I preached this sermon yesterday at our afternoon jazz service. The scripture reading is Luke 5:1-11.
My son is finally getting comfortable enough in water to enjoy swimming. My parents live on the beach in Florida, so he’s been exposed to swimming pools and the ocean his entire life. While he’s long loved playing in the sand, the ocean has always been too scary. Eventually, he worked up the nerve to check out the kiddy pool and realized that it was a lot of fun. And this summer, with the help of a really cool floatation device, he’s discovered that swimming in the big pool is even better. With the help of his floats, he’s not afraid to venture into any part of the pool, even the deep end. Not only that, he’s even enjoyed swimming on the Wisconsin River and out in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s found his way into the deep waters. He’s no longer afraid.
In today’s story, Jesus invites his disciples out into the deep waters, and there he changes them forever.
This all takes place at the beginning of Luke’s story of Jesus. After the familiar account of Jesus’ birth and the few mentions we have of his childhood, we read about his baptism by John, his temptation out in the desert, and the announcement of his mission in his hometown of Nazareth, an event which causes those who had known him since birth to nearly kill him. From there he begins to preach the gospel throughout Galilee, beginning in the city of Capernaum.
We pick up the story as he is standing by Lake Gennesaret—more commonly known as the Sea of Galilee—preaching the good news of God’s kingdom. The people are crowding in on him so tightly that he decides to get into a fishing boat to teach the people from a little ways off of the shore. I must say that this always strikes me as a less than ideal public speaking environment: trying to keep your balance on a boat while fighting the noise of the wind and waves. But, I guess it worked for Jesus as a makeshift pulpit.
I imagine that the message he delivered to the crowds on the shore was what we would call today a stump speech: his basic message of the emergence of God’s kingdom and an encouragement to change your life and get on board. It was probably a variation of the same message he delivered in countless venues across Galilee and down into Judea. I’m sure it was simple; I’m sure it was straightforward; I’m sure it was compelling.
But then, Jesus does something rather remarkable. The boat he was preaching from was owned by a fisherman named Simon—you may more easily recognize him by the name Jesus would eventually call him: Peter, “the rock.” But at this point of the story, he and Jesus are essentially strangers. Yet he’s already let this carpenter’s son from Nazareth get in his boat to preach. Now Jesus asks him to go one step further: “Row out farther, into the deep water, and drop your nets for a catch.”
In the version of the story we have preserved in Luke, Simon responds with respect and civility. “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and caught nothing.” But the subtext may well have been something more like this: “Hey, you crazy carpenter, what do you know about fishing? We’ve busted our butts all night long and haven’t caught squat. It’s not going to be any better right now. The sun is hot and we’re tired. Why don’t you mind your own business and go make a table or something.” Or maybe that’s just what I would have said. But Simon goes along with it, rows out into the deep water, and drops the nets.
And a miracle happens. Their catch is so huge that the nets were ripping apart. When all is said and done, they fill up two boats with fish, so full that they are in danger of sinking.
Amazed, Simon and his partners know that there must be something special about this man. Simon bows down before him and confesses his sinfulness. But Jesus, calm and collected, replies simply and profoundly: “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people.”
When the fishermen get back to shore, they leave everything they know and follow this man. They become his closest disciples.
“Fishers of people” is such a rich and enduring image. Here is Jesus, bringing to this people a new message of hope, a message of transformation, a message of God’s kingdom being present among them. He’s creating a movement. He’s starting a revolution. And he wants these men, these simple fishermen, to be involved—not just involved, but at the very epicenter of the whole thing. These are the people Jesus chooses to usher in God’s new day.
Now, I think that the locations and movements of this scene are really important. Jesus begins near the shore, in the shallow water, delivering his basic message to a gathered crowd. Then, he goes out into the deeper waters with a select few and challenges them to become an active part of the movement he is initiating. Do you see how this works? Jesus is calling these few to leave behind the average—perhaps superficial or shallow—engagement of the masses and go deeper. It’s a call to stop being a passive spectator or consumer, and wade into the deep waters as a participant.
Clearly, for Simon and his friends, this was a compelling invitation.
I believe it remains compelling in today’s world. One of my favorite theological writers is a pastor named Doug Pagitt. Recently, he has written several books about what he calls the Inventive Age, the age in which we are now living. He traces American culture from the Agrarian Age, through the Industrial Age, to the Information Age; and then he describes the shifts we are currently experiencing as we move into the Inventive Age, shifts from being consumers of information to producers and participants. If the Information Age was characterized by television and the mass consumption of information on the internet, the Inventive Age is typified by interactive web culture and social networking. In Doug’s own words, “The Inventive Age is one in which inclusion, participation, collaboration, and beauty are essential values. … It is the age of ownership and customization and user-created content.” (Church in the Inventive Age, 30-31)
Jesus was way ahead of his time. He invited his disciples to be participants in the emergence of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is user-created content. He wasn’t just recruiting a bunch of yes-men that would follow his marching orders. He brought these fishermen in on the ground floor and engaged them as partners. “Don’t be afraid,” he says. “From now on, you will be fishing for people.”
It’s fascinating, isn’t it, that he chooses a bunch of uneducated fishermen to be the building blocks of the most radical spiritual revolution in the history of the Western world? As far as we know, neither they nor Jesus had any formal religious education beyond what every Jew of the time received. They weren’t trained in the finest rabbinical schools. They weren’t the great philosophers, theologians, and orators of the age. They were ordinary people called to do something extraordinary. And the image he uses to describe this calling is one that would be instantly familiar to them: “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people.”
It probably wasn’t quite this simple, but I want to suggest that by calling them “fishers of people,” Jesus was implying that these fishermen already possessed all the gifts and skills they needed to accomplish the kingdom work he was calling them to do. They just needed a different mindset. They just needed a different goal. They just needed a different vision of what God wanted them to do with the gifts God had given them. “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people.”
Unlike these fishermen, I have received some of the best religious and theological education available. For over a decade and a half I’ve been engaged in higher education in the fields of religion, Bible, theology, and ministry. I think I have some natural gifts in these fields and I’ve tried my best to make good use of them. So it’s easy for me to say that God is calling us to take our gifts and use them for the kingdom.
But, from time to time, I also think about what I might have done with my life had I not taken the paths that I did. I could have gone to medical school or law school. I could have been a scientist or an engineer. I could have been any number of things. Right now, if I had to choose an alternative career, I wouldn’t hesitate to become a chef.
I love food. I love eating it and I love preparing it. I love gathering people around a table of food that I’ve cooked and sharing together in the joys of life.
I dabble in a variety of cuisines, but my specialty has become southern style BBQ. For the past few years I have honed the skills of slow cooking meat over fire and smoke. I’ve come up with signature seasonings and secret recipes. I’ve studied the craft, I’ve practiced hard, and I’ve achieved some success.
Had I become a BBQ pitmaster instead of a pastor, how would I use those gifts and skills to further God’s kingdom? I actually think about this quite a bit. While I believe that churches like Fourth will continue to thrive well into the 21st century, the same may not be true for the vast majority of mainline churches in the United States. It may be that we need to think about developing faith communities in radically different ways as the world around us continues to change.
I often wonder what it would look like to gather a faith community around something like a BBQ restaurant instead of a sanctuary like this. How would we think about our call differently? How would we think about our place in the community differently? How would we think about sustainability differently? How would we think about table fellowship differently?
If I did that—if I followed my BBQ-church dream—I believe that I would become, in my own particular way, a “fisher of people.” I would be taking my gifts and passions and applying them to God’s work in this world. I’d be part of Jesus’ revolution in a different way that I am now. I wouldn’t be as reliant on degrees, or titles, or institutions. I’d be right out there in the deep water.
“Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people.”
What about you? What are your gifts? What are your passions? What is your vocation?
Are you a doctor? A lawyer? A cab driver? A teacher? A cook? A janitor? A mechanic? A gardener? Are you a musician? Are you good with art? Are you good with math? Are you good with your hands? Do you care about children? Are you patient?
How are you using these gifts? Are you hanging around on the shore with the masses, in the safety of the shallow water? Can you hear Jesus calling you into the deep water? “Don’t be afraid,” he says. “From now on, you will be fishing for people.”
63% of statistics are made up (including this one), so take this as you will: I’d say that 95% of people in our churches are content to stay in the shallow water. They’re content to be religious consumers. They’re content to be spectators as God’s kingdom emerges in the world.
But I believe that there’s a lot more room out there in the deep water. And I believe that God is calling us to go out there and be participants, to take up our nets—or whatever tools we use to do what God has called us to do—and make a difference in the world. God is calling us to get into the game. God is calling us be a part of the revolution, to be a part of the transformation of the world.
“Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people.”