A Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (2018)
The Miraculous Catch of Fish
Today’s Gospel presents us with an icon of our spiritual life. The image is that of the Apostles who were toiling and laboring all night long, trying to catch fish. Yet, they caught nothing. It was not until the Lord came and told them to let down their nets one more time, and through His blessing they caught so many fish that they began to sink. And then they were told that they would from now on catch men for Christ’s sake.
Here we see human weakness and divine power. Here we see the fruitlessness of all our labors unaided by grace, and the great and immediate transformation wrought by the right hand of the Most High.
We toil and toil. We try to uproot our passions. We are wounded by sin. We get up, we fall down again. We take one step forward, and then five backwards. We may fall into despair or hopelessness. We feel that nothing we do is good enough. No matter how hard we try we will never make any progress.
The Lord is not absent in any of this. But, He does stand meekly and silently in the background of our struggles sometimes. This is a great mystery. He knows exactly how much and for how long it is good for us to labor and tire ourselves out in the spiritual struggle. And then, when He sees the right time, He comes to us and we are filled with great gifts far beyond any imagination or conception or prayer which we had.
Then we will know Who gives spiritual gifts, unconquerable peace, divine sweetness, radiant joy of soul, pure prayer, compassion, humble-mindedness and unifying love.
The Lord knows that “His power is made manifest in weakness.” The Lord knows that we must often toil away without any immediate reward or noticeable result. The Lord knows our measure. He sees all of our labors and looks upon us all the while sweetly with love.
How tiresome is our struggle against sin, against our passions, against this world’s sway and the enticing and overpowering influence of our fallenness. But how much greater is that divine grace which irradiates our whole being when God so wills that it should shine from within our midst.
St. Maximus the Confessor says that humility is born of knowledge, knowledge of two things: human weakness and divine omnipotence, divine power. If we are only aware of human weakness, yet ignorant of divine power, we will despair. And if we are only aware of divine power, but ignorant of human weakness, we might get puffed up by pride.
The more we experience our weakness, the more we learn our limits. The more we learn our limits, the more we understand our deep need for God, our complete dependence on Him. And through this we are enlightened to the reality that all things are from His hand. We will then learn not to take for granted the breath in our nostrils, nor the correct functioning of our organs, the many miraculous things which take place unknown to us even in the complex structure of our humble bodies.
The more we enter into this knowledge of God’s upholding of all creation, the more we will marvel at Him Who orchestrates the whole universe, both visible and invisible in a divine harmony. We will see how He can even use the devil and his wicked hosts for our good and strengthening through trials.
Angels, demons, souls, plants, the orbits of the earth and all the planets, the vast and seemingly infinite expanse of space with all of its wonders, all people, all nations—all things are in His hand, in His power, in His knowledge. What a mystery this is. Every hair of ours is numbered, no small little bird falls to the ground without His knowledge.
Every thought, every feeling, every tear, every sorrow, every slight movement of the heart, every prayer, every joy, every small thing—both within and without us—all of this is known and felt by God. All things are balanced by Him and it is a great Mystery Whom we serve.
When we think that the end has come. When we think that our sins have finally annihilated us. When we think that we are doomed for all eternity to separation from God and torments, then it is that God manifests the glorious love and grace of His divine power.
We need to be stretched beyond our limits. God knows our limits. And He wants to teach us that we are nothing without Him. How delicate this life is. We walk upon the dirt of this earth as if it were more stable than the invisible upholding of God’s power which sustains it. We trust more in oxygen and physics than the Life-Giving Spirit Who alone imparts life through physical elements.
If this earth seems so stable, how much more is God’s hand? When this earth and all things in it are melted by the divine flame and God is made manifest to all in all of His unveiled glory, then we will know the truth.
But this is part of divine vision, this is how the Saints see the whole world. But there is a vision closer to each and everyone of us—the vision of our selves. But this vision is only truly seen through God.
This is the vision of St. Peter which makes him cry out: “Depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man!” This is the vision of Isaiah who, when he beheld the Lord of glory surrounded by the fiery seraphim, cried out: “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips surrounded by am unclean people, I am undone for I have seen the King.” Abraham too had this vision, which made him proclaim, “I am dust and ashes!”
Abba Isaac says, “greater is he who sees himself than he who sees angels.” And St. John of the Ladder says that the vision of ourselves leads to the vision of angels. Not in a physical manner, but with the invisible eye of the mind.
But let us not focus on the vision of angels, but that which is of us. There is a vision beyond both of these, and that is the one of God’s glory, when a man is rapt outside himself and is only conscious of He Who Is.
But this is the Saints’ portion which is reserved for the next life, which they partake of a little in this life. But given to all is the vision of our own selves.
What is this vision? It is not some sort of self-preoccupation. It is not some sort of self-absorption. It is not some sort of obliviousness to everything else. But it is a vision in and through God which changes the way we see Him, ourselves and the world around us.
It shows us our sins, but overwhelms us even more with God’s long-suffering love for us, and this breaks the heart with a sweet pain and tears of humility, thankfulness and love.
When we seek to draw closer to Christ, we may expect to be uplifted beyond all sorrow into a painless bliss. And sometimes we are given small tastes of this. But these are not to be laid hold of permanently in this life. Even as Mary sought to cling to the feet of the Risen Lord and heard His rebuke, or rather, His manifestation of the nature of things, “do not cling to Me, for I must ascend!”
It is as if He is saying, “here, in this life, be satisfied with the brief vision and small taste of Me, but know that you cannot remain in unchanging peace, joy and a perfectly untroubled frame of soul in this life. Here you must experience both joy and sorrow, both sweetness and pain, both peace and trial, both life and death…only then and there, in that world where no trouble exists for all eternity, after I come again, only there can you find unchanging peace and that certainty and stability which you now seek.”
Much of mankind desires a utopian dream here in this life, on this earth. This desire is not fully wrong. It is that craving for Paradise which can never be blotted out from any heart of fallen man. But as Orthodox Christians, we have both the blessing and the sorrow to know that this world is only going to get much worse, it is going to decay more and more.
The good will be more perfected, and the evil will become more evil, until that time comes when the good wheat sown by God and the evil weeds sown by the devil both come to maturity, and this world is ripe for the harvest of Christ when He shall come again in glory—drawing all of us who seek His face to Himself, and sorrowfully granting to the stubborn and unrepentant their desire: eternal life without Him, which is endless death.
This is not the absence of the Lord’s presence which St. Peter was begging from the Lord. St. Peter’s cry was a holy one. But the begging of the Lord’s departure of the unrepentant is that of the Gadarenes, who—when they saw a possessed man healed and at perfect peace, and saw their much-beloved swine drowned—asked the Lord to depart from them.
Meek and humble, He granted their request. But to St. Peter, and to all who—with consciousness—understand their uncleanness and darkness and unworthiness before the All-Spotless Lord, to them Christ does not depart, but enlists them in His eternal service.
It is not the outward form which Christ looks at. St. Peter begged the Lord to depart, but Christ drew Peter to Himself for all eternity, beginning in this earthly life. The Gadarene demoniac who was healed, begged the Lord to take him with Him, but the Lord sent him back to his own city to proclaim Christ there. St. Peter desired the Lord’s absence out of extreme humility. The healed demoniac desired His presence out of extreme thankfulness. The Lord answered each according to their need, as He alone knows what is best for all.
Likewise, St. Mary grasped at Christ’s feet and heard, “touch Me not.” But at another time in the Gospel, it states that some of the women who saw the Risen Lord fell down and grasped His feet, and did not receive any rebuke or correction.
The Lord knows how to deal with each. He knows everything about us. One man is given ten thousand gifts which are manifest to all. Another seems to have only a thousand crosses, which weigh heavily upon him. But the Lord does not judge each the same way. He does not compare us to any other human being. He takes each into consideration, mercifully helping each as they need as He knows best, as He wills, in the way He wills, by His divine power.
He desires our hearts. He does not need ten thousands of prostrations, but He receives even three if they are made with contrition and the knowledge of our nothingness before Him. He does not need our fasting, nor our prayers, but He receives them if they are done in humility and knowledge of His all-accomplishing power.
One man serves the sick, but he might be proud, thinking he is doing something great. Another man serves the sick, and all the while He is thanking God in humility for allowing him to serve Him. One man prays for three hours, but he is self-satisfied. Another prays for the same amount of time and he is overcome by His nothingness before the Lord. Abba Dorotheos teaches us that toil and prayer lead to humility, but what exactly the essence of humility is, no man can express in words, but he who has tasted this power will know it.
Toil keeps us humble, whether of body or soul. And prayer, the Saint says, will instill within us humility. Why? Because the man who receives any good gift, has received it from God. The man who prays, all the while knowing his complete dependence on the Heavenly Father, when the gift finally comes, will know without a doubt where it came from. But the man who receives God’s countless gifts without ever praying will think that he is the source of them.
And here is the image of today’s Gospel. The Apostles toiled and labored all night, exerting their own will and craft. But when the Lord came, and they obeyed Him, and did the same motion of letting down their nets, but this time with the Lord’s blessing, they caught so many fish that they began to sink. Understanding the power of the Lord, St. Peter was moved to extreme compunction, falling down before the Master, begging His mercy.
This is the image of the soul which knows that it is dust in itself, but crowned with divine life by the grace of the Lord. Let us seek to draw closer and closer to Christ, and even if it seems that we are getting further and further away from Him, let us seek Him even more. For the Saints—who drew ever closer to the Lord—came to know Him more and more.
But the more they came to know Him, the more they came to know themselves, and this led them to see themselves farther away from the Lord than they ever had seen before. But this ever-increasing vision of their distance from the Lord filled them with an insatiable thirst for Christ more and more. Let us seek to enter this mysterious path of the Saints towards Christ, relying on His great mercy and the prayers of His most pure Mother, and all of His countless angels and Saints. Amen.
Leave a comment