It was the worst kind of morning. Their nightly labour was over, but they had nothing to show for it but a bit more wear-and-tear on their nets.
Despondently, the fishermen worked their fingers over the nets, feeling for holes and binding them up again, stronger this time. Maybe tonight they would have more luck. Maybe tomorrow morning they would not have to slink home, empty handed, long before the lakeside market had had got underway, let alone finished. Maybe tomorrow they wouldn’t have to face the stoic disappointment on their wives’ faces, the brittle encouragement, the courageously cheerful answers to the children’s complaints.
The preacher was coming back. They could see the crowds before they saw him – hear the excited chatter, see the clouds of dust that signalled their presence.
The fishermen ducked their heads, working on, not wanting to be noticed, but straining to hear. They had heard him before, some of them. And all had heard the stories. Simon’s mother-in-law had even been healed by this mysterious man. Simon was grateful, but shy. Would Jesus recognise him? Was he just another face in the pressing, demanding, hungry crowd?
From the corner of his eye, Simon saw Jesus picking his way through the mess of nets and seaweed and fishbones on the shore, and climb into a boat. His boat. Jesus caught his eye, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore.
Dropping the net, Simon did as Jesus asked, summoning his crew to go with him. The team held the boat as steady as they could while Jesus sat down and taught, his voice carrying clearly across the water to the now hushed crowd.
Despite his weariness, Simon found himself listening attentively to Jesus’ words. He didn’t understand them all; none of the stories ended the way he expected, none of the teachings seemed to have quite the same application that he had heard in the synagogue for as long as he could remember.
Who was this man? He had power and authority, yet he didn’t seem to use it the same way others did. His healings seemed to be from YHWH, but his teachings were so strange and new. Could they be the truth? How could this be?
At last, Jesus concluded his teachings. He turned to Simon, and smiled at the look of confused pondering on his face. “Put out into the deep”, he said, “And let down your nets for a catch.”
“But Master”, Simon responded, surprised, “We’ve fished all night and caught nothing. Now isn’t the time for…” But as he looked into Jesus’ face, his protests faded away. “But at your word, I will let down the nets.”
Simon and his men once again cast their nets out as wide as they could. Almost immediately Simon could sense that they had caught something. With relief that they would not have to go home empty-handed after all, Simon called to his men to haul the nets in.
They were heavy. Too heavy. With a piercing whistle, Simon signalled back to the shore for James and John to bring out their boat and help. He clung desperately to the straining nets, afraid to loosen his grip and let the bumper catch escape, but afraid too that the boat might capsize any minute with the sheer weight of the load. Every spare hand held the nets tight.
After what seemed an age, James and John brought their boat alongside. With a Herculean effort, the two boat crews managed to haul the fish into their vessels. It was a good thing the lake was so calm – a wave of any size would surely have overwhelmed them. They were just barely staying afloat as it was.
Simon Peter looked at the fish, flopping and gasping all around him. He saw the water sloshing over the side with every movement. Then, without raising his gaze, he sank to his knees before Jesus, fish and nets and all.
“Depart from me,” Simon implored Jesus, “for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
Jesus merely replied, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”
We have no way of knowing what Peter made of this somewhat oblique ‘assurance’. What on earth could Jesus mean by it? Maybe something he had been teaching from the boat gave a clue, but whatever, somehow it reassured Simon Peter that though he was indeed in the presence of the Holy God of heaven and earth, sky and sea – and even fish – Simon’s sinfulness was not a barrier to his acceptance.
When they reached the shore, Peter, James and John – and perhaps many of the boats’ crew – walked away from this life-changing haul of fish, this gift that could have changed all their lives, this bounty that could have enabled them to save money, to never again have to live from fishing trip to fishing trip, hoping that each night’s labours would bring enough to provide for their families for a couple of days. They just left it there on the beach, to be gathered up by their competitors or whoever could get to it first.
Jesus made all their dreams come true – provided all the wealth they could imagine. But having seen him, heard him, spent time with him, those things faded into insignificance before their very eyes. Even as they slipped and slithered their way across the pile of fish to get out of the boat, they had already forgotten about it. The thing they had been living for, working for, dreaming of their whole lives, was suddenly just a boatload of carcasses. True life was offered, and nothing else in their lives could ever compare.
If you had asked Simon, the night before, what it would take for him to abandon the biggest catch he had ever seen, let others benefit from his labours, even leave his wife and children without a word, I don’t imagine he would have been able to think of a thing. It would have sounded preposterous, as preposterous as if someone asked you the same question. Imagine you had the biggest win of your life, everything you ever wanted handed to you on a plate (totally legally and morally). What would it take for you to give it all up?
We are so careful with our lives, our possessions, our positions, aren’t we? We sing about giving it all to Jesus, yet I know I don’t. I try to be sacrificial, to give more than I have to, to be generous with my money and (within reason) with my time. But I have clear guard rails in place. Things I have mentally calculated that I need, things I hold back.
And so I hover on the edges of my faith, knowing he is good, knowing he is trustworthy, knowing that he gives back far more than he takes – but is worthy of it all with no obligation to give me anything.
Knowing he loves me, but preferring my pile of rotting fish instead.
Where do you see yourself in this? Have you taken up the stinky fish challenge? Do you trust that he is worthy of it all? What stories can you tell of his wonderful provision and abundance? Because they are out there, they are real. There are many biographies of men and women, young and old, rich and poor, who have encountered Jesus in such a powerful way that the world no longer exerts any hold on them. Will that be your story? Will it be mine?