Gospel Reading: Luke 5:‘ 1 — 11 (18th Sunday after Pentecost)
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Dear brothers and sisters!
In today’s Gospel reading we hear our Saviour offering some simple advice to the fishermen: “launch out into the deep.” These fishermen – the Lord’s apostles – had been fruitlessly laboring all night on the Sea of Galilee, trying to catch fish. Upon following the command of Christ, the fishermen were blessed with a massive haul of fish, so large, in fact, that other fishing vessels had to come to their assistance so that they could make it back to shore without sinking.
For many of us today, the stories of Christ’s miracles seem very detached from our day to day lives. How does this story of a miraculous catch of fish help us get through life and what does it mean for us, who may never have to set out onto the sea in search of sustenance? As in all of the Holy Scriptures, we must penetrate into the deeper meaning of the word of God, which is where we will find the most spiritually nourishing teachings of Christ.
What is important in today’s Gospel reading is not the great haul of fish. In fact, the fish themselves are peripheral to the real message of what is being conveyed here. The most important passage is, of course, Our Lord’s words: “launch out into the deep.” This is not an order or a command, but instead, like in other places in the Gospels, a suggestion, or even better, an invitation. Just as Our Lord calls the Apostles with an invitation to “come and see,” here the Lord invites the Apostles and, through them, us to “launch out into the deep.”
To “launch out into the deep,” spiritually interpreted, is to fully immerse oneself in the depths of the Christian life, which is unfathomably deep. As Saint Paul says, this is “the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God” As the Psalmist says, it is out of these depths that we cry unto the Lord, and He hearkens to us, and again, when he writes that “deep crieth out unto deep,” which is the prayer of one’s heart.
Why does the Lord invite us to “launch out into the deep,” rather than order or command us? Because, brothers and sisters, the greatest depth of the Christian life is true Gospel love, and there can be no love in compulsion. Saint John the Theologian, whose memory we commemorated yesterday, was one who plunged into the true depths of the spiritual life and was immersed in exalted contemplation, hence his being known as the Theologian. His simple instruction for us, however, is not some abstract mystical teaching, but the simple command to “love one another,” three words that are said to have been Saint John’s most succinct and straightforward apostolic homily. Jesus Christ invites us to these depths, not ordering us, because, as I have said, there is no love in compulsion and, when there is no love, there can be no true religion.
Our Saviour invites us – invites you – to these depths, because it is only by “launching out into the deep” of Christian life, which is the only true and authentic spiritual life, that we can overcome the trials, tribulations, and temptations of this life in the “vale of tears..” A religion based on compulsion can never extend beyond the externals – mere shallow, skin-deep observance of customs, rites and perfunctory religious obligations – and will never penetrate into the deep heart of man, rousing within him that great capacity to genuine Gospel love, which seeks not itself. A religion based on mere compulsion and external observances becomes nothing but the ritualistic and empty moralism of the Pharisees, a hypocritical, self-serving, and ultimately delusional way of life. Brothers and sisters, this is not what we are called to! Always remember that it was this kind of stale, externalized faith practiced by a multitude of the Russian people that led to the fall of the world’s largest Christian nation at the time of the revolution, but, conversely, it was the deep, serious faith of another multitude that gave the Church the New Martyrs and Confessors. The choice is yours.
The Lord Jesus Christ invites us to “launch out into the deep” because He does not want us to stay in the shallows, where nothing worthwhile can be found. How many people do we know who, having once been members of Christ’s true Church, the Orthodox Church, have left, either to some sect, or simply to unbelief, excusing their apostasy by telling us that they “weren’t spiritually nourished” or complaining of having nothing more than a basic – and usually flawed — understanding of the faith, having only experienced the externals? There are many such cases, but these complaints are like those of a man who leaves a swimming pool complaining that it was too shallow to swim in, yet having completely ignored the deep end, where he could have immersed himself in the waters and swam to his heart’s content.
A shallow faith is no real faith at all and we will see this truth manifest itself time and time again when hardships and tragedies strike. A true faith, a deep faith, will sustain us through all tragedies, all turmoil, and the bleakest days of our lives. We only have to look around at our own community to see the sudden and horrifying tragedies that can occur at any time, or to the world around us, which has been turned on its head for over a year now. We would quickly sink if it were not for the faith which not only sustains us, but strengthens us and gives us hope. Without a deep faith in Christ and in the Orthodox Church that He has given to us, we would be like the fishermen in the Gospel – adrift and toiling without profit on the unsteady seas of life.
In truth, this is what the Apostles themselves say: “we have labored all the night and have taken nothing.” This is a life without faith, without the deep spiritual life only found within the Orthodox Church. Without faith, we labour all night in the darkness of unbelief, without the light of Christ to guide us. All of our life’s labors, all of our struggling and striving, ultimately amount to nothing if we are separated from the love of Jesus Christ and the grace that He gives to us. Often, man only realizes the futility of his many labors and works when death stares him in the face and he is confronted by his own mortality. Brothers and sisters, let us not offer empty labors in this life and come away with empty nets, but let us instead “launch out into the deep” and receive the blessed reward of those who labour for Christ.
We are invited to “launch out into the deep” and receive the many blessings of the life in Christ – true spiritual life. What is true spiritual life, however? Is it exalted mystical experiences, visions, bright lights, and heightened emotional states? Certainly not! It is simpler than that. Our own Vladyka Averky explains: “spiritual life consists of satisfying the needs of the spirit, and the needs of the spirit consist of a person’s striving towards God, seeking for living communion with Him, and the desire to live according to God’s will.”
It’s as simple as striving to keep the commandments! The “short Gospel” is the simple path to true spiritual life, true Gospel love, and true immersion into the depths of the life that Christ Himself offers to us: “Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Upon these two commandments are the entire Law of God built and, as Saint Paul says, “love therefore is the fulfilling of the Law.”
This Law, brothers and sisters, the very Law of God Himself, is not, as we have seen, the mere perfunctory observance of rules, regulations, and customs. It is the entire inner renewal of man, coming about through repentance and the softening of one’s heart towards others, through God’s grace, as Saint Paul says in today’s epistle that we are “fellow workers with God” who should not receive His grace in vain, but should multiply it like the talents. God’s grace, working in the depths of our hearts, will help us to endure all things for Christ’s sake, bearing not only our own burden, but also one another’s, and so fulfilling the Law of Christ.
True Gospel love, however, is not a sickly, saccharine Hallmark moment full of constant smiles and giggles. True Gospel love, brothers and sisters, is completely united to truth, and is therefore not afraid of the stern word and the necessary rebuke. The false love that we see preached so often these days is truly of the devil in that it is now “unloving” to try and turn someone away from the path of sin and evil. True Gospel love is patient and kind, but it is not indulgent. It does not rejoice in iniquity, but instead rejoices in the truth, and therefore it is hated and rejected by the worldly. True Gospel love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things; it is the highest virtue that we must attain to. We must constantly strive to grow in true Gospel love, continually purifying our hearts and our motives in order to reflect God’s love more perfectly.
Strengthened by God’s grace, working through our faith cultivated in the depths of the spiritual life, we can answer the call of Saint Paul to “exhibit ourselves […] in much patience, in tribulation, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in prisons, in seditions, in labours, in watchings, in fastings, in chastity, in knowledge, in longsuffering, in sweetness, in the Holy Spirit, in charity unfeigned, in the word of truth, in the power of God: by the armour of justice on the right hand and on the left: By honour and dishonour: by evil report and good report: as deceivers and yet true: as unknown and yet known: As dying and behold we live: as chastised and not killed: As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing: as needy, yet enriching many: as having nothing and possessing all things.” These are the virtues that we are called to struggle for, and the fruits of the Holy Spirit that we are promised in return. Even if we lose all things in this struggle, we will possess all things, for those who have the love of God in their heart have everything.
This is what is means to “launch out into the deep,” for when we answer Our Saviour’s invitation to join Him in the depths of the true and authentic spiritual life, when we cast our nets into unknown waters, trusting in the words of the Master, we will have our own miraculous catch of fish. Not the material fish that satisfy our stomachs, but a spiritual catch of fish, which is the great multitude of God’s gifts that are so numerous that we must call others alongside us so that we may share with them. Is this not like the saints to whom we have recourse for their intercessions? Do we not flee to beloved saints like Saint Seraphim of Sarov, Blessed Xenia, Saint John of Kronstadt and, of course, the All-Holy Mother of God for their assistance because, like the Apostles in today’s Gospel, their boats are overflowing with a multitude of God’s rich gifts, gifts that they strongly desire to share with us? Truly it is, brothers and sisters.
As an aside, the fish that were caught by the Apostles in the Sea of Galilee are known to this day as “Saint Peter’s fish,” and anyone who has been on pilgrimage to the area can testify that these are some of the most delicious fish that one can eat, therefore confirming that the gifts God bestows upon us – whether it be a simple meal of fish or His abundant mercy – are the greatest imaginable.
Greater than a meal of fish that merely satisfies the stomach, however, is the meal of God Himself – the sacred mystery of Holy Communion of His Body and Blood – that He offers for us and to us today. This is the greatest depth and the greatest mystery known to man, one before which, like Peter, we say “I am a sinful man!” Nonetheless, despite our faults, our sins, and our uncleanness, just as Our Lord ever invites us to “launch out into the deep,” and receive His great gifts, He invites us now to receive His greatest gift, eternal life, freely offered to us out of His abundant love for mankind. Launch out then, brothers and sisters, and cast out the net of faith to receive a bountiful catch of His mercy and love towards us.
About the author
Hierodeacon Theodore (Stanway) is a graduate of Holy Trinity Seminary’s B.Th. and M.Div. programs. He was tonsured into the lesser schema by Bishop Luke of Syracuse in 2019 and ordained to the diaconate in 2021.