In the urgent and sometimes almost luminous language of Paul writing to the church in Corinth, Paul presents in the 11 verses of this morning’s epistle (1Cor.15:1-11) the bare outlines of his ‘creed’ – what it is that defines the Christian people, and that makes them who they are. It is a faith that defies reason and is based entirely on the experience that eludes explanation: the great gospel mystery of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In these 11 verses we have the bare essence of ‘the gospel’ – this is what the first generation of Christians proclaimed; the hope that sustained martyrs in the persecutions; the faith that was to encompass the world. This gospel, forged in an inexplicable experience, is the driving energy of the first generation church; it precedes the extended narratives and collections of memories and sayings that we more conventionally now know as ‘gospel’.
Then, sequentially some years later, we come to the ‘second generation’ narrative – the gospel of Luke and Acts (the 2 volumes belonging together) and we find this morning’s glowing vignette – the memory of when Jesus called his disciples (Luke5:1-11). It has something of the glow of nostalgia about it – the blush of reminiscence as old friends may say ‘do you remember when...?’ All of this is captured in that first word ‘once’ which introduces the memory. The word stands apart from time; it inhabits the timelessness of story while it registers a unique and exceptional moment.
The heavy reality of memory is vividly caught. Luke remembers the crush of the crowd around Jesus – pressing in on him to hear him, to hear ‘the word of God’. The compelling power of what Jesus says is evidenced in the pressure of the crowd and so he remembers how Jesus was obliged to teach from the lake itself, sitting in one of the boats.
But notice the silence! We are not given one word of whatever it was Jesus said. What can fill that silence, that shocking omission on the part of the writer? The truth may be that this silence is more eloquent than any summary of Jesus’ teaching – because in the end it was not Jesus’ words that people responded to, but Jesus himself. When we hear of Jesus speaking the ‘word of God’ what people almost certainly encountered in Jesus was an ‘embodied word’ – we may guess that there was that about Jesus which brought people into a sense of the reality of God calling upon their lives that spoke more eloquently than any teaching. We may guess that in Jesus they found again new possibilities of life, new ways of being human, which were transforming and liberating. Through Jesus they were brought into radical and new ways of seeing and understanding the world, their place in it and the purpose of God for them. Through Jesus they discovered a new sense of the incredible depth and potential of their being and that they were part of a great shaping purpose transcending anything they ever previously imagined. What we are speaking of here is a powerful and transforming religious experience, an encounter with absolute ultimate reality – what the 1920s philosopher Rudolph Otto wrote about in his book The Idea of the Holy – where he spoke of the holy as the mysterium tremendum, the fascinans. For Otto the holy is beyond all comprehension, awesome (mysterium tremendum) and it is compelling (fascinans). This probably helps explain why our First Testament lesson for this morning is the account of Isaiah’s encounter with the holy in the temple – the effect of that encounter and the obvious thematic connection with Peter’s response in this gospel speaks directly into the mystery that the gospel narrative unfolds beside the lake of Gennesaret.
You will note that what follows the evocative silence in our gospel is simply an instruction to ‘put out into the deep water’ and to let down the nets. Notice how the pressing of the crowd about Jesus now becomes the crush of fish held in overflowing nets. Whether the crush about Jesus is of people or fish, one catches the sense that here in Jesus is the compelling reality of Being itself toward which all being is irresistibly attracted: we are drawn to our source.
Unsettling it is, but our joy and our fulfilment, our true humanity, is in that call ‘out into the deep’.