A homily delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on Sunday, September 27, 2015. Readings for the day can be found here.
Your soul covered the earth, and you filled it with proverbs and riddles. Sir 47.15
Proverbs and Riddles
I have to admit at the outset of my word today, that this gospel presents a passage I have struggled with.
The problem I have is that the text just seems so matter-of-fact, so straightforward: Jesus sits in a boat the Sea of Gennesaret, he teaches, calls the apostles, who are fishing, and they fish again and have an overwhelming catch. What is there to say? There are questions about why he goes on a boat to teach the people rather than from the shore where they are, but, at first glance, they seem more a curiosity than the stuff of a sermon.
Nevertheless, I will attempt anew to offer a word on this passage holding as a basic presupposition the word that the Apostle Paul spoke to Timothy, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (II Tim. 3.15).” Therefore, I will attempt to be like David, and “will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve [the] riddle [of this passage] to the music of the Psalter (Ps. 49.4).”
What struck me first about this passage is the Lord’s involvement in the daily life, the daily work of the apostles. He meets them in the midst of their activity, their hard work. Fishing is not a glamorous profession: the fish, scales, guts, nets, the water, and boats all add up to backbreaking, hard, dirty work. But in the midst of this work, he comes and gets in their boat, teaches the people, and calls the apostles through the sign of an abundant catch of fish.
From workaday perspective, a basic paradigm emerged: Jesus comes to them even though they are not looking for him. He comes to them precisely when they are preoccupied with so many other things. Just like God looking for Adam and Eve in the Garden, or Jesus meeting the Samaritan Woman at the Well, or the disciples on the road to Emmaus on the first day of the New Creation, Jesus comes to them and reveals himself to Simon, James, and John.
We should consider this paradigm carefully and expect that our Lord meets us in our day-to-day lives, when we are not expecting it, when we are preoccupied with so many things. He meets us and calls us to follow him. And this perhaps is why we do not hear this call. We look for him on our own terms to confirm our lives, our needs, our wants, our desires—but he is coming and looking for us to follow after him. He is coming out of love for us and wants us to fall in love with him in the same way he loves us.
Note, too, that he does not make the disciples’ physical work, their livelihood, indeed their lives any easier; in fact, everything becomes more difficult with such a catch of fish and will become harder with the promise of a new type of fishing. Even so, they fulfilled their tasks obediently and brought forth great abundance, as is evidenced by the great haul of fish then, and by our presence here in Church today. Drawing from this, after the Lord comes to us, we cannot expect the Lord to make our earthbound lives easier; rather, they will be harder in a certain sense. We can carry this burden, lighten it even, by knowing that we carry it in the service of Christ.
But going further into this passage, I note that there is another reading of this story that involves the Apostolic witness of Christ. They accomplish everything in this passage after he taught. They came to know him, heard his word, and followed his command. This provides us with further meaning from this gospel: our burden will be lightened with the knowledge of Christ. Again, the disciples were able to accomplish so much after Christ taught, after they came to know him. For us then, coming to know Christ will allow us to do much and live our lives in his service.
But how do we come to know Christ? The image presented in the gospel today is key: we see him sitting like a teacher of old on the boat, the people were even pressing around him to hear “the word of God (Lk. 5.1).” A boat is an image of salvation; it allows you to traverse the stormy waters from one point to another. In other words, the boat is an image of salvation, and also the Church. The Church, the place were Christ sits and teaches even to this very day, maintains this Apostolic witness that will enliven us, empower us to hear the call of Christ and to follow after him. If we feel empty, alone, incapable of following him, of leading the life he has called us to, the place to be renewed is here, hearing his word through the scripture, the liturgy, and in the midst of this Apostolic community.
The Alpha and the Omega
In preparation for this sermon, I read a few things about Lake Gennesaret, which is also called the Sea of Galilee or the Sea of Tiberius. It is an enormous freshwater lake both in width and depth. It provided livelihood for many because of its water, its fish, and as a means of transport. It is fed by the River Jordan, which flows through it, but it is also fed by underground springs. And here another aspect of this reading came to me: just by sitting there, our Lord taught us about himself without words.
Consider the setting: our Lord astride the waters. The “waters” in the scriptures are often synonymous with chaos and death. This image of our Lord sitting on the boat together with his apostles provides us with a perfect image for how chaos and death are subdued and destroyed: by his teaching and by the Apostolic activity. By these things, all things are brought into order and into life. The water becomes not chaos and death; but Christ, the Lamb of God sitting as if upon his throne, makes the waters flow in an orderly fashion, bringing life. Christ’s teaching is like the spring of water feeding the lake, which so many in a dry and arid land need for the basics of life. It is life-giving. The Apostles’ preaching is like that great river, the River Jordan, flowing into it, receiving that water, that life, and going forth from it and bringing this life to those who also need it. Brothers and sisters, this life is our life, this teaching is for us. Our Lord meets us right here and right now at this moment in our lives, seeking to bring us into the life he has for us, a life of service, following his teachings, indeed, a life with him, from now and to the ages.
Archpriest Alexander Rentel, a 1995 M.Div. graduate of St. Vladimir’s, finished his doctoral dissertation under the direction of Fr. Robert Taft, SJ, at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome in January 2004. Prior to coming to St. Vladimir’s as a professor, Fr. Alexander was a 2000-2001 Junior Fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. He has taken numerous research trips to Greece, Italy, and France. He was ordained to the priesthood in July 2001. He and his wife, Nancy (née Homyak, M.Div. 1995) are the proud parents of three children, Dimitrios, Maria, and Daniel.