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Fifth Sunday after Trinity

The Rev. Canon Dr. Robert Crouse

Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not, from henceforth thou shalt catch men.  And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him.

Much of modern Christianity seems to be very world-affirming.  Popular preachers often recommend religion as though it were some sort of pharmaceutical preparation designed to produce health and happiness, and maybe even social and financial success.  And if it doesn't produce these obvious rewards, at the very least, it should provide us with something called "peace of mind".  And on a slightly more sophisticated level, some of our leaders, and the Church press in general, speak as though the real end and purpose of Christianity were the improvement of social and economic conditions: making the world a better place.  For many, that is the main justification of the Church.


That is a view of things which sometimes seems to find support in the Scriptures.  In the Epistle for today, for instance, St. peter quotes form the Psalms:

He that will love life,

And see good days,

Let him refrain his tongue from evil,

And his lips that they speak no guile:

Let him eschew evil, and do good;

Let him seek peace, and ensue it. 

For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous,

And his ears are open unto their prayers...

And in today's Gospel lesson, we hear the story of the miraculous catch of fish.  Peter, James and John had had a discouraging night's work: "Master, we have toiled all the night and have taken nothing."  But the presence of Jesus changes all that: "They enclosed a great multitude of fishes, and their net brake."  Belief in Jesus seems to have been an astonishing boon to the Gennesaret fisheries.


So the conclusion would appear to be that our Christian belief should reward us with a long and happy life, with all the joys of prosperity, and our world should become a utopia of peace and plenty.


But consider these lessons more closely: it's a strange kind of happiness they describe, and a strange kind of prosperity they promise.  "Happy are ye," says St. Peter, "if ye suffer for righteousness' sake" -- happiness in suffering.  And consider the conclusion of the Gospel lesson: it appears that the miraculous draught of fishes was simply a teaching device: sort of a parable in action.  The point of it was not the astonishing catch of fish -- that was rather incidental.  "From henceforth thou shalt catch men".  And immediately convinced of the sinful futility of their lives, they forsook their occupation, and followed Jesus.


In the end, these lessons turn out to be very anti-worldly.  And I think it must be said that the Gospel is not, on the whole, very world-affirming.  Certainly, the world is god's Creation; and more than that, it is the sphere of his redeeming love in Christ: "God so loved the world..." But the end and object of God's creative and redemptive power -- the salvation of the world -- is somehow beyond this world.  We are solemnly warned again and again not to set our affections on earthly things; and we are certainly not promised rewards of earthly happiness and prosperity.  Rather we are promised tribulation.  Happy are ye if ye suffer for righteousness sake."


We are bidden to pray for our daily bread, and we are urged to give thanks for all the good and useful things which sustain our earthly life.  But we must never forget that these things are not the final object of our prayers and thanks; our daily bread is like the daily rations of a pilgrim or a soldier: it's like the manna in the wilderness, which was just enough for each day.  It's not the end of our aspiration.  No earthly utopia of plenty -- however astonishing the catch may be -- can be our promised land; the object of our journey lies beyond these things, we are strangers and pilgrims seeking a kingdom which is "not from hence".


Thus it is that Jesus, in today's Gospel, uses the miraculous harvest of the waters to point us towards a different harvest: the harvest of the spirit: the harvest of souls brought to maturity in him.  "Henceforth thou shalt catch men" -- souls delivered from the barren and bitter waters of sinfulness and futility.


What we are really concerned with here is the everlasting life of the spirit, and our earthly goods are really goods only insofar as they serve that higher end.  In worldly terms, their end is destruction: "moth and rust corrupt, and thieves break through and steal."  Even this planet of ours must surely have an end, and our sun is, after all, a dying star.  "Here we have not continuing city," "but our homeland is in heaven, and from it we await a saviour."  What is saved is the harvest of the spirit -- spirits made perfect in the knowledge and love of God.


Heaven is the everlasting life of the spirit, and that life consists in knowing and loving God.  And that life is ours: it begins in us even now.  One of our lovely 17th century hymns, speaking of the angels, says it beautifully:

Thy brightness unto them appears,

    Whilst I thy footsteps trace;

A sound of God comest to my ears,

    But they behold thy face.

They sing because thou art their sun;

    Lord, send a beam on me;

For where heaven is but once begun

    There alleluias be.

As we know and love the majesty of God, heaven with its alleluias has a beginning in us, even now.  It is a new beginning, a new birth into a higher life. 


"From henceforth, thou shalt catch men."  The Church is not a world-improvement society -- rather it is dedicated to a new and heavenly life -- fishing us out of the sea of our worldliness, and bringing us safe to land.  It is the calling of the apostles to be fishers of men -- and that is the calling of every parish, and of every Christian: to gather the harvest of the spirit, and bring it safe to that homeland which is nothing short of God himself.  That is the vocation of the Church; and the visible Church --the institution, and even the buildings in which we worship, are the means and reminders of that high calling, for which we must be happy to forsake all else.


We thank God for the harvest of the waters; we thank God for our daily bread; but above all, we thank God for that eternal salvation, without which our labours are in vain.  We thank God for the Church, and for this fine old parish which has been for more than two centuries a fisher of men.  And we thank God for our consecrated bread which is the substance of him who has fished us out of darkness into his own marvellous light.