When I was attending seminary in California, a group of us loved to go fishing. Often, we would grab our gear on long weekends, and run up to Lake Isabella and the Kern River, north of Los Angeles.
On one particular weekend, two of us had heard that the powers that be would be stocking the river with trout, and we were excitedly looking forward to camping and cooking trout over the fire. When we got up there, we quickly grabbed a campsite near the river and pulled out our fishing gear. We didn’t even set up the tents, we just went straight to fishing.
We tried right next to our campsite, but caught nothing. Then we walked up the river a ways, and tried again. Still nothing. Then we walked back down the river, and again nothing. Finally we split up and walked in opposite directions, only to find out later that neither of us had caught anything.
As we were sitting by the campsite, a game warden came by and started chatting to us. We mentioned that we had heard that the river was getting stocked and that’s why we were there, but that we hadn’t caught anything yet.
The warden smiled and told us “Well, you’re fishing in the wrong river. They stocked the upper Kern. Won’t be catching any down here as it’ll be mostly fished out before the fish make it this far.”
I believe we ate tuna sandwiches from Subway that night, because unlike the disciples in our Gospel today, we didn’t end up catching enormous amounts of fish by going to the other side of Lake Isabella – the over-crowded upper Kern…
My friend and I might have been literally fishing in the wrong river, but there are other ways to “fish the wrong river.”
In the first reading today from Acts, we hear the story of Paul, who was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.,” and wanted to go to Damascus in order to root out any of these people who were following Christ and working against the purposes of the Jewish leaders.
Paul was a paragon among Jewish up and comers. In his letter to the Philippians, he recounts a checklist of items that were important to the Jewish leaders of the day, and then checks them all off:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4-6)
Paul basically was saying, if I had any reason to be cocky and look forward to making a mark for myself, I had it in spades. And so he set out to Damascus to round up the Christians and bring them to Jerusalem.
But… there was a little event that happened on his way there.
The reading says that “suddenly, a light from heaven flashed around him,” and that Paul fell to the ground. Then a voice from heaven asked him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And Paul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” And the answer is simple, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Now, the rest of the story gets pretty interesting, I think.
Saul is led by the hand to Damascus because he is blind, and for three days he neither ate nor drank anything, and, I’m assuming, is mulling over what [the heck] just happened to him on the road.
And then the story shifts to Ananias, a disciple, who has a vision from God that tells him to go and speak to Saul, who, God says, was praying and having a vision of Ananias at that very moment.
Now, Ananias doesn’t want to. Instead he responds, with, “But Lord, I’ve heard about him, he’s an evil man and has done a lot of evil to those that follow you.” And God’s response is simple, “Yes, but I have chosen him.” And then the passage simply says, “So Ananias went.”
Ananias then meets Saul, prays for him, and something like scales fall from Paul’s eyes and he can see again. Then Paul is baptized as a Christian, stays with the disciples in Damascus for a few days, and then starts proclaiming Jesus as the risen lord in the very synagogues where he was going to deliver letters that allowed him to round up people like Ananias and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.
There is an interesting commonality in the events of both of these men’s lives. For Paul, he recognized God when Christ appeared to him in a flash of light, and for Ananias, he recognized God in a vision. Ananias at first tried to bargain with God about seeing Paul and praying with him, and yet still obeyed God and went into the house because God had a greater plan and Ananias accepted that. God’s greater plan involved Paul suffering for Jesus’ name, and though we aren’t told about any conversation in which Paul might have refused this, we are told that Paul learned about Jesus from the other disciples and then began proclaiming Christ as the risen lord in the synagogues; in short, he was obedient to what God wanted him to do.
Obedience is an interesting thing. Obedience requires humility, and in the case of both of these men we see how it played out in the stories we heard. Can you imagine if, after Ananias told God that Paul is evil, and that he didn’t want to go, and after hearing God say, “Yes, but I have chosen him,” Ananias still said, “Yeah…. That’s not gonna work for me. He’s too evil, and I refuse to help him due to my own religious reasons. Sorry God.”
What would have happened to Paul? What would have happened to the rest of the world, and all the people that Paul told about Christ, if Ananias had simply refused to humble himself and become obedient to God’s commandment?
Or, what about Paul? After his sight was restored, he was baptized, and then he spent time with the disciples in Damascus, learning from the them about how the scriptures pointed to Christ as the savior. Paul was exceedingly righteous, and he followed all the purity laws that the Jewish faith required of him. What if he had looked at the disciples and said, “You know what, Lord? I just can’t spend any time with these guys because they have dirty professions, and if I spend time with them, I’ll never get clean again. No thanks, Lord. But by the way, thanks for my sight back! I’ll catch you next time, if what you ask me to do fits in with my plans.”
But Paul didn’t do that. Instead, he went forward with God’s plan for him, even though God had told him that he would suffer tremendously for Jesus’ name.
Now, we aren’t told about it here – we have to look at the letter to the Philippians to see what Paul thought of following through on this plan. In Philippians, just after he has recounted how he could have had it all based on his checklist of righteousness, Paul says that he thinks that his former life and former benefits was complete rubbish compared to Christ. [Actually, the word Paul uses there is a bit more colorful, but not allowed in polite conversations, so if you really want to know, ask me later.]
Paul considered a life of luxury, prominence and power completely worthless when compared to knowing Christ as the risen lord!
Paul had been fishing in the wrong river and didn’t even know it until the day that Christ appeared to him the road to Damascus, and then, wow, what a transformation!
Now, in our second reading today, we see the disciples again together. Jesus had just recently appeared to them in the upper room, and spoken with Thomas and addressed any lingering doubts that Thomas might have had. And today, a few of the disciples are gathered together and Peter says, “I’m going fishing.” And some of the others decide to tag along.
From the story, we are told that they spent the night fishing. Now, net fishing, as the disciples were doing is hard work. It’s not as simple as standing on the side of the river or the lake casting out a line from a pole. And did not catch anything at all.
At dawn, they see a man standing on the shore, and that man calls out to them and asks them if they have any fish, to which they respond, “No.”
That man on the shore then tells them to cast their net on to the other side of the boat, and they do so.
Now, I’ve always wondered about this, because these men are professionals. Fishing is what they did for a living, and when some random stranger tells them to cast their net on the other side of the boat, they go ahead and do it.
Think of it this way. ESPN or one of the other sports networks is broadcasting a bass fishing contest, and that contest happens to be right next to a golf course. I know – that scenario would never happen, but stick with me for a minute. One of the contestants in the boat has been anxiously trying to catch fish all day, and still caught nothing, and one of the golfers pipes up and says, “Haven’t caught anything have you?”
I’m sure the response would be either a grumble or a gruff, “No.”
And then you hear the golfer saying, “Maybe you should trying fishing right next to that patch of cattails right there on the other side of your boat.”
Most likely, the response would be something snarky, like, “Yeah, and maybe you should use your driver to get out of that sand trap.”
The disciples could have done the same, just ignoring the person on the shore, or making snarky comments about his lack of professional fishing skills, but instead, they decide to suck up their pride, and follow through with the command and drop the net on the other side of the boat. And amazing things happen next. The net is suddenly so full that they could not drag it into the boat.
It is at that moment that one of the disciples realizes that the person on the shore is Jesus.
Now, the disciples were quite literally fishing on the wrong side of the boat – or to use my analogy – fishing in the wrong river. In contrast to the story of Paul, the disciples in this story had the benefit of knowing Christ and already believing in him. But in this passage we see them working along without any results and probably wondering why on earth they are bothering to fish at all. And, even though they don’t know who the stranger on the shore is, they decide to go against their own professional opinions and do as the man says.
It is only after they have obeyed what the stranger commanded that they recognize that the man on the shore is the risen lord.
So what is our take away from these stories today?
Well, one take-away is the same one that Paul needed to learn, which is that we might think we have a plan for our life, but until we come face to face with the recognition that Jesus is the risen christ, no matter how wonderful our lives might seem, and no matter how well we think we might have done for ourselves through our own hard work, everything we do here on this earth will be counted as rubbish when compared to what Christ has in store for us.
Jesus never said that the lives of those who believed in his resurrection and followed him would be easy. He said it would be worthwhile.
The second take-away is from the story of the disciples. They had spent the whole night fishing, but catching nothing. And despite their best efforts, nothing seemed to be getting better. But here’s the thing: they were working the way that they knew how to work, until they were told otherwise, and then amazing things happened.
For us, that means that even if we feel like we are just spinning our wheels yet going nowhere, we must continue doing the last thing that God has commanded us. Even if we think we have a better plan, we continue doing the last thing that God has commanded us until we are given a new command. And then we ought to humble ourselves and obey – even if we think that we have a better plan, because that’s when the amazing things start to happen.
To use our analogy again – fish where God tells you to fish, and fish when he tells you to fish.
From both these stories, and the countless stories of their lives after these events, we know that the disciples suffered greatly for the cause of sharing the truth of Christ with those around them, some of them even being stoned or crucified.
We know from all the stories in the new testament that Paul spent a good portion of his life in prison, tortured, beaten, and humiliated, all to follow Christ’s commandments. And as we mentioned before, despite all of this, Paul still considered that everything he had experienced and put up with in his life was less than worthless.
The disciples and Paul, despite all the evil they suffered, they continued to endure everything that those who were opposed to the Gospel could throw at them because they understood that simple truth that Christ has died, that Christ has risen, and that Christ will come again.
No matter how much their lives deviated from what they had planned, no matter if they were being tortured or beaten, they could look into the eyes of anyone and say with absolute confidence:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Alleluia! And Amen.