Today I’m going to preach about a full stop. Just one little, tiny dot in today’s Gospel reading.
That’s probably cheered you up no end, because it sounds as if it will be a short sermon – but I’m afraid that may not be the case, because this particular full stop contains the whole of the Good News of Jesus Christ. If we can grasp what this full stop is about, we have grasped the Christian faith.
So where is this wonderful piece of punctuation?
It’s between the first two sentences which the fisherman, Simon, says to Jesus. “Master, we have worked all night long, but have caught nothing - There’s the full stop - Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
Simon, of course, will eventually become Peter, St Peter, the Rock on whom Jesus will build his church, one of its first and greatest leaders, but all that is in the future. At this point Simon is just an ordinary working man, one of many fishermen who earned their living around this lake. He’s doing ok for himself. He’s prosperous enough to own his own boat, but not so wealthy that he doesn’t have to work in it himself. He’s mending his nets on the seashore when Jesus comes along. Jesus is right at the beginning of his ministry but he’s already attracting a crowd. In fact, so many people want to listen to him on this day that they are “pressing in on him”, says the story. No one can really hear or see him clearly. So he asks Simon to take him out in his boat a little way from the shore, so he can use the boat as a platform to preach from. Simon is happy enough to help – he can mend his nets just as well in the boat as sitting on the sand.
We aren’t told what Jesus says to the crowd, what he is teaching. We aren’t told whether Simon is really paying attention to it – he wasn’t one of the crowd who’d sought Jesus out that day– though presumably he can’t help overhearing it. When Jesus finishes whatever it is he has to say, he turns to Simon. What is he going to say? “Thank you for the loan of the boat? Could you row me in to shore again now?” But no, Jesus says to Simon “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Now, if I was Simon, at this point I would be thinking “Who does he think he is?” Jesus may be a good preacher. He may be a halfway decent carpenter. But he isn’t a fisherman. What does he know about fishing? Why does he think Simon is going to accept fishing tips from him? It would be like me turning up at Stonepitts Farm and telling Martin how to grow strawberries. He would be daft to take my advice, because I don’t know anything about strawberry farming.
And anyway, Simon happens to know that there are no fish to be caught. He’s tried. “Master,” he says “we’ve worked all night” – we fishermen, we who actually know what we are doing, as opposed to carpenters and preachers who don’t - “but we’ve caught nothing”.
But then comes that full stop. A pause. A moment when, perhaps, Simon realises what he has just said. He, an experienced fisherman, has caught nothing. All his skill, all his hard work, have come to nothing. There is not so much as a minnow for supper, let alone any fish to sell. The full stop isn’t just on the page, it is right there in Simon’s life, a failure, something beyond his power to change.
We all come to a full stop at some point in our lives – most of us come to one many times over.
We come to a full stop when the relationship we are trying to mend can’t be mended, because the other person doesn’t want to mend it. There is nothing more we can do.
We come to a full stop when our business runs into difficulties because of global political and economic forces that are beyond our power to change.
We come to a full stop when illness or bereavement strike us out of the blue, and all our plans for our lives crumble into dust.
Full stops come in many forms – small ones and big ones – times when there is no solution, no magic wand, nothing we can do, try as hard as we might.
And eventually death itself brings us all to a full stop. No one escapes it.
It doesn’t matter how skilful we are, how powerful, sooner or later life reminds us that we are not all-powerful, and never can be. There are limits to what we can do – limits of time, energy, ability – and we can’t get past them, no matter how clever or dedicated we are. There’s a common mantra around these days , often repeated to children, that “you can be whatever you want to be, if only you believe in yourself and try hard enough.” It’s an appealing idea, and of course no one should squash anyone else’s dreams and aspirations. But sadly that mantra isn’t true. We can’t be whatever we want to be. I might want to be an Olympic pole vaulter, but at 58, and built more for comfort than agility, I think I can cross it off the list of possibilities. Not everyone can be a famous footballer or rock star or brain surgeon or rocket scientist. You’ve got to have the aptitude, the basic natural ability, as well as the opportunity and a dose of good luck. It’s not just about self-belief. And even if we achieve our dreams, sooner or later we have to let go of them again, like Andy Murray, who spent so long working to get to the top of the tennis world, but is now having to face the fact that his body won’t let him stay there. It’s not the end of everything, not the end of the world, but my guess is that it feels like a pretty big full stop for him.
For Simon the fisherman, the full stop comes in the form of empty nets. “We have worked all night long, but have caught nothing.” It may just turn out to be a one night failure, but what if there are no fish the next night, and the night after that? How long will it be before he and his family are in serious trouble? It’s a dilemma which faces many people today, subsistence farmers, zero hours workers, people who can’t be sure where the next meal or the next pay packet is coming from, or whether it is coming at all.
|James Tissot. The Miraculous Draught of Fishes. Brooklyn Museum|
In the Old Testament reading, Isaiah has a similar, transformative, full-stop moment when he is confronted with God’s glory. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…”.
St Paul’s full-stop moment came on the road to Damascus, when God confronted him with his own hatred and prejudice, which was leading him to persecute the followers of Jesus. “I am the least of the apostles” he says in his letter to the church in Corinth. But, like Peter and Isaiah, he found that his full stop was the beginning, not the end. He lost his grip on his own life, but that enabled him to fall into the hands of God, who gave him a whole new one.
The word Paul uses for that discovery is grace. Grace is God’s gift of himself to us. We can’t earn it or deserve it, but it’s there for us, at all times and in all places. Like Paul, Isaiah and Simon, we often only discover it when all else has failed and we find ourselves at a full stop, but the more we learn to look for it and be open to it, the richer and fuller our lives can be and the more that grace can overflow from us to others. “Put out into the deep water” says Jesus to Simon, not just the deep water of the lake, but the deep waters of love and joy and peace and purpose to which God calls him and calls us all.
I said at the beginning that this little full stop around which Simon’s life turns is really all we need to know. In it we find the whole of the Gospel, the good news of Christ. It reminds us that we are frail and fallible and mortal, people who get it wrong, mess it up, fail and fall, but that when we do, we fall into the hands of God, who, in his grace, holds us and heals us and guides us into new life with him.
As our collect today put it:
O God, you know us to be set
in the midst of so many and great dangers,
that by reason of the frailty of our nature,
we cannot always stand upright:
grant to us such strength and protection
as may support us in all dangers
and carry us through all temptations;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit
one God, now and forever. Amen