How many of you, at any point in life, have found yourselves coming up empty? Empty maybe with respect to energy or motivation, or empty because of sadness, or even depression or anxiety, or another mental illness? Or empty because your body, including your capacity to think, simply doesn’t work as it used to? Or maybe you’ve come up empty after a major change: a loss, someone close to you getting sick, kids moving out, retirement, people moving away, a friendship that goes awry, and of course the isolation of COVID.
Imagine that in that moment you were staring into your most profound experience of emptiness, someone came along and showed you the world and your life in it, in its current brokenness, and the world and you, fully reconciled to our maker and redeemer. You see beneath this Gospel story of the fishermen’s empty fishing nets that come to overflow when Jesus arrives, is the much more profound story of Jesus extending life and a way of life, to human beings who are dead; literally empty of the life that occurs solely in relationship with God.
The empty nets in the story represent both the sin of Adam and Eve and the consequences of sin that have left us experiencing emptiness so often in a very broken world. The catch of fish overflowing the fishermen’s nets represents the multitude of ways Jesus continually draws us up out of ignorance, temptation, despair, doubt, complacency, arrogance, fear, and envy; and it represents the fact that his grace does not run out. It isn’t a scarce commodity that needs to be stored for oneself or hoarded or sold or used to threaten. It is free and free flowing to those who wish to seek it. And so too then those who receive it are asked to enable this abundance to be poured out for others: “I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says, to indicate the kind of mission to share his grace with others he desires of us.
One of the greatest challenges we face here in the West I think, is that we forget, or want to ignore a fundamental part of God’s revelation to us: we neither deserve, nor are we capable of restoring our relationship with God. We do not deserve it because we freely chose to cast off that relationship through Adam and Eve, and we inherited their choice of turning from God and its plethora of tangled, complicated, consequences. Even following the letter of the law God gave to them, as the Pharisees and Sadducees did, could not reconcile Israel to God. Jesus points out multiple times how their interpretations and so words and actions fall short of God’s intention for living together on earth. This applies to us too.
In a vision of himself God gives to Isaiah, Isaiah responds, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” At God’s presence, it is as if Isaiah suddenly sees the world as it currently is, and the world as it ought to be; he sees the insurmountable gap between them and recognizes he belongs to the broken world. In humility with that recognition he cries out in confession, “I am a sinner in a world of sin.”
We hear this very same recognition by Simon Peter, the empty nets have been filled, we know this is about more than fishing nets because he falls down at Jesus’s knees as would a Jew with God and cries out, “Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man.” This of course recalls Moses having to turn his back to God for to see him face to face would mean Moses, a sinner, born into a humanity that turned away from God’s love, would perish in the presence of the perfection of love. Get away from me Lord for I am a sinner and I do not wish to perish; take this cup of your presence away from me.
Yet Peter does not perish in God’s presence. For God has come to him as a man, like him in every way, except that Peter is not God. And for that reason alone – that Jesus came into the world fully human – Peter realizes that he will not perish but now has life when Jesus says,“Do not be afraid Peter,” with me you have life, so stand up, face the challenges ahead of you, knowing that the things of this world are temporary – suffering and joy, wealth and poverty, sickness and health – life in me is eternal and it is perfect. Strive for this and you will be able to bear all those times you come up empty in this life. And you’re going to come up empty. You’re going to have doubt about me and turn away at the cockcrow. You’re going to have fear. You’re going to lose hope in going out on mission. Ultimately, you’re going to be taken where you do not wish to go. Jesus said this to indicate that Peter would die for his faith.
But do not be afraid when your nets come up empty and you struggle with fear or doubt, or wonder what your purpose and meaning is, or when you think, but I can’t do this like Jeremiah and Moses, or when people treat you poorly or ignore you when you talk about me. Remember that it is I who have given you life; I fill up your nets, I will give you the words to speak, I will make your actions means for others to see me, Jesus says. Do not worry about what you will say, or wear, or eat. Just go out into the world and live your faith with humility and love so that others can see me in you. I will make you fish for people so that they might be drawn into the net of my kingdom. I will make you holy if you let me.
The point being pressed here by Jesus is twofold. First, if we’re going to allow Jesus to transform us into fishers, we need to approach him and others with humility, not self denigration; simply realizing that all of us have empty nets, for all are sinners. Second, reminding ourselves of this isn’t because it’s good or beneficial to beat up on ourselves; quite the opposite.
It is simply to realize, as you might when you’re forgiven by someone you love deeply when you really screwed up with them, how marvelous is that reconciliation; it truly is new life, and not one you deserved or one you could make happen. Remembering this opens you up to new relationship, to deepening your trust and love, and so experience of God. It’s this reality of life, and life eternal, that fuels hope, and hope fuels you to be able to love yourself and others through good and bad times. If God is with you in this way, who or what could possibly stand in the way of sharing this love, of fishing that is, with and for others? AMEN