The story we read from Luke today is one that appears in both the gospel of Luke and the gospel of John. In Luke at the beginning of the gospel and in John right at the very end. Since the gospels of Luke and John come from two very different strands of early Christianity it is very likely that this story goes back to a time and source that pre-dated both Luke and John and was shared among a wide group of early Christians as one of the key stories of early Christian Faith.
Both Luke and John tell it as a story of call. Luke at the beginning of Jesus ministry when disciples are first called to follow Jesus and John at the very end of his story when Jesus, after the resurrections calls his disciples to continue to follow him. The goal of the call in each case is to start "following Jesus and fishing for people". Both include an interesting "test" of call at the beginning of the story: The disciples are asked to put their nets out "on the other side".
I dont know if you know much about fishing on the sea of Galilee. I know next to nothing about it and am happy to receive any suggestions as to why Jesus, as (presumably) the son of a carpenter, was more successful at fishing that morning than his much more experienced would be disciples. Over the years all sorts of explanations have been offered. Jesus looked into the water from an angle and would have seen things the disciples looking from above wouldnt have been able to see. Jesus could see a shoal of fish the tired disciples didnt realise were there or didnt expect because they were already so close to the shore. And so on.
As most of us arent gonna be fishing on the sea of Galilee anytime soon, and wont need to know more than Peter and his friends knew about fishing, I dont think it is necessary to find out. Unless we think it is important to know if Jesus performed a miracle by providing fish for the disciples on a side of the boat they didnt expect. In that case the point of the story for us could be that Jesus can miraculously provide us with whatever it is we are after, fish or otherwise. That he can see things we cant and that all we need to do in life is follow his instructions carefully.
Somehow this interpretation doesnt satisfy me however, especially as this story is found its way so decisively and at two such pivotal points of the story telling in the early Christian tradition. That Jesus can miraculously provide is something other stories tell us too, and often in a far more straightforward manner: The feeding of the multitudes for instance, or the various healings Jesus is involved in. That he can see things we cant is also evident from many passages that tell that part of Jesus story much more clearly and easily.
The longer I thought about it reading it this time, the more convinced I became that this story is about more than Jesus working his miracles or seeing further than his fellow men. I believe this story is primarily about call. And the matter of the miraculously abundant catch is there to tell us something about call and not about fishing, or even about Jesus good fishing skills or miraculous powers to provide his friends with a good catch after an exhausting night.
Lets, as none of us is going to go fishing on the sea of Galilee any time soon, we forget about the fishing altogether for a moment and think of something we are all engaged in and feeling pretty exhausted and frustrated with at times. The Church, the place where we gather every Sunday, the place that supplies us with inspiration and guidance for our lives, the place that should nurture our souls and quench our thirst, but all too often is the place we return to time and time again to find ourselves at a loss as to how we can make it what we know it could, or should be. Like fishermen who return to their boats night after night and never return home with the nets as full as they dreamed of while they were planning their trip.
How would you feel if this stranger turned up, and said: "Why dont you try something else?" As if! As if they havent tried everything!
Well, as far as I can see, Jesus is actually not there to try and see if they are any good at fishing. He must have known they were bound to be better at fishing than he could ever be. So what is he trying to do if it is not to provide them with a happy conclusion to their frustrating day?
What I like to suggest is that this part of the story is about a test. A test of call. Of the gospels showing what material disciples need to be made off. They are people so the story tells us, who are prepared to give it one more go, who are prepared to turn around and try something else, even if they feel, from their perspective, that this is likely to yield anything. They are people who are prepared to listen to someone who for all intents and purposes doesnt have a clue about what he is talking about and try whatever this person suggests, even if they dont know him and he is not one of them.
At the presbytery I am part of the committee that helps test the call of people who want to become ministers. A long and arduous process in the Uniting Church that takes many years of discernment of both candidate and Church bodies. Here in this story the discernment takes a split second on both sides: on the side of the candidates for discipleship the decision is made when, in the middle of going about their daily business, they turn around and put out their nets on the other side on the suggestion of a complete stranger. On the side of the Church it is the moment where the candidates are asked to take a remote chance to make something work after exhaustive trying on their behalf. Thats all.
What I wonder are you, am I, going to do in that split second? Listen? Or laugh? Get stuck into it again on the off chance something may happen this time or head for breakfast? Risk ending up even more exhausted and demotivated or stay well within the boundaries of the harmless daily grind of a mediocre life with the occasional fish ending up in our nets? Holding on to our dream of finding nurture for our souls and living water to quench our thirst or settling for a life where we leave it to others to be called away from a nice and reasonably comfortable existence and choose to stay where we are, following Jesus with our eyes, from inside the small cocoon of safety we have created for ourselves, rather putting our whole existence on the line and leaving behind whatever is our own particular daily grind to find the freedom to follow wherever he leads, even if it means turning around and trying something as simple and difficult as turning around and start moving in the opposite direction with no guarantees whatsoever this will take us anywhere?
What is it going to be? Try something different? Or ignore the voice inspiring us to what may seem madness and head home for breakfast?
The hunger and thirst that live in our souls for true nurture and life giving drink will never change. What we can work on though is the way we prepare ourselves to receive that life giving sustenance when it is offered. To practice being able, like those first disciples, to decide in one split second to do what will fill us to bursting and follow where Christ calls us without so much as a moments hesitation even if, at first instance, whatever it is we are called to, may not seem to stand up to rigorous or logical scrutiny and tests our ability to risk and trust to the limit.
Until then there is nothing but to continue the hard work of going about our business, in the Church and in our lives, faithfully and consistently, even when the nets remain empty and our eyes water from straining to see the beckoning Christ on the shore.