Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8, Luke 5:1-11
Everybody has a bad day now and then. We all do. One afternoon, New York Yankees star Mickey Mantle went hitless and struck out three times in a row. A bad day. “When I got back to the clubhouse,” he remembered, “I sat down on my stool and held my head in my hands, like I was going to start crying. I heard someone come up to me, and it was little Tommy Berra, Yogi’s son, standing there next to me. He tapped me on the knee, nice and soft, and I figured he was going to say something nice, like ‘You keep hanging in there” or something like that. But all he did was look at me, and then he said in his little kid’s voice, ‘You stink.’”
We’ve all had days like that. Simon didn’t play baseball; he was a fisherman. But he was 0-for the day. Along with his fishing partners, he had worked all night with nothing to show for it, not even that first fish.
There is exhaustion, and then there is exhaustion laced with failure. This is where the story begins for Simon. He is no doubt in a lousy mood, and along with his partners he is cleaning the nets and getting ready to go home. And about then, Jesus shows up.
Now, Simon apparently had met Jesus before. After the episode where Jesus is nearly killed after giving his inaugural sermon in Nazareth, which we looked at last week, he travels through Galilee, he teaches and heals people in Capernaum, and among other things, he heals Simon’s mother-in-law.
Now, I have to tell you, I love this story. Crowds are pressing in on Jesus as he stands by the shore of the lake, and I love the idea of Jesus just commandeering Peter’s boat. He just climbs in Peter’s boat and tells Peter to put out into the water a ways so that he can speak to the crowd. Pretty cool. Pretty creative. Jesus is a problem-solver and speaking from the boat no doubt added to the excitement and spectacle of the occasion.
And then I love the fact that Simon lets Jesus use his boat, that he assists Jesus in this effort. Remember, he has already been there all night. He just wants to finish up and go home. But he honors Jesus’ request and takes Jesus out in the boat.
Now, since they had met before, maybe he was used to Jesus doing this sort of thing. Or maybe he does this out of gratitude. Jesus had healed his mother-in-law, after all, so he is not going to say no Jesus’ request. It was the least he could do.
Or maybe Simon is just that kind of guy – the kind of person who would take you out in his boat even though he is dead tired, just because you asked. We don’t know for sure. Simon just does it. I love that.
And I love it that when Jesus is done teaching, he isn’t actually done. Think about this: we don’t know anything about the content of his teaching as he sat in the boat and spoke to the crowd, but we know what happened next, and the real take-home, the real message, came after his sermon was over. Jesus teaches through his actions, here even more so than through his words, and I love that.
And then Simon does something that doesn’t quite make sense. Jesus asks him to put his nets out in the deep water for a catch. Simon and his partners had been working all night with nothing to show for it, and this itinerant rabbi guy comes along and tells him to try again. And Jesus wants him to go out to the deep water. Everybody knew that fish fed in the shallows, and Simon, the professional fisherman, had been at it for hours.
For all Simon knew, Jesus may have been setting him up to be an object lesson – a lesson in failure. This appeared to be an exercise in futility, but I love the fact that that Simon goes along with it. We do know that Simon was an impulsive kind of character. Maybe he just said – what the heck – and rolled with it. Or again, maybe he felt indebted to Jesus and felt he couldn’t say no, ridiculous as the request was.
But then what happens? A miraculous catch of fish, so many fish that the nets are tearing. Peter has his friends in the other boat come out to help. I love imagining the expression on the fishermen’s faces as they struggle to haul in this catch and barely get their nets to shore. I love the sheer craziness of it, that whereas they had not caught that first fish before, Jesus comes along and it is the fish story of a lifetime.
This is where it gets really interesting. Simon has some previous relationship with Jesus; he may have considered himself a supporter of Jesus. But it is fair to say that however much Simon thinks he knows Jesus, at this point he realizes that he really doesn’t know him at all, that he’s only just beginning to realize who and what Jesus is. And that scares him. As the size of the catch becomes clear, Simon goes from joy to amazement to something like terror.
After a day of striking out, you don’t just throw the nets into deep water and pull up a boatful of fish. What could this mean? Like most of us, Peter liked to think that he understood the way things worked. But all that was shattered, as something impossible, something miraculous, had taken place. Simon was afraid because the way he had conceived of the world was obviously not exactly the way it really was.
“Get away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man,” he says. It is not that Simon had just committed a heinous sin, or that he has a particular transgression in mind. It is more a matter of realizing that he is in the presence of something much greater than himself, a power far beyond what he had ever encountered, and he felt in awe. Simon felt small and unworthy in this presence – he knew himself to be a sinful man.
It is not unlike our Old Testament scripture, the calling of the prophet Isaiah. When faced with a vision of the power and holiness of God, what does Isaiah say? “Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips.” It was a recognition of his finitude and of God’s greatness.
I love the fact that it is out on the boat, fishing with Jesus that Simon is confronted with the power of God and the realization that Jesus is something far greater than what he might have imagined. Because it challenges his ideas of how the world works, it scares him. It would scare any of us.
And then I love what Jesus says to him: “Do not be afraid.” David Lose wrote that these words are the hallmark of Luke’s gospel and maybe the hallmark of the gospel, period. Jesus comes so that we don’t have to be afraid anymore.
Lord knows, there is plenty for us to be afraid of. There is plenty out there to frighten us – economically, environmentally, politically, culturally, not to mention personally. Health, finances, school, career, relationships – it is easy to give in to fears. But Jesus knows our fear, our worry, our anxieties. He says, “Do not be afraid.” These are words to hold on to. These are good words for the times we live in. I love that Jesus says to Simon, “Do not be afraid.”
And then Jesus gives Simon something to do, something bigger and larger than anything he’d ever imagined. Jesus gives him a purpose, a calling. “From now on, you will be fishing for people.” It’s kind of interesting, don’t you think, that Jesus says, “do not be afraid – from now on you will be fishing for people.” I would think that being told that he would fish for people would add to the fear, not relieve it. I would think that being given a task of fishing for people would only increase Simon’s anxiety.
When Simon expresses fearfulness he is asking Jesus to take the mystery of God away from him and return his certainties. But instead, Jesus invites him to leave behind his certainties, that God had something bigger and grander for him than he could have ever imagined. Instead of taking away the mystery, Jesus invites him to go even deeper – to go into the deep water of faith and trust.
I love that Jesus recruits this fisherman and calls him to continue his vocation, but to now fish for people. I love the fact that Jesus calls these guys with fishing boats as his first disciples. Simon (whom we will later know as Peter), James and his brother John, and presumably Simon’s brother Andrew, who is not mentioned by name here, are Jesus’ first disciples. I love that Jesus doesn’t interview a group of prospects or ask for their resumes or check their references – he just calls these fishermen to be his disciples.
There is a lot to love about this story. But then we get to the very last verse. “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”
Simon and his fishing partners left behind everything - their professions, their livelihood, their family and friends, their familiar world, everything – in order to follow Jesus. And to be real honest, I can’t say that I love that part. If we are honest, we have to admit that we are pretty ambivalent about that. Because this has gone from scaring Simon to scaring us.
What would I give up everything for? What would you give up everything for? It’s a hard question.
I love this story – except for the part about giving up everything. Maybe a question for us is: what are we willing to give up? And if we don’t actually give up anything, are we really following Jesus?
You know, when you have just had far and away the largest catch of fish you have ever had – the greatest moment of your professional life - that is a lot to walk away from. If I had been Simon, I would have been tempted to say, “Sounds great, Jesus. I’d love to join you! First we need to go and sell this fish, there’s so much we’ll probably need to pickle some, and we really need the money.” I would have been tempted to at least try and take care of a few things first.
But that is not what happened. The experience was so life-changing that Simon and his friends leave everything and immediately follow Jesus.
Simon Peter, as he comes to be called, leaves everything behind, including his certainties about the way life works. And as he followed Jesus, he had to leave his certainties behind again and again: the certainty that God’s Messiah would not have to suffer, the certainty that he himself would be loyal to Jesus through whatever came, the certainty that dead was dead, the certainty that the gospel was just for the Jews.
This is a lot more than a fishing story; it is a call story. Simon is called to follow Jesus, called to fisher for people. And this is our calling. We are called to leave behind – if not everything - at least something. Maybe our ideas of what is possible. Maybe our concern for dignity and propriety. Maybe our self-image that says we’re not worth much and God couldn’t really use me. Maybe a certain level of comfort. Maybe our fear of failure. Maybe the notion that we don’t have much to offer. Maybe our sense of what is most important in life needs to be re-examined.
Jesus words are a call to evangelism. Just the mention of the word “evangelism” scares a lot of us. The word itself literally means, “sharing the good news.” The reason we don’t want to have much to do with it is because so often, it hasn’t sounded like Good News, it’s sounded like bad news, judgmental news, scary news, exclusive news.
There was a survey of younger persons, 18-30 year olds who are not religious, asking their impression of Christians. The top responses were that Christians are antigay, hypocritical, judgmental, and too tied to politics. This survey is a couple of years old; I would guess that those sort of responses have only increased in the time since. For a lot of people, Christian faith comes across as anything but good news.
These negative impressions did not just come from out of the blue. If the only thing you knew about American religion came from news stories, your impression of Christian faith might be pretty negative too. Those who get the attention are so often the ones who are peddling a Bad News kind of Christianity, a judgmental and narrow and exclusive and uncaring faith. But it seems to me that this should serve as even more incentive for us to authentically share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Pastor and blogger John Pavlovitz said, “Sometimes the best evangelism is letting people know you are a Christian and then not being a complete jerk.” Maybe we can do that.
Shane Claiborne spoke at ISU a couple of years ago. He leads a community called The Simple Way, a group that lives and serves in the poorest area of Philadelphia. Claiborne bemoans the way Christians have so often spoken in our culture and acted in the public square. He says that the gospel is best spread not by force but by fascination.
That is what Jesus did. Jesus told great stories. He acted in selfless, compassionate ways that made people wonder about him. Folks came to hear him because the way he talked about life and the way he related to God were different – and authentic. People were genuinely interested in what he had to offer. Simon did not follow Jesus because he was scared into it or cajoled into it or because he was obligated. He followed because he was intrigued.
What if we exhibited such care and compassion that folks started to wonder about us? What if we reached out to people with such genuine interest in them as individuals that they sat up and took notice? What if folks experienced Christians not as hypocritical or judgmental, but as a breath of fresh air? What if we came across not as having all the answers but being open to the questions? What if we didn’t offer shallow comments but instead invited people to think deeply? What if we came across not as having it all together but as struggling like the next person, but wrapped up in the grace of God and the care of the community as we struggle?
It’s worth considering. Because like Simon, Jesus has called us to the fishing business. Amen.