Rev Canon Dr Jack McDonald, chaplain in Leuven, offers us the challenge, ‘Do not be afraid’, drawing on Luke 5.1-11, the lectionary Gospel for this week.
When I was a child of 13 on a family holiday in Cornwall, I went swimming in the sea with my younger brother Ben, on the grounds that our parents had not specifically forbidden it. Momentarily I got into trouble and I had to fight hard to resurface and swim safely to the beach. All was well, but the memory of being somehow held fast under the surface by a natural force of incredible and unanswerable power was a sobering one. Ben and I agreed never to tell our parents and we never have! – maybe they will read this blog and fret!
Familiarity with this gospel passage makes us deaf to the ways it would have struck its first audience in the 1st century. Yes, it is the occasion in Luke’s Gospel when Simon (‘listen’) is first called Peter (‘rock’); yes, it is the first occasion in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus’ ministry causes real commitment and enthusiasm. But for me the key to understanding the passage is to reflect on the Jews’ understanding of the sea.
The living water of river or sea held three interlocking meanings: it represented birth (think of the first verses of Genesis, when God creates light out of the deep, or of the baby Moses, drawn out of the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter in Exodus 2); it represented cleansing (think of the healing of Naaman in 2 Kings 5); and anticipating the Cornish swell, it represented danger and death (think of the Flood in Genesis 7). These three meanings are often blended together – think of the Exodus itself, where crossing the Red Sea is healing for the Hebrews, the birth of a new nation, and danger and death for the Egyptians – think too of how we might describe Christian baptism – a new creation in Christ, sin forgiven, a passage through the death of Good Friday to the new life of Easter.
Our sanitised christening sermons often omit the metaphor for death which the waters of baptism represent. But water is a good image for death because it can be terrifying. One of the very few advantages of living in the UK as compared to the EU is that the new sterling banknotes are prettier than our euros. From next year, the new £20 will bear the portrait of JMW Turner, and his paintings of the force and power of the sea are memorable. Try these two: Stormy Sea with Blazing Wreck (1835) and Rough Sea with Wreckage (1840). To look at these pictures is a timely reminder to naughty boys that the sea is a place of risk and danger.
The notion that the sea is not just for swimming in and play but also risky and dangerous helps us read this passage better. Jesus uses a boat as a pulpit: so he sits on top of the very waters to teach, on top of the unknown deep waters. He tells Simon to put out into the deep and let down his nets there, and it is from the deep that the huge catch comes. Here we are being propelled away from safety, away from comfort, and towards a ministry of risk and adventure. It is to the place of risk that Jesus Christ sends us. It is at the place of risk that Jesus Christ gives us not just a measly but a superabundant catch.
And just when our natural reaction is to shy away, Christ gives us the same message which has already been given three times in Luke’s Gospel – by the angel to Zechariah, to Mary and to the shepherds – ‘Do not be afraid.’ It is this reassurance which Luke will fill out in chapter 8, when he describes Jesus calming a storm on the same Sea of Galilee.
The sea can be terrifying and dangerous. It is to the place of risk and danger that Jesus sends us. But Jesus is lord and master of the sea and of danger. In Jesus Christ, the sea is as flat and calm as Raphael depicts it in his 1515 painting of the miraculous catch. Wherever we are sent and whatever the risks, Christ says ‘Do not be afraid.’
Raphael: The Miraculous Catch of Fish