Bigger Fish to Fry

A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells

Readings for this service: Luke 5: 1-11

I want you to imagine that you’re having a bad day. Not the kind of bad day where you lose your keys, leave your phone on the bus, forget to post the red-letter bill payment and spill coffee all over your clothes the moment you get to work. I mean the kind of bad day when the frailty of existence all crowds in on you. Maybe right now you’re at a stage in life where you have a lot of bad days, and you can’t get out from under them. Or perhaps you’re keeping tremendously busy and not having a moment to yourself precisely because you fear that, left alone, the dark mist will descend.

I’m going to suggest four things we think about on bad days, when our isolation and fear and anxiety surround us and life seems very very tender. It’s not an exhaustive list, but I suspect you’ll recognise it. We think, ‘I am small. I am weak. I don’t have enough, enough to be confident it won’t run out. And it’ll all be over soon.’ Those are more or less the four fears that crowd in on us on our dark days.

  • I am small: I don’t make much difference in the world, I’m a failure, no one would notice if I was gone.
  • I am weak: I’m powerless to change the world – I can’t even make the changes I need to in my own life. I don’t seem to have the skills and talents other people have. My body won’t do what I want it to and I always seem to be out of luck.
  • I don’t have enough: if things really turn against me, I don’t have enough strength, resources, or fall-back options to make it.
  • And it’ll all be over soon. I won’t live that long, I can’t bear to think about all of that, but maybe I’ll feel my life has been pointless and all the things I’ve got so obsessed or cross or passionate about will have turned to dust.

I’m not intending to depress you. I’m simply putting you in touch with a state of mind that for some people is an occasional glance into the abyss and for others is a regular state of affairs. I recall having a period of a couple of weeks some years ago where I had terrible headaches and couldn’t sleep night after night and for that period I was in this dark place almost the whole time. It was very bleak.

The reason I’m describing this wilderness feeling is because it’s the perfect state of mind in which to read the first 11 verse of Luke chapter 5. One thing you’ve always got to remember reading the gospels is that salvation and health are the same word in Greek. The beginning of Luke 5 is an account of salvation but it might just as well be a description of health. Since early days theologians have seen the references to the boat as indicating the church and mentions of the fish as suggesting the number of converts made by the first apostles. But today I want to focus on the personal aspects of this story and the way it maps onto the deepest anxieties we have about ourselves and our lives. I believe this story takes us the closest we can get to answers to our four most searching doubts about life and existence. So let’s take the story in four stages.

Here’s stage one. Jesus is standing by the Sea of Galilee. And then he sits in a boat, and starts to teach. Many of you know me well enough by now to recognise that I’m practically useless standing up. I can’t concentrate, I can’t hold a conversation, I can’t enter into someone’s world standing up. All I can think about is ‘When do I get to sit down?’ When I’m asked to speak at an event, one of the first questions I ask is, ‘Will the audience be sitting down?’ If not I say I won’t do it, because I don’t believe they’ll really be listening. When you say to someone, ‘Let’s sit down,’ you’re changing the whole nature of the conversation – you’re saying, ‘This is going to take a while, I’m giving all my attention to you, let’s speak seriously.’ In this story Jesus sits down with us and says all those things to us: it’s as if the whole of his ministry is contained in this moment. He didn’t come among us to stand and look round the room for better options: he sat down with us. And because Jesus is sitting with us, we’re invited into a whole bigger world. He’s talking about eternity, not just now. He’s talking about forever, not just today. He’s talking about everywhere, not just here. He’s talking about everyone, not just us. Go back to the dark fear we started with: ‘I am small.’ You may feel small sitting down with Jesus, but he’s putting you in an immeasurably bigger world, in which all of a sudden every single gesture, word and breath matters. He doesn’t make you huge – he makes every tiny thing in you important. And so you’re no longer small, because you’ve entered an enormously greater and more significant world. Sitting down with Jesus is like walking through a secret door into a walled garden – except a garden whose walls stretch forever. Jesus sits down and says, ‘Come with me into an incalculably bigger world.’

Here’s stage two. Jesus says to Peter, ‘Go on then, show us that bigger world: put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Everyone knows the expression ‘setting up to fail.’ It was first coined in 1969. It describes workplace bullying. The boss never stops interfering, or withholds a vital piece of information, or undermines the task. Jesus’ words to Peter look like a classic case of giving a person an impossible project and then watching them experience humiliating disaster. Sigmund Freud thought the whole of religion was like this – God giving us impossible tasks and then reducing us to grovelling penitents when we fail to perform them. Recall the second anxiety with which we began: I am weak. Here we come to one of the most profound mysteries of the Christian faith, a mystery perfectly expressed by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: he says in verse 10, ‘I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.’ This is the mystery of grace. We think we are doing something, but when it is inspired by the Lord, it is not I but the Holy Spirit that is doing it through us. We all crave independence and hate the idea we’re being influenced by some external force, but the best feeling in the whole world is to realise you can’t do something but you’re doing it anyway in the strength of the Holy Spirit. It’s like Dumbo losing the feather yet suddenly being able to fly. It’s the moment when you’re with a person in great pain, or watching a person being attacked, and you have no idea what to say but the words just come. ‘I don’t know what came over me’ can be a lame confession of guilt; but it can also be a glorious carnival of inspiration. Peter pauses and takes Jesus’ instruction on trust – and lo and behold, what happens next is not Peter, but the grace of God that is with him. We say to ourselves, ‘I am weak.’ Jesus says to us, ‘Not in your strength – but let the grace of the Holy Spirit work through you. That’s a power that has no limit, a force that never runs out.’ Remember Isaiah – ‘those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.’

Here’s stage three. Peter sees the colossal quantity of fish – so much that it’s too much for the nets, too much for his one boat, and when the second boat comes alongside, almost too much for both boats together. Remember Oscar Wilde: ‘There’s only one thing worse than not getting what you want, and that’s getting it.’ Peter’s fear is our fear: there won’t be enough. Things will go wrong, the weather will change, people close to me will die or go away: I won’t have enough money, strength, ability, support. It’ll all unravel. I’ll be alone, with nothing. But it turns out Peter has a very different kind of problem. It’s not that he hasn’t got enough: he’s got way too much. He’s overwhelmed. But he’s not just overwhelmed by fish: he’s overwhelmed because he’s realised his imagination is way too small. Jesus has called him to live in a bigger world, and has breathed through his actions so the Holy Spirit is at work in him. Now he’s beginning to see the results, and nothing will ever be the same again. It’s too much for him, and he falls to his knees and says, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy. I’m just a fisherman, and I’m no saint. Just leave me alone. I’m out of my league here.’ This is the defining crisis of Peter’s life: will he let Jesus take him into a bigger world and let the Holy Spirit equip him with everything he needs? One thing’s for certain – he’ll never again be able to say, ‘I don’t have enough.’

But Jesus doesn’t take no for an answer. Here’s stage four. Before Peter has even digested the full implications of this monumental catch of fish, Jesus is at him one more time, saying, ‘Look here, sunshine, this is just a practice. From now on, it’s not going to be fish, it’s going to be people. You ain’t seen nothing yet. You’ve just put your toe in the water.’ Recognise the economic implications of Jesus’ words. Peter’s just landed an enormous catch – enough to raise a fortune, buy a bigger boat, retire from fishing and employ staff to do all the hard work, while he watches satellite TV back in the office and goes to Capernaum Chamber of Commerce dinners. But Peter never sees the money. Before Peter’s even sold his catch, Jesus summons him. ‘Peter, you’re going to have bigger fish to fry.’ Jesus makes Peter’s choice for him. Jesus has induced Peter to do an unbelievable thing – to find a massive catch where shortly before there’d been no fish at all. Now Peter realises he’s going to spend the rest of his life with Jesus doing unbelievable things. One day he’ll look back and think, ‘This was just the audition – the play was a whole other thing.’

Don’t think you’re the only one who goes into a quiet, dark place, for moments or weeks, and thinks, ‘I’m small. I’m weak. I haven’t got enough. I’ll be gone soon.’ Open your ears and your eyes and your heart to what Jesus says to Peter, and what Jesus says to you. Jesus comes to you, sits down with you, and gently says, ‘Come with me into a bigger world. Let the Holy Spirit work through you. God will give you far more than you will ever need. This is just the beginning.’

See how God transcends your fears. Listen to Christ saying these words to you this very moment. Hear the Holy Spirit whisper these words to the whole of St Martin-in-the-Fields right here and right now. And get ready: because Christ is here, and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, you are going to do unbelievable things.