Joy of All Who Sorrow

18th Sunday after Pentecost / St. Sergius of Radonezh

Luke 5:1-11 (§17); Luke 6:17-23 (§24)

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear ones: Happy Feast! Spraznecom!

With this Sunday we move from the many parables of the Kingdom of Heaven in St Matthew’s Gospel and the healing of the Cananite woman’s daughter, which we were meditating on last week, to the holy Gospel of St Luke. In today’s first reading we hear of the calling of the disciples by the lake of Gennesaret which is how St Luke distinctively refers to the plain of Genassaret on the Western shore of the Sea of Gailee between the towns of Capernaum and Magdala. As is our custom, let us look at today’s Gospel with the help of our father among the saints, St Cyril of Alexandria who wrote a commentary on this holy Gospel.

Although we are right at the beginning of our Lord’s ministry, in Chapter 4 of the Gospel, ever since His Baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan, our Lord was immediately out conducting healings, exorcisms and miracles as well as openly preaching in the synagogues in Nazareth, Galilee and Capernaum. And it was the poor in spirit, the people humbled by affliction, suffering and pain that were drawn to Him and to His inspired preaching as He taught with one with ‘authority’ and not as the Scribes and Pharisees. Indeed, Jesus was already becoming so popular as a preacher and worker of miracles, that, at certain times, there was not space for Him to easily preach on the land due to the push and crush of the crowds which followed after Him. And it was at this point, by the Sea of Galilee, that our Gospel reading today starts –

And [Jesus] saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets.

This moment, when our Lord comes across this burly band of fishermen beside the lakeside who would become His holy disciples and apostles is an evocative one. We can imagine Simon and the other fishmen sitting there tired, hungry and rather dejected, perhaps, from another night’s fruitless fishing beside the lapping water.

And He entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And He sat down, and taught the people out of the ship.

It is likely, I think that Simon would have recognized Christ and wanted to help Him, as we know from chapter 4:38 of the Gospel, that just a day or two earlier our Lord had gone into Simon’s house and healed his mother-in-law who had been very ill with a ‘great fever’. Simon’s willingness to help our Lord and to act as His waterside pulpit was perhaps in gratitude of the healing He had wrought.

Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.

However, just as our Lord saw and chose Nathaniel long before He saw Him under the fig tree, so too had our Lord seen and chosen Simon, and the other disciples with him, long before He arrived at the sea of Galilee. Our Lord knew that Simon would be of more use to the Kingdom than a mobile waterside pulpit. How easy though might it have been, from a worldly perspective, to overlook this sad and dejected band of fishless fishermen. Yet this is not how our deeply loving Lord saw them, and this is not how our Compassionate Saviour looks upon each one of us. Christ saw in these humble fishermen of Galilee the great saints that they would become through the Holy Spirit and the deep hearts which would become enflamed with the love of the Gospel. We can also see our Lord’s condescension and Divine Artfulness, how He used fish to in turn fish for these fishermen. As St Cyril says, ‘by means of their pursuits as fishermen catches the disciples as fish’.

And Simon answering said unto Him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at Thy word I will let down the net.

We can see here Simon’s clear respect for Christ, not only as the miracle-working healer of his mother-in-law but also as the inspired preacher of God’s Word. Yet despite his own scepticism, Simon still goes out for a catch. Simon was probably all the more sceptical as the fishing method that the disciples were using relied upon casting the nets out during the night, so that the fish would not be able to see the mesh. If the fish managed to avoid the nets during the night, how much less likely would it be for them to avoid the nets during the day? And yet, as our Lord says in chapter 18:27 of the same Gospel – ‘things which are impossible with men are possible with God’.

And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake.

There is perhaps no greater example of what we Orthodox mean by synergy, of how our own wills need to interact and participate together with God’s grace, than this image of the fishless fisherman who on their own, by their own will and own efforts caught nothing, but then, with the blessing and grace of the Lord, they were barely able to pull in all the fish which were caught.

And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink.

In his commentary, St Cyril also draws attention to another aspect of the story which is easily missed when hearing it read, regarding the refence in verse seven that when they saw the vast catch of fish they had made they – beckoned unto their partners. They weren’t just gesturing because they were of a more tactile, Mediterranean culture. They were gesturing as, like Zacharias in the Temple, they had been rendered dumb. As St Cyril says –

Neither Simon nor his companions could draw the net to the land, and therefore, being speechless from fright and astonishment – for their wonder had made them mute – they beckoned … their partners … to come and help’.

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.

For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken:

From Simon’s, or Simon Peter’s as he is called here for the first time in the Gospel, we can see also the reason why our Lord chose him. His first reaction upon receiving this miraculous catch was not, as we might react in similar circumstances, to think how much money we might make or what delicious fish dishes we might eat. No, this big fisherman has humility and rather than worldly thoughts, first thinks of His own sinfulness in comparison with the One who is in His boat.

And so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him.

And here we see the Divine Strategy brought perfectly into practice by the Word. As St Cyril says –

The holy Apostles who, though themselves well skilled in fishing, yet fell into Christ’s meshes, that they also, letting down the drag-net of the Apostolic preachings, might gather unto Him the inhabitants of the whole world.

In his commentary, St Cyril also notes in Christ’s turning to fisherman as his disciples, a fulfilment of a prophesy from Jeremiah – ‘Behold I send many fishers, saith the Lord, and they will catch them as fish’.

Just as the fishermen with Christ could catch a great myriad of fish, so with Christ these Spirit-filled fishermen would go out into the world and catch as many men as fishes.

By a visible fact, and by a type and representation, miraculously enacted, they might be fully convinced that their labour would not be unrewarded, nor the zeal fruitless which they displayed in spreading out the Gospel teaching; for that most certainly should catch within it the shoals of the heathen.

Today we also commemorate a number of saints who shine out in their Apostolicity, their ability to catch men for Christ. First of all we remember our holy father among the saints, St Sergius of Radonezh, the Abbot of Russia that great founder and father of Monasticism in holy Rus. St Sergius, was a man who, like Simon and the other disciples was somewhat overlooked. We know that as a child, St Sergius, or Bartholemew as he was called before becoming a monk, very much struggled with reading and learning. However, through the miraculous blessing of an Angel dressed as a monk who the child Bartholemew encountered he was given the ability to learn and read with ease, and with this he then grew in knowledge and in wisdom. From these unlikely beginnings, Bartholemew’s burning love for Christ, led him out into the forested wilderness of Northern Russia where he kindled and purified his love for God and cleansed himself of the passions. In the life of St Sergius we see fulfilled that great saying of St Seraphim of Sarov – Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved. As indeed, although St Sergius longed for silence and seclusion, no sooner did he settle than more and more monks and lay people were drawn to this holy man, and monasteries, villages and towns began to grow around him. In the Life of the saint we also read of a beautiful vision that the saint which reminds us of the miracle of our Lord and the fishes with the disciples Simon, James and John.

One day the saint, in accordance with his usual rule, was keeping vigil and praying for the brotherhood late at night when he heard a voice calling, “Sergius!” He was astonished, and opening the window of the cell he beheld a wondrous vision. A great radiance shone in the heavens; the night sky was illumined by its brilliance, exceeding the light of day. A second time the voice called: “Sergius! Thou prayest for thy children; God has heard thy prayer. See and behold great numbers of monks gathered together in the name of the Everlasting Trinity, in thy fold, and under thy guidance.” The saint looked and beheld a multitude of beautiful birds, flying, not only on to the monastery, but all around; and he heard a voice saying, “As many birds as thou seest by so many will thy flock of disciples increase; and after thy time they will not grow less if they will follow in thy footsteps.

And we can also see the exactly the same apostolic phenomenon in the lives of our holy fathers Finbar of Cork and Cadoc of Llancarfan, both of whom were to found monasteries around which towns would be built and out of which many, many monastics and missionaries would in turn spread the light of Christ into the Celtic lands of Ireland, Cornwall, Scotland and Wales.

Dear father, brothers and sisters: In his commentary, St Cyril compares the partners that helped the disciples to draw the disciples’ nets in to the bishops and priests of today and all generations who continue to fish for men.

For still is the net drawn while Christ fills it, and summons unto conversion those in the depth of the sea … who live in the surge and waves of worldly things’.

Indeed, all of us could be said to be fish who have been netted for Christ, and rescued from the sea of the world, the sea of doubt, unbelief and despair until we were caught by the love of Christ in the great Apostolic nets cast out by the Church. Through the prayers of these great apostolic saints – St Sergius, St Finbar and St Cadoc may we too grow in the love and peace of God, so that we too might draw others into the saving nets of Christ.