|He Qi: "Calling Disciples" 2001|
Scripture can be found here...
When I was a little girl learning how to swim at the Jersey shore, some parents taught their children to swim by standing with them at the ocean’s edge, on calm days rather than rough, when the water that lapped the sand could almost be mistaken for a lake and not the mighty Atlantic.
My parents, Philadelphia born and bred, city folks to the core, did no such thing. My mom drove me into Atlantic City for swimming lessons at the Dennis Hotel, an old, elegant dame who lives now only in memory and sepia toned photographs.
I spent an hour at a time holding onto the edge of the pool, face up, breathing in, face down, blowing out, kicking, kicking, kicking.
We were not allowed in the deep end. The deep end was dangerous. The deep end was where the water was over your head. The deep end was for grownups, or, at least, for people who knew what they were doing. I was not allowed to go into the deep end.
In today’s lesson from the gospel of Luke, Jesus invites some fisherfolk to go out into the deep with him.
It’s been a month now, a little more, since we left the enormous collection of ancient literature we call the Old Testament, and waded into the stories of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Luke.
It’s way past time for an introduction.
In reading through the Bible, as we have been doing since September—a kind of SparkNotes approach, the Big Ideas, the Big Stories—some themes have emerged, persistent notes that every writer seems to want to sing.
One theme is a theme of the Bible as a story of belonging. We saw that in our readings focused on God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, the people of Israel: God’s claiming of them in an intimate, loving relationship, and God’s ongoing promise to care for them. They belong to God, it’s a story of belonging.
Another theme is that of creation and re-creation. God called all that is into being, speaking the powerful eternal Word that created the cosmos, including the earth and all its inhabitants. But God is not merely an all-powerful domino-tipper, who sets things in motion and goes away. God’s concern for creation is ongoing, and active, and God’s promise of restoration to the people after slavery, after exile, is part of that theme. God creates the people anew, creation and re-creation.
Still another theme is that of God working through deeply flawed people and institutions. The boastful, arrogant Joseph becomes the means of saving his whole extended family from famine. The recalcitrant, cranky prophet Jonah helps to save the very people who sent his own people into exile, but he doesn’t have to be happy about it. We begin to imagine our own part in God’s story, God, who works through all kinds of people.
These themes carry through into the New Testament, into the stories of Jesus. This year, we are hearing those stories as told in the gospel of Luke.
Ask any of our confirmation class, and they can tell you some interesting facts about Luke. For instance: A great overarching theme of this gospel is this: God has expanded, broken open, the understanding of who exactly are “God’s people.” The gospel of Luke shows us that God’s promise is extended to the gentile world as well as the people of Israel. The bible is a story of belonging.
And another fact: This gospel is a storyteller’s delight. In the first two chapters, three different characters break out into song, and that doesn’t even take into account the appearances of the angels. Once Jesus begins to teach and preach, the stories he tells—many of which are only found in this gospel—capture the imagination like nothing else in scripture.
Finally, this: be on the lookout for an unexpected main character in the gospel of Luke. Yes, it’s Jesus’ story. But it’s also the story of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has already permeated the stories of Jesus’ birth. The Spirit tore open the sky with God’s blessing at Jesus’ baptism, and then promptly took hold of Jesus, filled him up and led him by the hand into the desert (a story we skipped over). Last week we saw Jesus make the astonishing claim that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…” to preach that very gospel of belonging, and inclusion.
And we saw how the crowd reacted to that proclamation. In a bizarre and frightening parody of the work of the Spirit, the crowd also led Jesus—to a cliff, with the intention of carrying out the punishment for blasphemers, stoning, with one convenient push.
Only at chapter four of a gospel that runs to twenty-four, and already we see how Jesus himself, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, has gone into the deep: the deep, where it’s dangerous. The deep, where you may be in over your head. The deep, that place for grownups, or, at least, for people who know what they are doing.
Which brings us to chapter five. Jesus is standing beside Lake Gennesaret, the more ancient name for the Sea of Galilee. His forays into preaching and healing have already attracted him a following… people are pressing in so closely that his best option is to climb into one of the nearby fishing boats, just returned from a long, exhausting, and completely unproductive night. He asks its owner, Simon Peter, to go out onto the lake.
It may seem odd for Jesus to abruptly ask this favor. But Jesus knows Simon. In another story we skipped over, Jesus went to Simon’s home, and healed his mother-in-law of a fever. Simon knows Jesus. Simon complies without complaint.
After a time in which Jesus uses Simon’s boat as a floating pulpit, Jesus speaks to him again, and says, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Now, Simon is no 4 year old learning to swim in the Dennis Hotel swimming pool. Simon has spent his life on this very body of water, learning its winds and its ways. He is used to the deep. That isn’t his problem. His problem is, he’s tired. He’s had a lousy night at work, and there is no evidence that this man who has just given him fishing advice knows even the first thing about it. Simon would be well within his rights to show Jesus where to get off.
He says to Jesus, Master, we have worked all night. No success. But if you say so, I’ll give it one more try. And then the nets are straining, and they’re breaking, and the catch of fish is so extreme, the other boat is called out to help. A miracle.
And then this man who has had a very bad night at work, followed by serving as a floating pulpit for this new preaching sensation, followed by an unexpectedly and abruptly successful morning, is pretty much at the end of his rope.
Have you ever actually seen someone throw themselves at someone else’s feet—or knees, as Luke tells it? Me neither. But it would surely signal some enormous emotional moment for one or both people involved. And Simon words… “Go away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man…” seem to come out of the blue. Why? Is it the catch of fish, the miracle? Is it the cumulative effect of the catch plus the unknown, unspecified sermon? Is it that Simon is just bone tired, dead tired, and not sure he can cope with whatever it is this man is going to expect from him? Is Simon Peter afraid of going into the deep after all? Not the deep of Lake Gennesaret, but the deep places Jesus—and the Holy Spirit—seem to want to lead him?
Whatever Simon’s motivations… and, maybe it is, simply, that he feels unworthy to partner with Jesus in whatever enterprise he is engaged in… Jesus’ response is simple. Do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid… of the deep, of the dangerous, of being in over your head, of being called to an enterprise that will call forth, paradoxically, your most grown up self AND the part of you that is still a child learning to breathe and float and kick. Do not be afraid…because, together, we will be catching people—I always wondered about this analogy, by the way. Just as an aside. I mean, really, people as fish in nets? I’d prefer to be a sheep, personally. But the word for “catching people” in Greek is zogron: it’s a rare word, an unusual one. It means, “catching alive.” These nets are no death traps. They are life preservers. Do not be afraid.
And, you know, if the story ended there, it would be a nice story, an inspiring story, of one man leaving his boat and nets behind because he took courage from Jesus’ words. “Do not be afraid.” But if we leave it there we very much miss the point, because the point is not what Simon Peter did then, it is what we do, today.
What stops us? What do we feel when we hear the gentle, persistent call of Jesus? Does it make us feel like little children, ill-equipped for breathing and floating and kicking in the deep end? That’s ok. According to Jesus, children are pretty much where it’s at in the spiritual life. Does it make us feel like Simon Peter, as if we’re simply not good enough? That’s ok. God works through the unlikely, the deeply-flawed, which means you’ll fit right in. Are you just bone tired, dead tired, simply not sure you have it in you? That’s ok too. Don’t forget: these nets are not death traps, they are life-preservers. Jesus’ intention is to catch us alive, it’s all about healing and wholeness, creation and re-creation.
Take the plunge. Let’s follow Jesus into the deep. Even if it feels dangerous. Even if we think we’re in over our heads. Even if we don’t feel enough like grownups, or, enough like faith-filled little children, or, at least, someone who knows what they’re doing. Do not be afraid. Thanks be to God. Amen.