Here, Fishy Fishy
Updated: Apr 11, 2019
When I was little, maybe seven, my dad took me fishing at Lake Powel, a nearby reservoir. We would go catfish fishing, which meant that we would go in the middle of the night when the catfish were active, doing whatever catfish do. One time we went and didn’t catch anything all night, it was late, Sierra had long gotten tired and bored of her task of crayfish fishing, so she was sleeping in the van. Dad had started packing up our stuff but I wasn’t ready to go yet.
I loved fishing—being outside, hearing all the noises that night brings, quality time with dad. I didn’t mind the sitting and waiting for hours, I have always been good at doing nothing. So I begged dad to let me cast out one more time. He obliged, I cast out the line while dad hiked up the hill to where our van was parked. It was just me and the lake, and all of a sudden I felt that subtle tug on the line. There is no sensation quite like it. Did I make it up? Did my hand twitch? I sat motionless waiting to see if it would happen again. Barely breathing I felt another tug, this one was stronger. I hadn’t made it up!
So I yanked up on the rod to set the hook. Now the struggle was on. “Dad! Dad! I caught a fish!” I yelled as I struggled, hardly able to hold on to the line. Dad scrambled down the hill, full of excitement. It took him about 20 minutes of struggling with this fish until he finally reeled it in. Giddy with our luck he cast again and almost immediately caught another one! Two fish! Caught right after we were about to give up and call it a night.
It would have been a different story if it was late, dad and I were exhausted and discouraged after a long night of fishing and someone came up and said, “Oh have you tried casting from this angle?” It is never fun to be told what to do…especially if they are right.
So much exists in the space after initially resisting advice. There is something that happens in the infinitesimal moment between rejecting and accepting advice, or when you make a choice between two options. What is it that tips the scales between giving up and pressing on? Rejecting unsolicited advice and listening to it?
I can only imagine what that moment between Peter and Jesus was like. I bet Peter was tired, smelly and ready to go home, defeated by his failure of a fishing trip. But Jesus, like any good teacher, took this moment as a learning opportunity.
“Peter, lets go out again, into deeper water. Have you tried casting on the other side of the boat?”
I find it funny that when people offer unsolicited advice, they give the most obvious solution to your problem. It’s the whole, “have you tried turning it off and on again?”
“Oh, you are depressed, well have you tried being happy?”
Oh, that thought never crossed my mind, thank you for that earth-shattering suggestion.
I like to think that grumpy thoughts flooded Peter’s brain at Jesus’s suggestion. But whether Peter was grumpy or not, something happened in that space between protest and acceptance.
“Jesus we tried all night and caught nothing…
…but…if you say so…we will try again.”
What a holy moment of conversion within such an ordinary experience!
And it worked! They caught fish! All the fish!
So much so they filled up two boats and they started sinking!
Peter was awestruck at this display of divinity.
He was afraid, humbled to his knees, keenly aware of the Holy that was before him.
“Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man”
Peter did not feel worthy to be in the presence of Jesus.
Yet Jesus said to Peter, “Don’t be afraid, from now on you will fish for people.”
At this, Peter, James, and John dropped everything and followed Jesus.
Don’t be afraid. From now on you will fish for people.
Fish for people. What does this mean?
It makes me think of the “fishing dance move” (if you can call it dance) where you pretend to cast and “catch” someone and reel them in, while they pretend to have a hook in their mouth, pulling them towards you.
You know that one.
Fishing for people just sounds absurd. Violent even. We fish for food, we “catch and release”—digging a hook into the cheek of a fish just to reel it in, pull the hook out, and throw it back in. We fish just to hang it on the wall to show others.
In any case fish are harmed in the making of this hobby. And hey, I’m not judging if you fish, I just told you that I spend a lot of my childhood fishing, I’m just showing you that this fishing metaphor is not a tame one. It has hunting implications; we will hunt down and catch people.
This metaphor has been used as a command to evangelize. Pull people into the fold—even if they protest, try to flop back into the water. But they don’t understand, they don’t realize that this is good for them, it is saving them from eternal damnation after all! The ends justify the means.
What does this say about the job/role of the pastor? That we need to get out there with nets, drawing mass amounts of people into the doors of the church?
The title of this sermon, “Here fishy, fishy” came from a video clip of Burt and Ernie from Sesame Street. In the video Burt and Ernie are sitting in a boat fishing. Burt is complaining that he isn’t catching any fish. Ernie says, “Well have you tried calling to them?” Then Ernie calls out, “Here fishy, fishy!” and a fish flies up from the water and lands in the boat. He calls out again and again and now four, five, six fish are flying through the air and flop into the boat. Well now Burt wants to try so he call out the fish, “Here fishy, fishy”…and nothing happens. Ernie tells him that he wasn’t yelling loud enough.
So Burt calls out louder, “Here fishy, fishy”…nothing. “Louder!” says Ernie. This repeats a couple of times with Burt getting increasingly louder and more frustrated. Finally he is yelling about how he is talking loudly yet he still isn’t catching any fish, and Ernie says, “Yeah like that, yell to the fish like you are yelling now.” So Burt practically explodes, shouting “HERE FISHY, FISHY!” and a shark jumps out of the water and lands in the boat. Burt, upon seeing the shark, passes out. The shark and Ernie turn towards the camera and both start laughing.
This video clip, while directed at kids, is the same logic that I hear when people talk about growing the church and evangelism. Well if you just work hard enough, talk to enough people, promote your church enough, say the right words…then people will come. The church will blossom and congrats you have earned your place in heaven.
But what if, like Burt, you holler and holler, and go around, talk to all the right people, say all the right things, put in the time and the work, and nothing happens?
Or worse you holler and holler and a shark comes after you!
I am uncomfortable, as a pastor, when it is implied that the growth of the church rests mainly on my shoulders. Maybe I am sensitive towards this because when my dad was a pastor one of the members of the congregation took my sister and I out to eat and proceeded to tell us that clearly our dad isn’t an effective pastor because the church hasn’t grown in all of his years there.
Yeah that’s a fun thing to hear about your dad. But even then I had this itching feeling that the health or dysfunction of the church wasn’t about my dad. Or, at least, wasn’t only about my dad.
But that’s what being a fisher of people, being a disciple, means right? Bringing people to Jesus?
Well what if we are looking at this passage from the wrong angle, or maybe an unhelpful angle?
After all, it isn’t Simon who catches the fish, he didn’t catch any. It is Jesus who catches the fish. Jesus floods the boat with more fish than they can handle. They couldn’t have done it without him.
When we equate the growth of the church with the effectiveness of a pastor we are cutting Jesus, God out of the equation. We limit God’s work to big numbers. Quantity does not mean quality.
AND when we look at this text as a commandment to evangelize, to save souls for eternity, we ignore the fact that this story isn’t about fish at all. Jesus uses the fish as a teachable moment to show Simon who Jesus really is, and therefore who Simon is.
Fishing for people isn’t about “catching” people. Ushering them into the pews. Converting them to our belief system. Saving souls. Fishing for people is about becoming a disciple of Jesus. Emphasis on the becoming. It is about becoming like Jesus, becoming the person God created you to be.
When we focus on the fish we skip over the remarkable interaction that occurs between Simon and Jesus. Simon feels inadequate in the face of the miraculous Messiah before him. Who is he in comparison to God-incarnate? He thinks that he is a sinner who shouldn’t even be in the presence of Jesus. He tells Jesus to go away.
But Jesus doesn’t leave him. He gently corrects the way Simon thinks of himself. Simon doesn’t need to be afraid that he is a sinner, unworthy of Jesus’ presence because his identity is not in his sin but in his relationship to Jesus.
His identity lies in his new vocation of dropping everything and following Jesus. Becoming a disciple. Walking with, learning from, and helping Jesus heal those whom others refuse to touch.
When we accept Jesus’ invitation to “fish for people” we accept a new identity that sheds the skin of a “sinner” and takes on the call to proclaim the good news that God walks among us.
Which, honestly, might make us feel like a fish out of water. We have to let go of all that we know, all that is familiar about our identity, and walk on steady ground. We are ripped from the abyss, the deep chaos, the drowning waters that have taught us that we are nothing more than our sin, our shame, or our secrets.
To follow Jesus means that we leave behind our sin in the water. Whether that is through baptism or through leaving an unhealthy situation and committing yourself to a new path, a new identity, in the one who calls you by your name.
This new identity proclaims the good news that God walks among us. God heals. God accepts. God breaks down the barrier dividing the “clean” from the “unclean”. The laws have been re-written to de-center those who wield abusive power and those who take advantage of people with fewer resources.
We take on the identity of the disciples who were there to witness God take on our sin and die on the cross. They were there to see Jesus come back, they were there to see the empty tomb. They proclaimed that God has overcome death itself.
This is the identity we take on as “fishers of people”.
We no longer have to fear the chaos of the unknown, deep waters where sea monsters linger in our dreams. Where the fear of inadequacy threatens to drown. We will not be overwhelmed by the weight of the crashing waves of voices telling us that we are unloved, un-loveable, undesirable, incompetent, insecure, unintelligent, insignificant.
The difficulty, the tension, comes in our struggle against the Voice of the one who calms these waves. We don’t believe it. How are we supposed to not be afraid? How can we say yes to following someone who just might lead us to our death?
We struggle, we pull on the line, swimming back into the depths of our own insecurities and self hatred because that is where we think we belong.
There is a woman named Diane Nyad who has been trying to swim the 100 miles of unpredictable, tumultuous ocean between Cuba and Florida. This is ocean brimming with actual sharks, and the most deadly jellyfish in the world. Psychologists, endurance specialists, and professional swimmers alike told Diane that this swim was impossible.
But she didn’t listen to these voices. She didn’t stop trying.
And at the ripe age of 62 she and her team successfully navigated those 100 treacherous miles, Diane in the water and her team in boats. Diane gives herself the proper credit for putting in the training hours, dedication, and for refusing to give up, but she also credits her team who were by her side the entire way. She is particularly grateful to her best friend Bonnie who, she says, brought out the final drops of willpower within her even when she thought she didn’t have anything left to give. Before they embarked on the final, successful swim, Bonnie told Diane, “This might be impossible, but if you are doing it then I will be there for you.” The mantra Diane repeated countless times during the 50+hours of swimming was, “Find a Way.”
Find a Way.
These words of encouragement, “I’ll be there for you” and “find a way” could very well have been the voice of Jesus to Peter in the boat. Peter was ready to give up and Jesus said, “Try one more time, we will find a way. I am not going anywhere, I am right here.”
When Peter struggled in the face of witnessing the mighty power of God, brought to Earth through Jesus Christ and a bunch of fish, when he tried to flop back into the water right along with the fish, when he denied his place by Jesus’ side, Jesus said, “Do not be afraid. You are not lost in the depths Do not despair. You are here where you belong, by my side.”
Fishing for people is not about saving souls, corralling people against their will, or proving yourself by just trying hard enough…that’s not our job.
Fishing for people is about God. It’s about patience. It’s about discipleship. It’s about who you become in the process of following Jesus. It is about becoming who God made you to be. It is about shedding the identity of “sinner” and truly believing that you belong in the presence of Jesus. It is about listening to the voice within that says, “Try again. Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid. Follow me.”
“Commentary on Luke 5:1-11 by Ronald J. Allen.” Accessed February 8, 2019. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3958.
“Early Christian Traditions about the Fishers of Men: EBSCOhost.” Accessed February 9, 2019. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=0&sid=3afae45b-9d8a-444f-af18-9b45f8466529%40sdc-v-sessmgr05.
Says, Namastespark. “Getting Back in the Boat: Reflections on Luke 5:1-11.” Spacious Faith (blog), February 5, 2019. https://spaciousfaith.com/2019/02/05/getting-back-in-the-boat-reflections-on-luke-51-11/.
Smith, Charles W. “Fishers of Men.” Harvard Theological Review 52, no. 3 (July 1959): 187–204.
Jon L. Berquist
Westminster John Knox Press
The Gospel of Luke
The Interpreter’s Bible
Fishers of Men
Footnotes on a Gospel Figure
Charles W. F. Smith
Episcopal Theological School, Cambridge, Massachussetts