When I was a young boy I remember singing a Bible chorus about the Gospel reading that we have just heard together. The refrain was ‘Jesus wants us to be fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men…’ I have never forgotten it because after we had sung that chorus I turned to my Sunday School teacher and asked rather innocently (having misunderstood what we were singing) why Jesus wanted us to be ‘vicious old men’. So the Gospel reading that we gather around today feels like it has been with me for a very long time. And I am guessing that – for different reasons – it will be very familiar to many of you today as well. It is depicted in one of our beautiful stained glass windows, that you might want to look at again after the service.
Jesus has been teaching the crowds, and so many of them had gathered and were pressing in around him, that he had been forced to teach from a boat a little way out from the shore. When he had finished teaching he asked the fishermen who were in the boat with him to go out into the deeper water and to continue fishing. We get a sense from the story about the bewilderment that must have crossed the minds of these men, who had been fishing unsuccessfully all night, and who were now being told by a religious teacher, who knew nothing about fishing techniques to go back out and try again. But nevertheless they do as Jesus had asked, and as they begin to haul their nets back in they find that they are so full of fish that they are beginning to break, so full indeed that they have to call to others in nearby boats to assist them in the task.
Its one of those wonderful miracle stories in the Gospels which speak so clearly about God’s abundance. How many of you who enjoy fishing would like to be in this happy situation? Just like the account of the water being turned into wine at the wedding which we reflected upon during the Season of Epiphany, we get the idea from this story that the numbers of fish, like the gallons of wine, are so ridiculously large that it was not easily possible for people to deal with them.
In response to the fear of those fishermen as they experience what is going on, and become aware that God is present in a powerful way in their midst in those boats, Jesus calls them to do what he has done, not with fish but with humans. “Do not be afraid,” he says, “from now on you will be catching people.”
I think if we are honest, some of us will find hearing this story today rather strange, and I say that for two reasons. Firstly, we are not accustomed to experiencing these miracles of abundance in our own lives on a regular basis. Generally when Luisa and I go out and buy fish and chips (which is the nearest that we get to fishing), we don’t expect the quantities to double or triple in the car on the way home. We do not expect it because, apart from one occasion when I picked up our order and the order of the person next to me as well and took it away with me, that kind of multiplication of fish has not happened in our lives.
But secondly, and perhaps more seriously, given that this is a story that is speaking not about fish but about the life of the Church, we have to admit that we have not – for many years – experienced that kind of numerical growth in the life of the Church either. As you would expect me to, I have spent some time since I have been here amongst you, looking carefully back over the service registers for the years before I arrived here. It would true to say that the numbers of people who gathered here for worship when Fr Holmes, Fr Turner and Fr Redden were here, were significantly larger than the numbers during the incumbencies of Fr Cooper and Fr Davies and myself. The passage of time has brought with it decline. It is simply a reality that the inverse of the story of the abundant catch of fish has been our ongoing experience in the life of this Parish. We are not used to abundant growth, nor do most of us expect it. We are accustomed to gradual decline, and we probably expect that to continue into the future. All of this simply reflects the reality that is being experienced across the Diocese of Newcastle in most of our parishes. By and large most Anglicans have lived with the experience of decline rather than abundant growth over the last fifty years.
So I want to invite you to know that it is alright to hear this Gospel story which points to the growth of the Church, and to feel that it is quite different from the experience that most of us have had for many years now in the life of this Church and other parts of the Church that we have had experience of. I also know from conversations that I have been having with many of you, as we are beginning to get to know each other, that you would love to be a part of a Church that has a greater experience of the abundance of catching fish, than we have known for many years. There are lots of informal conversations taking place throughout the congregations about our hopes and fears for the future of God’s Church in this place. Some of you have suggested to me that we need a Christian rock band here every weekend, others have told me that we definitely don’t need that. Some of you have suggested that it would be better if we held services in a more informal way in the hall rather than in this great but imposing building. Some of you have suggested that we need to simplify the way that we enact our liturgy in order to make it more accessible to those who come here to see what we are doing, and others of you have told me that we need to make it more splendid in order to make in more attractive to those who live around us. We could easily be confused about all of this!
What we all know is that if we carry on doing exactly what we are doing now, which by and large meets the needs of those of us who gather here for worship and nurture, we will continue to have the same results in relation to attracting others to join us, which has by and large been no results. But the good news is that although we know that we need to continue to think, and plan, and act strategically, we also thankfully know that what we need to do to grow here is not simply to develop a great master business plan of changes for the future. Because we are not a business or a membership society, we are a part of God’s Church, the Body of Christ.
In that regard I am greatly encouraged, and I hope that you are too, by the simple reality that the men to whom Jesus spoke in the fishing boats in our Gospel reading today had no idea whatsoever how to grow a Church, or gather people for worship and teaching – they were uneducated, probably largely unreligious fishermen. So we might well ponder what changed them, from the fishermen in the story today, into the first leaders and participants in the earliest Christian communities, that grew so phenomenally that the Church that they led ended up having a presence in almost every community of the world? If we were going to summarise in the most basic way what effected the change in them, we might say that they went from being fishermen, to being disciples who hung around with Jesus.
So what will our future be like here at St Peter’s? None of us can know the answer to that question. But I want to say to you as clearly as I can, that I believe that the mark of a healthy Church is that its members grow both spiritually, and numerically. In other words, healthy churches are made up of people who expect to be growing within themselves, and expect others to join them to become a part of that growing too. I do believe that we can grow in both of those ways. I would not have come here to be your parish priest unless I believed that God both calls us to grow, and will enable us to grow. I do not say that because I think that I can grow the Church, or because I think that any special gimmick or promotion will do it for us, but just like the first disciples of Jesus that we are focusing on from our Gospel reading today, I believe that this Church will grow, if those of us who are here, continue to take seriously the call first to draw closer to being with Jesus as his disciples. Which is really what our Lent programme for the coming six weeks is all about.
The Anglican Church teaches that we draw closer to Jesus, through prayer and worship, through reading the Bible and through receiving the sacraments; doing all of those things with one eye on what the Church has taught through the centuries, and the other eye on what we can learn from the world around us. This Lent we are providing opportunities here for all of us to do exactly that. You will have seen already in the leaflet that describes the opportunities ahead of us, that during the next six weeks there will be special times, in addition to our weekend worship, for us to focus on being with Jesus – in our lives, in his Word, and in our Church.
Firstly, by gathering together at one of the three Eucharists on Ash Wednesday, when we begin Lent in prayer together, either during the day when I will preside or in the evening when Fr Wilf will preside at the Sung Eucharist. Secondly, by joining us on the five Monday evenings that follow, when we will be hearing afresh the story of Jesus, and reflecting upon it together. Thirdly, on one of the week days during Lent when you can come to pray in the Church at Morning or Evening Prayer, or participate in a simple short Eucharist to deliberately and intentionally draw closer to Christ.
From Ash Wednesday onwards we will be celebrating the Eucharist every day in the Church during Lent alongside our normal services of Morning and Evening Prayer. I am delighted that Fr Wilf and Fr Rod and Fr Peter Rothnie who is with us from Murrurundi, will be presiding at Eucharists during each week with me. I say all of this today, because Ash Wednesday is this Wednesday, and by this time next week you will have missed the opportunity to be part of the start of Lent with us. So please read carefully what we are planning, and decide prayerfully the commitment that you will make to join us in our Lenten discipline this year.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus calls those simple fishermen to share with him in the task of building his Church. It was only after they had spent time with Jesus as his disciples that they were able to do what he had called them to do. This Lent we have a number of opportunities to consciously and deliberately draw closer to Jesus as well.