Homily for the 5th Sunday OT C ~ "Duc in Altum: Put Out into the Deep" ~ Rev. Richard Eslinger
In a lovely bay off Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada, an Anglican Church sits just off the sea shore. It is a tourist attraction and you gently open the door—it is always open—and gaze about the worship space. Immediately, your eyes are drawn to the pulpit, the ambo. It is the actual bow portion of a boat, freshly sanded and painted, jutting out into the nave. The minister literally “comes aboard” the boat of the church and moves to the bow to preach.
Of course, this nautical feature at St. John the Evangelist Church is not some kind of modern innovation. We just heard the story of Jesus coming to Lake Gennesaret (another name for the Sea of Galilee) and borrowing Simon Peter’s boat. He asked to be shoved off a bit where he could preach and teach the crowds who were following him. The boats was available, though, because Peter and his partners had used them all night, fishing, and had not caught a thing,…not even a minnow. So Jesus “comes aboard” Simon’s boat and teaches the Good News to the crowds.
Completing his preaching and teaching, Jesus says to Simon, “Duc in Altum,” the Latin translation of the Greek in Luke’s Gospel: “Put out into deep water,” or, more literally, “draw out into the deep.” The command here can mean, quite literally, “Put out into the deep water,” but the Greek word has other, deeper meanings as well. One commentator notes that while this word may have a negative meaning—such as “the unknown, spiritual darkness, disorder, danger”--it can also be used in a variety of productive ways—“fullness, immeasurable insight, infinite knowledge.”(1)
Across the tradition of the church, faithful followers of Christ have known that Jesus’ invitation has a quality about it that pushes beyond just “get away from the shore for a while.” Instead we are invited on a journey to the deeps precisely where we do not usually tend to go. After all, Simon and his partners had been engaged in the same occupation for a long season of their lives and had never heard their calling put this way before. “Put out into the deep,” Jesus announces. This call can come to deepen faith and expand the use of our baptismal gifts, such as when we engage in music ministry, offering our gifts of
song in the liturgy or joining in a ministry of hospitality to the poor and hungry.
On the other hand, the call to put out into the deep can involve our being led to new vocations well outside our usual comfort zone. Sometimes, our response involves both the familiar and yet the risk of faith. In thirty days from today, some of us (or if no rite of election is anticipated this Lent, we can simply refer to “some catechumens”) will join with others to present ourselves for the Lenten journey to Holy Baptism. This rite of election is a profound watershed in itself; we are emphatically following the Lord Jesus’ call to go out into the deep. Gifts of the Spirit will abound at our baptismal waters and the call to go into the deep will be guided by those gifts. But, of course, all of us who are the baptized faithful have been blessed by manifold gifts of the Holy Spirit and every gift awaits a call to go out into the deep. Howard Thurman, a twentieth century African American theologian, civil rights activist, and spiritual counselor spoke of this going into the deep from the perspective of a diver:
From this area (the “belt of the fishes”), the diver moves to a depth of water that cannot be penetrated by light above the surface. It is dark, foreboding, and eerie. The diver’s immediate reaction is apt to be one of fear and, sometimes, a spasm of panic that soon passes. As the diver drops deeper and deeper into the abyss, slowly the eyes begin to pick up the luminous quality of the darkness. Once a diver relaxes and lets go of their fear; once the diver’s eyes adjust to the depth and the pressure, they become aware of “the luminous quality of the darkness” and can move into the lower regions of the ocean “with confidence and peculiar vision” (2)
Jesus commands Peter, and invites us all: “Duc in Altum.” “Go out into the deep.” We are now finished with living just in the shallows. With Jesus, we ready ourselves to go into the deep.
Out in the deep, Jesus now says to Simon, “Lower your nets for a catch.” Simon’s response makes sense: “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing.” Simon adds, “But at your command I will lower the nets.” At once, there is a great catch of fish. It seems like every whopper in Lake Genneserat has instantly headed to those nets and gotten enmeshed in them! The nets struggle with this totally unique situation—more fish than they have caught, ever. Luke tells us that the nets were tearing, that their embrace of this mob of fish
was about to lose its hold. Simon and his boat mate signal their partners in the other boat and the fish were raised from the deep and loaded into both boats.
They soon were filled to the gunnels…and both were in danger of sinking. As Simon and his partners were about this nautical harvest, several insights may have crossed their minds. This huge catch of fish would certainly take care of the hunger of the crowds still standing there on the shore, watching the whole drama. But more, the fish will provide for the community on land that was their home as well. “This is food enough to sell so that the fishermen will have resources beyond today…And, the food that is sold becomes daily sustenance to others,” (3) one preacher put it. Abundance is at the heart of this miraculous catch, as is community. No wonder we speak of God’s sacramental Gift of the Body and Blood of Christ as a “Feast.” Feeding our hungry hearts, offering forgiveness of sins, molding us into one Body, promising the Gift of eternal life,…a Feast of abundance and joy.
Peter’s response to this miracle of sheer abundance, though, is a bit puzzling. He responds by falling before Jesus’ knees and saying, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” He is caught by this catch, but with surprise and fear. Does this signal Peter’s deep, awakened piety and trust in his Lord? Yes, perhaps. Or does his kneeling confession also say at the same time, “I’m not ready for this kind of mystery and Divine action.” Is Simon here moving toward Jesus in growing faith or is he, perhaps simultaneously, saying “I am only a simple fisherman”? “Lord, leave me to these things about which I am familiar.” If you sense that Simon’s spiritual plight here is not unique to him, then you are probably on the right track. How many of the biblical prophets and saints of the church began their vocations with just this kind of inner contradiction in the face of God’s call? How many of us, even just now, are wrestling, in the dark of the night with a similar spiritual quandary? How often do we hear someone say, “I’m just a lay person.” Abundance and its call and promise or flight back to the ordinary: Simon here embodies all our contradictions in the face of God’s miraculous promises and mighty deeds.
At this point, Simon hears the familiar words of the Lord and of angels of the Lord: “Do not be afraid.” Jesus adds, “from now on you will be catching men,” “catching people.” One bishop of the Church sent this word in his New Year letter: “The way the ‘fishing for people’ unfolds in Luke’s Gospel is not coercive or domineering. It is personal, relational work—deep water work—where healing and plenty follow and mark the encounters of the disciples with Jesus and with God’s people.” (4) Precisely in these sour and horribly divisive times, our Lord calls us to come out to the deep and blesses us with such abundance—Word, water, bread and wine and each other in Christ. And could we also agree that in such a time, we are called as individuals and as a parish to be about this deep water work of fishing for people? (A particular ministry of some persons, the parish, or the diocese needs to be named here which embodies such deep water work of Christ.) So Jesus announces to Simon, “From now on you will be catching people.” Jesus adds, “Do not be afraid.
Now this ambo may not look at all like the bow of a Lake Huron fishing boat, but it serves the purpose. All of us here in the nave, the church’s “ship,” have been invited to say farewell to the shallows of our life and venture out into the deep. We have seen, out here over many fathoms of water, the miraculous wonders of God and heard again the promises in our baptism. For the baptized, every Spirit-gift has been provided for us to take up our “free and regenerative love of God, with a welcoming and merciful attitude toward everyone,” as Pope Francis put it. (5) For the catechumens, this gift and this vocation will soon be yours. So welcome to this Lord’s Day and its Feast of Abundance, fishers of people. Rejoice in such a blessing as we are provided, here in the Deep with Christ.
1 Paula Owens Parker, “Luke 5:1-11,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, Dec. 11, 2019, accessed Jan. 27, 2022, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0020964319876584.
2 Howard Thurman, The Luminous Darkness (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1999 reprint), vii. (alt.)
3 Kendra A. Mohn, “Luke 5:1-11,” Working Preacher, Jan. 24, 2021, accessed Jan. 28, 2022, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/fish-for-people/commentary-on-luke-51-11-5.
4 Paul Otsuka Yoshinao, Bishop of Kyoto, “New Year Pastoral Letter,” Jan. 2002, accessed Jan. 27, 2022, http://www.kyoto.catholic.jp/new/english/bp200201.html.
5 Pope Francis, “Angelus,” Sunday, February 7, 2016, accessed Jan. 27, 2022, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/angelus/2016/documents/papa-francesco_angelus_20160207.html.