Matthew.
What are we to make of this refigured narrative? Jesus displays God’s goodness through this plentiful catch, but soon it becomes overwhelming. It strikes fear into Simon’s heart; the boat itself is sinking, and Simon’s response is to cast away Jesus because of his own sin. We can see the theology here: sometimes we don’t know what to do when things are going exceptionally and unexpectedly well, do we? You ever felt that way? Like, this is too good to be true? I’m just waiting for it to go bad. Simon’s version of that sentiment is, get out of here, my sin is too much to receive these kinds of blessings.
Jesus’ response is fascinating. He does not negate the existence of Simon’s sin. He provides words of assurance but not the ones we might expect; don’t be afraid, he says, because I’ll have you fishing for people. And I imagine that many of us have heard this phrase dozens if not hundreds of times, this fishing for people. But have you ever thought about it from the fish’s perspective? Being pulled out of the water and suddenly finding it hard to breath? Being packed in with hundreds of other fish, all slithering and flopping in vain attempts to wrest themselves from the nets? The slow death that comes when lungs not meant for air run out of water. This death occurs for the fish so that life can continue for those who consume the fish. The death gives way to life. The great circle.
Such is the nature of the Christian walk. At least it has been for me. A continued dying, sometimes submitted to willingly and sometimes experienced as a fight to the finish. It seems clear that Simon, James, and John are Jesus’ first catches. Simon will soon die to his old name, and become Peter. James and John die to their family business, leaving it all behind to follow Jesus. They do this so that they can continue the process with others. No longer just fish, they are now fishermen, too. Such is true with us all; sometimes we are caught, sometimes we are catching.
In the country, we can see that there are those who feel like dying fish fighting for the end, and there are those who are cheering for the perceived abundance. Those who celebrated Friday, and those who marched on Saturday. The sad truth is that it will not be possible for any one church to serve all people. Not completely. This is a conversation that congregations must have; we are called to radical hospitality, but we must understand that there come responsibilities with inviting marginalized communities into worship. To congregations who made explicit dedications to safe, nurturing space for LGBTQ+ persons: We cannot ignore the deep homophobia and racism that exist in our country. It is a challenge that we face as Christians and as members of a religious community to responsibly weigh what it means to be welcoming while never forgetting those whom Jesus tells us to prioritize. Those whom we have told it is safe to come here. We cannot just think that sitting next to one another in the pews is going to be okay with and for everyone; I don’t know many people who want to sit next to a person who questions their right to exist or even their status as a human being.
And I understand that people will not want to sit in pews if they feel judged from the pulpit or by those around them. But yesterday’s marches throughout the world show that there is great fear. While it is dangerous to make assumptions about a person based on a particular political vote, we cannot ignore the fact that the VP of the United States has advocated for so-called conversion therapy for gay teens. This is widely and truthfully recognized as nothing short of self-hating torture. As a pastor, I cannot ignore that; I cannot say to frightened members of the GLBTQ+ community, “Oh, well. It is just a difference of opinion.” Hearing this may make us uncomfortable, but it is a conversation we need to have with one another. There are lots of churches making it clear that GLBTQ+ persons are not welcome. For those who have said otherwise, that is a covenant that cannot be qualified. While we certainly should always be looking for ways to bridge the chasm, it cannot come at the expense of those whom we have offered safe sanctuary. If this seems hyperbolic, I will gently say you are not paying attention to the very real fears of the community.
Like Mark, Matthew, and Luke see the call story differently, we in our own religious community will see things differently as well. We should seek to point out the differences and discuss them, trying to understand why we make the choices we do and to extend the same respect to others. But it is equally important to understand that when you go fishing for people, you have a responsibility to usher them through their death as fish and their rebirth as fishers. And not every fish can go in every boat; it is a mistake to think that they do. One church cannot be all things to all people. Neither can one pastor.
Let us continued to be caught so that we may catch; let us remember that no sin is so great that we cannot be put to work by God. Let us commit to hearing one another but let us not try to stand for everything, lest we stand for nothing. But let us never mistake following the gospel as being intolerant or inhospitable. Amen.