Sunday 10 February 2019

Fishers of men

Address given at Borrisokane church on Sunday 10th February 2019, the 4th before Lent.

I like to imagine Gospel stories happening in places I know, to better appreciate them.
In this morning’s Gospel, Luke (5:1-11) describes how Jesus called Simon, James and John to be his disciples beside the lake of Gennesaret – another name for the Sea of Galilee. But in my imagination, the scene is the banks of Lough Derg - the lake of Gennesaret is just a bit larger than Lough Derg, and wider, but not so long.

So, in my mind’s eye I see Jesus, pressed in, commandeering Simon’s lake boat from which to speak to the crowd on the beach at Dromineer a couple of boat lengths out. Jesus must realise that Simon and his partners James and John in the second boat have had a bad night’s fishing. He does them a good turn in exchange for their help. When he has done speaking, Jesus tells Simon to take the boat out to the deep channel over by the Clare shore where they will find fish. And they do – so many that they fill both boats up to the gunwales until they almost sink.

Everyone is amazed at the size of the catch. Simon falls to his knees in front of Jesus saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ – for the first time Simon acknowledges Jesus’s power. Jesus says to him, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people’. And Simon, together with his partners James and John, the sons of Zebedee, make their life-changing decision to leave their old lives as fishermen and follow Jesus in his travelling ministry as his disciples.

This is a key moment for Christians and for the Church
On the face of it there is nothing special about these three men. Simon - nicknamed Peter, meaning the Rock - James and John are plain fishermen, just ordinary working people. But along with others Jesus also called, they become apostles, sent out by Jesus to preach the good news he taught them. They were the first leaders of the Jesus movement we call the Church.

Jesus trained them to be apostles as they followed him in his travelling ministry. They were flawed as we all are – they often failed to understand Jesus’s message, they fled in terror when he was arrested, Simon Peter would deny knowing him three times, and only John would witness his crucifixion. But after the resurrection they all encountered the risen Christ, and at the first Pentecost they all received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

From the upper room where they had been hiding, they burst out onto the streets of Jerusalem. They preached the good news that Jesus had taught them, and they attracted a growing band of disciples – the first Church in Jerusalem. The Book of Acts tells the story of how that Church spread like wildfire across the Roman empire - 300 years later under Constantine it would take the empire over.

The explosive growth of the early Church marks the success of Jesus’s project to bring good news to all people – but it all began that day on the shore of the lake of Gennesaret.

The situation we are faced with today in Ireland seems rather different, doesn’t it?
More and more people, particularly younger folk, feel less and less connection with the Church, no matter what tradition they come from. The numbers who attend, listen to the good news, and lend financial support, seem to fall year by year and decade by decade.

Clergy and Bishops thrash about looking for new ways to fill the old pews again. Meanwhile ordinary parishioners like you and me are fearful that ours may be the last generation of our families to sit in them. We are all too aware of neighbouring churches which have shut, causing many in their congregations to lose the habit of regular worship and lose any but a cultural connection with the Church, for weddings and funerals.

I suggest that today’s Gospel story has a lesson for us.
Simon Peter and James and John had spent a fruitless night, fishing where there were no fish. It was only when they did as Jesus advised and went out into deeper water, that they would haul in nets filled to breaking point.

Christian leaders, fishing for people as successors to the apostles, surely need to do the same. They must go where Christ’s Spirit directs, away from the shallow waters of our sterile theological divisions and tribal identities, into the deep waters where real people are found. People suffering from illness, poverty and injustice. People frightened by an uncertain future and change they do not understand. People searching for meaning and peace in a world of excess. People who yearn to hear good news.

We faithful parishioners in the pews must be filled with hope. We must support them in launching out to fish in deeper water. Then we shall start to see change, leading to a renewed Church that brings the good news of Christ to a new age.

Why should we believe that change is possible? Why should we be filled with hope?
Firstly, because the Church decay we are experiencing is not inevitable. It is largely confined to Western Europe and increasingly North America. Churches in Africa, in China and other countries are vibrant, dynamic and growing rapidly, filled with the Holy Spirit and with joy. We need to learn from them.

And secondly, because every time the Church has suffered a crisis, as it has done many times over the centuries, the crisis has brought renewal of the Church for a new age.
·         A new, monastic Church flowered in the 5th Century amid the chaos of the imperial church of the disintegrating Roman Empire, bringing Christian faith here to Ireland and across pagan northern Europe.
·         The rich and corrupt church of the 13th Century in turn spawned orders of friars like St Francis, focussed on preaching and service to the poor.
·         Abuses in the 16th Century Church fuelled the Reformation, and with it came renewal, not just of protestant churches, but of the Roman Catholic church too.
·         And in the 19th Century the Spirit drove a new wave of Christians of all traditions to mission. Some went as missionaries overseas.  Others joined orders dedicated to education, health care and the relief of poverty in the new industrial towns and cities – the lovely ‘Call the Midwife’ series on BBC1 captures how that spirit lived on into the lifetime of many of us.

It is right that we should be filled with hope, because history teaches us that Church renewal follows crisis, as the Holy Spirit prepares it for changing times.

Let me finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:
Most holy God,
in whose presence angels serve in awe,
and whose glory fills all heaven and earth:
cleanse our unclean lips
and transform us by your grace
so that your word spoken through us
may bring many to your salvation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever. Amen