Sermon for 5th Sunday after Trinity
1 Peter 3:8-15a
The poverty of a merely historical reading of Scripture is placed into fine focus in this morning’s Gospel reading. What happens? Jesus teaches the masses, then he performs a mighty miracle, and from this miracle, he extrapolates a lesson for his disciples—henceforth thou shalt catch men. Essentially, Jesus does the sorts of things that he does most of the time, and appends a lesson for the instruction and edification of his followers. A merely historical reading does not allow us to ask the question that constantly faces us in the pages of Scripture, and which makes Scripture as living and God-breathing a document for us today as it was to the earliest generations of Christians: ‘what does this mean?’
As a historical account, it is plain what it means, and we focus our effort, our Christian apology, on showing how Jesus could have done it, how the story is perfectly plausible, and so forth. And if we can’t prove it, we believe it anyway. How many times have we not heard that the wreck of Noah’s ark may have been located on the top of Mount Ararat? How much time has not been spent trying to figure out when and where exactly Job lived and suffered? The Bible becomes a mere history book, and our witness as Christians becomes, somewhat bizarrely, to prove to others the historical accuracy of the text as an argument for its truth, while still believing that which we cannot prove archaeologically.
Christians have never been content with this. ‘What does it mean?’ is a question that goes far beyond, ‘how did it happen?’ or ‘what was the chain of events?’ For instance, from the earliest days of the Church, Christians were able to see the figure of Christ infusing and enlivening the entirety of the Old Testament. Yet nowhere is the son born to a carpenter in a manger in Bethlehem explicitly mentioned. Yet they read the Law and the prophets with faith in Christ and were able to see that from Genesis onwards, all these books contained images, allegories and similes that pointed to and were fulfilled in the coming, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
This is because divine truth operates on a spiritual, not a forensic level. This truth, through its divine inspiration, goes beyond the historical events described; it soars above and is buried beneath. The early Christian teachers and thinkers recognized this: there were the historical events but there was also the meaning—allegorical and mystical—of these events.
All of Scripture is given to us by God, revealed to us for our instruction and edification, and it is up to us as receivers of the text to interact with it, pray on it, interpret it, and apply it. This is the core of Christian faith life—to receive the divinely inspired Word into our hearts and our lives. But to the church fathers and mothers, it was the inspiration of Scripture, not its historicity, that was the key factor. Because it is inspired, not because it is historical, are we able to say that there are right and wrong ways of reading Scripture. “What does God want me to understand from this morning’s gospel reading?” becomes the important question, rather than “did this happen historically?”
This in turn means that Scripture is not in need of scientific or archeological corroboration, nor is it threatened by findings in these and other fields of worldly inquiry. Divine inspiration and absolute truth are different from historical accuracy and scientifically testable hypotheses. On the one hand, divinely inspired truth can speak to our hearts and fill our souls through stories and accounts that are historically entirely accurate, partially accurate or entirely fictional. It is the operation of the Holy Spirit that is key, not the object or story through which He reaches and affects us. On the other hand, scientific truth depends entirely on provable accuracy, and while it may cause us to wonder at the might and intricacy of creation, if it is found to be inaccurate, it no longer has value.
The answer to the question of what any given Scripture reading means is entirely internal to Scripture itself. To the fathers and mothers, Scripture was the absolute standard of Scripture, which is our unshakeable rule of faith. Should my faith be weakened because it turns out that it was not, in fact, the wreckage of Noah’s ark that was found on a mountain top in Turkey? Or because Job most likely is a literary type/character used by the Sumerians long before the Israelite account, as opposed to an actual person? Or by the fact that the Sumerians seem to have settled Mesopotamia before time, according to the Old Testament timeline, even began? Such a faith seems to me to be a faith in human powers of discovery, rather than a faith that relies on the Holy Spirit to affect, inform and enlighten us about spiritual truths.
All of this is merely intended to point out that the historicity of Scripture is not why we read it, treasure it, are nourished by it. Historical events recounted are important insofar as they testify about God through Christ. This is in fact the very reason for the inclusion of these particular books in the canon of Scripture—that they testify about God through Christ. A faithful, faithfilled reading does not need outside corroboration for God to speak to us, nor is it threatened by anything other than weak faith.
From the earliest days of the Church, our great teachers and doctors have known that there is much more to Scripture than a merely historical account. Origen, that great teacher of the saints, argued that we do not understand Scripture by merely reading the words. It contains much that, as historical event, is hard to swallow and even entirely impossible to fathom. Rather, he suggested, “first believe, and you will find beneath what is counted a stumbling-block much gain in godliness” (Phil. 1.28). Origen exhorts us to not get unduly caught up in historicity, but rather to let the spirit enrapture us in reading: “Let us search, not for the letter, but for the soul of what we are considering. Then, if we are able, we will ascend also to the spirit” (1.30). Every book, every chapter, every verse, every word—inspired as they are by God—have a plain sense, a symbolic sense, and a mystical sense. For instance, Genesis is not a “how to” manual for putting together the cosmos, but an epic account of God’s majesty, power, love, will and intentions. For this, we have to go beyond the plain meaning of the words. For many, this is a scary proposition.
Turning to this morning’s Gospel reading, what is our task? Does it involve proving that this fishing expedition happened, or at least could have happened? If we could find some wreckage of the boat, or the remnants of a broken net, we would be in business. We have the words, we have the narrative, so with some basic map coordinates and a ticket to Israel, we could set about constructing our Christian apology, right? But, friends, does our task not go far beyond such activities?
Let me recount what some of the Church fathers have seen in this reading. The ship is the church, about this the church fathers were in universal agreement. Jesus makes a choice—he enters the ship of Simon Peter. Connecting this morning’s reading to a parallel text in the gospel according to St Matthew, St Ambrose writes this: Now in a mystery, the ship of Peter, according to Matthew, is beaten about by the waves, according to Luke, is filled with fishes, in order that you might understand the Church at first wavering, at last abounding. The ship is not shaken which holds Peter, that is which holds Judas. In each was Peter; but he who trusts in his own merits is disquieted by another’s. Let us beware then of a traitor, lest through one we should many of us be tossed about. Trouble is found there where faith is weak, safety here where love is perfect. Already, we have ventured away form the plain meaning, into the realm of allegory.
What about the other ship? Some, for instance St Ambrose, have understood it to be a sign of the church consisting of more than one vessel, as in jurisdictions or dioceses—all are on the same fishing expedition, but going about it in different ways, in different places, from different ships. Others have seen it as a sign of there being one ship chosen by Jesus and another that is not. But notice, then, how that great catch is followed by rapprochement—they beckoned their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. Clearly they are all fellow fishers of men, coworkers and colleagues, even though they are in different ships. St Cyril of Alexandria saw that other crew as the fellow laborers of the Apostolic mission, a division of labor between those who wrote the Gospel, safeguarded the Gospel, and preached the Gospel. I can’t but help pondering the significance of this in our denominationally troubled day and age. Who are our fellow laborers? Who are our apostolic colleagues? How do we serve this effort to call out to those in the other ship? Or perhaps we are those in the other ship—how do we respond to the calls from Peter’s ship?
The nets broke, but no fishes were lost. “…this signifies that there will be in the Church so great a multitude of carnal men, that unity will be broken up, and it will be split into heresies and schisms” says Saint Cyril. The Venerable Bede adds to this the observation that “the net is broken, but the fish escape not, for the Lord preserves his own amid the violence of persecutors.” Even in times of trouble and upheavals, the Father knows his children and keeps them in his fold. By faith were we caught and by faith do we remain his, regardless of troubles and trials. A historical account of an extraordinary fishing expedition, read with faith, becomes a mighty prophecy and testimony for us to reflect, pray and meditate on.
And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him. Both crews left everything behind to follow Jesus. Already here in the account itself we can see the importance of mystical insight into the meaning behind the actions. The fish were not the point of the fishing expedition. These men had labored for a long time but caught nothing. They were tired, but once on dry land, they ought to have begun gutting the fish, or taken it to market. But for these fishermen—even for these poor, simple fishermen—it was not about the fish, or the concrete actions of Jesus, but rather about what they signified. They saw it, forsook all the fish, and followed Jesus.
Friends, the spiritual dimension of the event was in fact tailored for them. “For in His condescension to men, He called the wise men by a star, the fishermen by their art of fishing.” (Chrysostom Hom 6 in Matt) Whether by a star of by a fishing expedition, what lies beyond these accounts is that meeting with Christ Jesus, the Son of God. That meeting always takes place in the heart of the faithful, and it is toward that meeting that all of Scripture strives. Are we prepared to walk by faith regardless of forensics? Are we prepared to take our spiritual reading seriously enough, as seriously as the church fathers and mothers, to the point that we are willing to forsake the world and its theories for the iron clad spiritual truth of the Gospel? As we draw near the sacraments this morning of grace, let us pray to God that we too may be guided by that star, or taken on that fishing expedition, that erases the difference between mystery and reality.
May the Lord continue to have mercy on us. Amen.