"I am going out fishing," said Peter.
Shortly after Easter one year, I was preparing a sermon on the passage in John’s Gospel, chapter 21, where Jesus appeared to his disciples by the Sea of Galilee. The disciples had travelled there because Jesus had told them to go. Once there, not knowing what else to do, and led by Peter, they decide to go fishing. “But that night they caught nothing,” John tells us.
Why didn’t they catch any fish? I decided to consult various commentaries to see what the opinions of the writers were. The first six volumes were unanimous. The disciples didn’t catch any fish because they made an impulsive decision. They shouldn’t have ventured onto the lake at all. They should have spent that night in prayer, waiting for the promised arrival of their Lord.As William Temple says, “The work we do at the impulse of our own wills is futile.”
I wasn’t too sure about this. A seventh commentary came to my aid with a different view.“ These men needed to eat,” it said, bluntly. At last, a realistic view of the disciples’ situation. They couldn’t go to a cash point and get some money out. They gained their living by fishing. Fishing would feed them and so that is what they did.
Far be it from me to dispute with Archbishop Temple, but all too often the church has had a low view of, and even ignored the value of, people’s working lives. It has not recognised the importance of work to the people themselves, to the communities in which they live and to the advancement of the kingdom of God.
This has gone on through the centuries. I often find myself in Lichfield Cathedral. With a few moments to spare once, I walked round looking at the memorials. There were plenty of soldiers, a whole lot of clergy and some wealthy landowners, together with their wives and children. But with one exception, Erasmus Darwin “Physician, Philosopher and Poet”, no one was commemorated for their profession. There were no merchants, manufacturers or millers, no surveyors, scientists or sportspeople, no barristers, builders or bakers.
It is clear evidence of a scared-secular divide. There have been exceptions to this, times when the church grasped the importance of daily work. William Temple himself was a key figure behind a report published in 1945 “Towards the Conversion of England”.
Some points from this visionary document:
Evangelism in the working world means more than bearing personal testimony to Christ…. It also means claiming for Christ the whole of the particular occupation in which we are engaged, and the doing of our work to reflect his likeness.
We are convinced that England will never be converted until the laity use the opportunities for evangelism daily afforded by their various professions, crafts and occupations.
…the Christian laity should be recognised as the priesthood of the Church in the working world, and as the Church militant in action in the mission fields of politics, industry and commerce.
The report comes from an era when great strides were made in bringing the nation, wounded by war, together. The National Health Service was introduced, and welfare provision was made “from cradle to grave.” Sadly “Towards the Conversion of England” had little lasting legacy.
A new report, “Setting God’s People Free” has taken up this theme in a way fitted to our generation. A helpful booklet guide, “Setting God’s People Free for… Monday to Saturday” gives some very practical suggestions for how churches could recognise the working lives of their people and equip them for discipleship in the workplace.
I still don’t know why the disciples didn’t catch any fish that night. But I do know that we don’t have many working age people in our churches. I suspect this is because we haven’t taken work seriously. We haven’t been able to speak in a way that answers the questions and meets the needs of working people.