“And when he had stopped speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep and lower your nets for a catch.’ And answering, Simon said, ‘Master, working hard through the whole night, we took nothing; but at your word I will lower the nets.’ And having done this, they enclosed a great number of fish, and their nets were at breaking point” (Luke 5:1-11).
The great catch of fish pericope flows from this first action: “the crowd was crowding upon him and hearing the Word of God” (v. 1). The crowd was hearing that preached Word of God (logov tou Theo) proceeding from the mouth of Jesus, whom was and is God. He is the maker and preserver of life, the creator of all created things, whom governs the winds, seas, and stars. The following pericope, and all of Holy Scripture consistently reveals the speaking God and the church whom hears and is acted upon. Luke does not leave an ambiguity about Jesus’ preaching here. He does not suggest Jesus is merely providing a message or lesson, but rather that the crowd is ‘crowding’ in and around that logos - in that act of hearing and receiving that very Word of God spoken from that speaking God whom comes to earth in flesh. Here God the creator speaks as creature in creation to the creature. That faithful reception – that heard and appropriated Word of God is what catches, hooks, and raises that which is reeling and lost in the dark deep.
He said to Simon “put out into the deep and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon of course responds “Master, working hard through the whole night, we took nothing: but at YOUR WORD I will lower the nets” to which fish filled the nets to their breaking points – such an abundance that their boats are near sinking. It is that Word – that logos – that catches fish in abundance. The nets must be lowered, and preaching must proceed and be let loose only from His Word. Preaching that is lowered into the deeps by one’s own work catches nothing and returns empty. That pure and eternal Word let loose into the deeps, catches and retrieves all that for which it sets out to do, “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Is. 55:11).
Simon’s response may serve as the voice of all failed and void evangelistic ideologies, “We have been working but not catching fish!” That tireless working – those programmatic preparations all come to naught. Church programs, ‘social ministries,’ and methodistic tendencies may create a real ruckus but that ship is hardly steady, and filled with leaks and holes, without a chance at docking at dry land. Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the Lord guards the city, The watchman stays awake in vain” (Ps. 127:1). That fish or “catching men alive” (v. 10) – that building up, is accomplished by letting down the nets at the Word of God means something quite different. That our Lord likens his creative work to catching with nets, means something completely contradictory to the godless ideological evangelistic cults that boil down God’s church to either a “making a decision for Jesus” or something to which is must subscribe or buy, based upon the appeal of the sell.
The nature of God’s Word as a net does not provide fish with a ‘decision’ to be caught or not. A net grabs and takes unconditionally. There is no waiver for those fish, with a legal document, asking their permission. They are simply taken against their will. Likewise in that act of preaching and in Christian baptism God grabs his people by way of His spirit guiding, pushing, blowing, and carrying his flock toward him to be received. Our Lord does not dangle sweet smelling bait before our nose hoping that we might bite. He force feeds his blessed church with food that truly nourishes, strengthens and builds it and drink that is in fact a river of life.
By God’s great mercy and love He is not seated at the far end of heaven waiting for his church to make a decision. In the words of Dr. Nestingen, “God knows his chances!” They are not good. The church is made and created by God’s Word, not sold, bartered, and baited. She is caught, captivated, and jealously retrieved from the deeps. She is married and wedded to her groom. The church’s existence and life is not a choice, though we are culturally and philosophically marred by a pro-choice fantasy. To limit and make God’s work and wisdom dependent upon the inner subjective consciousness of the individual believer is the greatest blasphemy against God’s honor in the history of Christian thought. It is absolutely impossible to transgress the first commandment in a more forceful way, reducing salvation, the Gospel, and heaven itself to a matter of the individual believer’s programmatic and ego-craving human will. It is the mark of the enthusiast who thinks that God deals with him apart from his instruments – resurrection preaching and heavenly feeding.
“Enthusiasm cling to Adam and his children from the beginning to the end of the world – fed and spread among them as poison by the old dragon. It is the source, power, and might of all the heresies, even that of the papacy and Mohammed. Therefore we should and must insist that God does not want to deal with us human beings, except by means of his external Word and sacrament. Everything that boasts of being from the Spirit apart from such a Word and sacrament is of the devil.”
His understanding of God may as a result become either a mere noetic internalized reference point, ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so,’ or the aloof existentialism of Tillich ‘I’ve made God the center of my life” or “ultimate concern.” The speaking God is demoted and the thinking man is promoted. Christianity in the process becomes an idea and an impersonal monistic force, probably having its roots in Kant’s ravaging of traditional metaphysics driving a wedge between that which is seen and heard and the mind’s personal and privatized mental construction of that idea. Where is the church? In the midst of epiphany the world quakes in its uncertainty about its location, for the hearing and confessing church may or may not be – “to be or not to be” - for its basis is relegated to the individualized reference point of that anxious and uncertain individual.
What is the church? Thanks be to the blessed Dr. Luther and the wisdom of the Smalcald articles, “God be praised, a seven year old child knows what the church is: holy believers and ‘the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd” Only here we understand the meaning of “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3). That is, the philosopher, or man as doer, thinker, justifier, and maker must be reduced to a child. He must be stripped of his doctor’s robe that his speech may be stopped. He must be made hearer and child, and descend into holy baptism and be made wise in that foolishness of God.
That our Lord sets his Word and net into water is not accidental or happenstance. Jesus locates the birth and life of his church in the watery womb of baptism. It is neither an ‘image’ or ‘metaphor’ for his work, but it is his work. That his Word is joined and mediated in water is the meaning of the word sacrament (from gk. mysterion). Our Lord joyfully operates in creation, in visible, heard, and experienced encounters, carrying out His work. He is not embarrassed to use simple water to forgive sin, birthing and washing us into heaven. Therefore we ought not be embarrassed about those simple means, as if He were still withholding himself for something we deem “more spiritual,” maybe a dream, psychic experience, vision etc.
Concerning preaching, this little pericope holds maybe the most poetic and succinct expression on the meaning and nature of the preaching office, which comes from the mouth of Simon-Peter, ““Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.” That is to say, ‘not I but you Lord, I will just let down the net at your Word…I will just let it loose.’