This is not a sermon, so don’t worry. It is, rather, a tale of difficulties on the way to becoming one.
The Gospel reading for this Sunday is Luke 5.1-11. The story is familiar. Jesus preaches to a crowd on the beach from Simon Peter’s fishing boat. After the homily, the Lord tells Simon Peter to go out into the deep and let down the nets for a catch. The fisherman protests, because all through the previous night they had been letting down the nets and failing on every attempt.
But Simon Peter relents, and hauled in such a great catch that the nets were breaking and the boats were sinking. The fishermen are astonished. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be letting down your nets for people.” They quit fishing for fish, and became fishers of men.
This is a simple story, but it resists modern and conventional interpretation. The usual homiletical “take” on this story is to outline some rhetorical syllogism (i.e., an enthymeme) which goes like this: we can all identify with Simon Peter in failing at some goal (like evangelism, or institutional development, or even employment). Jesus is present, and commands us to “try again,” and we obey. This time, our efforts are blessed with success. Because we are in the situation of the fishermen, we can benefit from the same happy ending. We can boil down the narrative and come up with a conclusion -- a peroration that, undoubtedly, involves some "action" that involves a stewardship pledge or a "friendship evangelism" program.
I have heard many orations follow this structure. The particular applications differ, of course. For one instance, evangelism experts love this text, because it looks self-evident as a formula for success: “we are all called to be fishers of men, so we should evangelize Jesus’ way and we’ll succeed.” Other folk, wishing to go beyond church growth strategies, cast this text along a “personal development” (i.e., self-help) trajectory: “with Jesus you can do so much more and fulfill your wildest dreams.”
Many of these interpretations might find actual purchase in other scripture and, occasionally, even in the context of Orthodox dogma. But the interpretation fails immediately at the point of the first premise of the syllogism -- the unsaid argument of the usual sermon: while we often assume that what is said to the Apostles is said to us, we really have no right to position ourselves as the Apostles in the Gospel, because they are the Fishers of Men: not everyone, nor anyone.
Under the sola scriptura rubric, just about anything can happen in hermeneutics (i.e., interpretation). And just about everything does happen in homiletics (i.e., preaching). One of the most harmful of these happenings is the anti-Apostolic hermeneutical bias that is rife in the culture of protestant oration. In this culture, the Apostleship is confused with “the priesthood of all believers.” Since there is no sacramental priesthood, all references to the Apostleship are immediately applied to all believers.
Consequently, Christians wonder whether they should leave their homes and families for some inchoate, restless suspicion that they should be doing something if they are truly sincere about being Christian, simply (and errantly) because they assume that the Apostolic commission in Luke 10 applies immediately to them. The same Christians wonder how they should go about, in their individual experience, “binding things on earth” so that they will be “bound in heaven.” They wonder how they can apply the discipline of Matthew 18 to their everyday relationships, and they develop complicated syntheses of Bible verses and pop psychology – even chimeric devices called “relational theology” and “purpose-driven philosophies.”
Apostles (and monks) are called to leave the familiar. The priesthood also requires this separation from secular culture, but to a lesser extent. But most Christians are expected to “stay in their calling” (1 Corinthians 7.17). The “binding” of "things on earth" applies to sacraments in general, and the Mystery of Reconciliation in particular. It has nothing to do with “naming and claiming,” especially in the context of ecstasy. Furthermore, Matthew 18 applies to a discipline and church order that is possible only in a culture of sacramental hierarchy. It becomes insubstantial, unmoored and outright dangerous (think the "discipling movement") when practiced in a democratic, secularized polity that is unavoidably the case in the reformation milieu. And, God knows, it is not all that useful in common relationships: I am often guilty of not listening to valid complaints about my behavior -- complaints that are expressed by my close friends: I am overjoyed that they do not take their criticisms to the publicity of the church.
The Pentecostal ecstatic experience is no substitute for true Apostleship. One cannot become an Apostle by taking some “spiritual gifts inventory.” One does not ascend to Apostleship no matter how practiced he is in the art of glossolalia.
Apostleship is not and cannot be confined to the letter of Scripture itself. The oxymoronic multiplicity of the protestant rhetoric, in the centuries since the modern age began in the 1500's, proves the impossibility of sola scriptura. Accordingly, Fundamentalism cannot long survive as a Christian organism.
On the other side of the anti-Apostolic spectrum, the mainline Protestant attempt at ridding themselves of the Apostleship ends, also, in frustration. Committees and conferences attempt to speak with Apostolic voice, but they end up sounding like my cackling prurient Jr. High Choir of Rockwood 1971, compared to the voices under Robert Shaw. No consultation or convention has ever occupied the place of the Council of Acts 15 or the Ecumenical Councils, no matter how much they pretend or claim to be.
In Orthodoxy, there is a “priesthood of all believers,” but it is understood as the blessedness of prayer, the privilege of participating in the Holy Mysteries and the possibility of consuming the Eucharist. Every Christian has the Eucharistic vocation of turning his world, in thanksgiving, to the Light of Christ.
But this universal potential for baptized Christians does not apply to the particularity of the presidency of the assembly, to the celebration of the Mysteries, to the establishment of the Church in the world. This is an obvious reference to Apostolic Succession, and it is the Apostleship that persists in the world through history, harboring the treasury of Holy Tradition. And out of this Tradition, and the mystical contemporaneity of the Apostolic theoria, the Apostles and their legatees still speak with the Beautiful Rhetoric “whose net catches the entire world" (Troparia of Pentecost).
The Orthodox Church exists today as a culture of Holy Tradition, and as the means by which the ongoing rhetoric of the real Apostles continues to scandalize the world.
Over that "scandal" – Who is Christ the Cornerstone – we stumble and come to our senses in the dark. In our mental leprosy of sin, the Word of God articulates Wisdom, which we receive as the fullness of psychic health. The Apostles and their progeny, the bishops and the priests, sail out into the deep, which is recognized as the Nous, the Essence Unknown that embraces and pervades all essences, the unsearchable Name above all Names. But into that apophatic Sea they sail with the introduced Word of Stillness, the Mystery of the Son.
After a long night of testifying to the Old Covenant, the teachers of the Law are changed into the Apostles who draw in nets brimming with repletion: they work now in the morning shine of Christ the New, and the catch is hauled into the Ark of Salvation.
The Apostles are the Fishermen, because they are called and not self-invented or self-appointed. In Trinitarian Peace and Beauty, the Gentle Christ calls His Friends through ties of familiarity. Fishermen are called through fishing. Tax-collectors are called through one of their own number. The Magi are called through the stars. The Shepherd calls each lamb by name.
They are called, set into place, ordained in pre-ordainment for the Day of Salvation, positioned in infinite and particular wisdom, at the moment of repentance, for that coming to one’s senses when the casino is transformed into a pigpen, and the plastic banquets of the world’s urgent party is revealed as husks and pods for the swine. At that moment, the Net of the Gospel is let down.
And at that moment, I care nothing for programs or evangelism, or philosophies and modern hermeneutics. I care nothing for semiotics and constructions, consensus statements and reports.
At that moment, on that Day, I am simply glad for allegory.
I am glad for Orthodox exegesis and interpretation.
Because I know, then, that I am a fish.
Caught in a net, hauled in after the night, plucked from the void, abyss and a storm.
I was caught, you see, because only Apostles can fish.