Sermon: Putting Out Into the Deep (Sunday, February 6th, 2022)
“What does this rabbi even know about fishing?”
This question must have gone through Simon Peter’s head during the events of today’s Gospel. When we hear this miracle story – the incredible catch of fish, the nets that are in danger of tearing, so much fish that the boats are in danger of sinking – it’s easy to get caught up in what an incredible thing is happening, and we can lose sight of just how counter-intuitive and surprising Christ’s command to Peter really is.
First, we hear that “the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets.” This was not an easy process. A fisherman’s net had multiple layers and accumulated lots of gunk from the lake. Someone who had just spent an hour cleaning his nets would not want to get them dirty again for no real purpose.
Christ’s directive to Simon Peter and the other fishermen to put out into the deep doesn’t really make sense. The ideal place for fishing – at least for the kind of fish that populated the Sea of Galilee, and the kind of fish they could catch with the tools available to them – isn’t in deep water, but in shallow water close to shore, where the fish have more vegetation to feed on. And the best time to fish is at night, when the fish are more active, not during the day, when boats crossing the lake would chase the fish away.
And yet, Simon Peter and the other fishermen obey Jesus’s directive to put out into the deep. The fool’s errand turns into not only an incredible catch of fish, but a revelation that this itinerant rabbi is not just a compelling speaker, but someone who commands the very forces of nature, who wields a power that could only come from God.
This is what leads Simon Peter to fall down in prostration before Jesus, calling him not “Rabbi” or “Teacher” but “Lord.” Imagine the scene that is playing out here: They’re in the middle of the lake, the nets are tearing, the boats are about to sink. Peter ought to up and controlling the situation, bailing out the boats or helping at the oars to bring them back to shore as soon as possible. But these human concerns – even his safety and his very life – pale in comparison to the need to fall down and worship the Lord who has just revealed Himself through the miraculous catch. In the midst of the chaos and confusion and joy, Peter’s overriding concern is the need to profess his unworthiness at being in the presence of Someone so great and mighty.
Peter’s state of being overwhelmed in the presence of God in the person of Jesus Christ finds an echo in the humble confession of the apostle Paul, and also in the vision of the prophet Isaiah, who upon seeing “the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne” cries out “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips.”
Isaiah’s vision drives home for us that fact that we too are in the presence of the Lord of Lords who has the power to command the seas and skies. Isaiah hears the angels cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!”, which words we echo every time we sing the Sanctus at Holy Mass. In this and in several other places during Holy Mass, Holy Mother Church adopts the words of the angels in the heavenly liturgy described in the Scriptures for our own worship, because the same God who inspired Isaiah with holy awe, the same God who called Paul to be an Apostle even as has was persecuting Christ’s Church, the same God who revealed Himself to Peter in the person of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee through the miraculous catch – this same God is present in our midst here at Holy Mass, principally in two important ways:
Isaiah’s particular cause for humility is that he is “a man of unclean lips.” (I’d venture to say that not of few of us would have to make the same confession.) In response, one of the angels takes an ember from the fire before the altar where the incense is being burned in God’s honor and touches it to the prophet’s lips, saying, “See, now that this has touched your lips,
your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.”
This moment is recalled at every Holy Mass whenever the priest or deacon recites the traditional prayer of preparation for the proclamation of the Gospel: “Cleanse my heart and my lips, O almighty God, who didst cleanse the lips of the prophet Isaiah with a burning coal, and vouchsafe, through Thy gracious mercy, so to purify me, that I may worthily announce Thy holy Gospel.” Isaiah’s lips, and the lips of the priest or deacon, must be cleansed by the fire of the burning coal because the first way that the Lord is present at Holy Mass is in the proclamation of the scriptures. And while all the Scriptures speak of Christ (yes, even the Old Testament!) it is the proclamation of the Gospel that particularly makes the Lord present during the Liturgy of the Word.
This becomes practical for our own lives not just in the respect and attention we give to the proclamation of the Scriptures during Holy Mass, but when we realize that the same Word of God proclaimed at Holy Mass is proposed to us for our study and meditation each and every day. “Ignorance of the Scriptures,” St. Jerome taught, “is ignorance of Christ.” The Scriptures ought to have a place of honor in our lives – frequently being taken down from the bookshelf and read and pondered, because to do so makes Christ present in our homes.
There are also times in our lives when the Word of God challenges and unsettles us. There are times when Christ’s teachings contained in the Scriptures are a purifying fire that burn as they cleanse.
In the angel taking the coal from the altar and touching the prophet’s lips to purify them of their uncleanness, we see a beautiful image of the most important way that the same tremendous Lord whose presence provoked fear in the prophet and the Apostles makes Himself present at Holy Mass – what happens hidden under mysterious signs when the priest takes not a burning coal but the Sacred Host from the altar and lays it upon the tongue of the communicant. The Eucharist is also a consuming and purifying fire. Christ’s heart burns for love of us – burns with desire to forgive our sins and purify us with His flesh and blood – and it is the burning heart of Christ that is present under the appearance of the Host. His heart burns with love and mercy, and the reception of the Holy Eucharist purges our venial or lesser sins just as the burning coal from the altar made Isaiah worthy of the divine presence.
For Isaiah, Paul, and Peter, this encounter with Christ does not just leave them with good feelings. It propels them towards a mission: “Then [Isaiah] heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’ ‘Here I am,’ I said; ‘send me!’” Or, as Christ says to Simon Peter: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”
Likewise, Christ comes to encounter you today and to send you out on a mission. Like Peter and the other fishermen, it is easy for us to be comfortable with our own lives. We think that we are the experts. But the Apostles did not let their expertise at their own lives get in the way of following a counter-intuitive command from the Lord – take those just-cleaned nets and put out into the deep for a catch.
If you think of what putting out into the deep might mean for you, especially as regards Christ’s invitation to become fishers of men, you might think of a street evangelist, or a missionary to a foreign land. But the “deep” into which Christ invites us as we share the Apostles’ mission to evangelize is more likely into the deep of familiar territory. Before sending the Apostles out to the far corners of the world, Christ works with them intensely for three years in very familiar territory in and around that lake on which they previously made their living.
Putting out into the deep means being able to take a risk. To speak of Christ to a friend, a family member, even someone you know from church, is likely an even bigger risk than talking to a stranger. So often we have an unspoken agreement – it’s okay, even good, to go to church, so long as you don’t become one of those crazy people who actually are excited about coming to know and experience Christ on a deeper level, as long as you aren’t one of those crazy people who actually let all of this change your daily pattern of life. Breaking that compromise, that barrier of silence, is a far greater “deep” than the shallow water of superficial conversations and the small talk that dominates most of our lives.
Today, my brothers and sisters, this encounter with Christ and the invitation to follow Him on a mission is yours as well. Christ comes to you in the mystery and holiness of the Sacred Liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in which He desires to purify you through the burning fire of the flesh torn from His Sacred Heart and offered to you in Holy Communion. Filled with the fire of that love brought to our lips from His holy altar, we are moved to the profound adoration of Peter and the zeal that moved Paul to toil harder than all others for the sake of the Gospel. When we hear those familiar words at the end of Mass today – “Go forth, the Mass is ended!” – we should hear in our hearts an echo of the words of Christ – “from now on, you will be catching men.” And when we respond, “Thanks be to God!” let your heart affirm like Isaiah, “Here I am, send me!”
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
V Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXII