‘It was like the preacher was speaking just to me.’
Have you ever had that experience? A sermon is preached to a congregation, but somehow you feel singled out. The message is for you.
I think Simon Peter is a little like that in this reading. In the midst of Jesus teaching the crowds, he has a separate, personal conversation with him. This is not his first encounter with Jesus, he has already been tagging along. But now Jesus clarifies why he has called him.
Again, isn’t that like us? We may have been ‘tagging along’ with Jesus for years before our purpose becomes clear. That has certainly been my experience.
Hence, I agree with the writer who says this is not the story of calling the fishermen, but rather an occasion where Jesus announces to Simon what he has had in mind for him all along. So perhaps we can read this famous story to hear more about the qualities Jesus seeks in his disciples.
The first is this. Every Friday morning, on my day off, I go into our children’s school and spend twenty minutes helping a group of pupils in Rebekah’s class with their reading. This means being in there for registration, and as I check over the book and notes assigned to the group, I observe how the teacher goes about her job. I wonder how she would feel if I – as someone with no training in teaching and who wouldn’t fancy the job in the slightest – proceeded to tell her how she could do her work better? Much as teachers are probably used to getting flak from parents, I don’t think she’d be impressed. Thankfully, Rebekah’s teacher is a marvel and usually I sit there astonished at her ability!
However, look at what happens here. A carpenter tells a group of fishermen how to do their job!
“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (Verse 4)
At first, you can hear the frustration in Simon’s voice:
“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” (Verse 5a)
And that makes sense of Simon’s occupation. Galilean fishermen knew their best results came at night. This carpenter is so ignorant he’s telling them to go fishing in daylight hours! What does he know? If they can’t catch any fish at night, they have even less chance in the day.
Yet Simon doesn’t stop there. He says,
“Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Verse 5b)
This first quality, then, is obedience. It makes no sense, but Simon will follow Jesus’ instructions. Just as for us, many of the things Jesus calls his followers to do make no sense, because they clash with the received wisdom of the world – yet he calls for obedience. His commands contradict the way we’ve always done things – but the call is still to obedience. No-one can be a disciple without a commitment to obedience, because that’s what a disciple does.
So if there is something challenging, or outside our experience that Jesus is talking to us about, we know that sooner or later – preferably sooner – we need to heed his voice. Like Simon, our attitude must be founded on those words, ‘Yet if you say so.’
Not only that, Simon doesn’t even know Jesus’ full identity at this stage. So far as he is concerned, he is a rabbi. He doesn’t yet know he is the Messiah, let alone the Son of God, but he still obeys. Therefore, obedience to Jesus cannot be delayed by saying we don’t know enough about him yet. It’s no good saying, “I don’t know as much as other people about my faith,” because Simon shows us that even a minimal knowledge of Jesus is enough to get on with some basic obedience. Maybe the real issue is that some of us don’t want to commit to those words, ‘Yet if you say so.’
Let us remember that without the obedience of Simon and his friends, they would not have had the blessing of the bulging nets full of fish.
The second quality revolves around Simon’s reaction to the miraculous catch of fish:
But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Verse 8 )
One moment Simon is on his knees in a posture of worship, and you would therefore expect him to be drawing near to God. But in the same breath he asks Jesus to depart from him, because he is a sinner.
What’s common to this apparently contradictory reaction? It’s all about the holiness of God – that explains both the move towards worship and the recognition of personal sinfulness. And if we recognise the presence of God’s holiness, then we see that the second quality exhibited in Simon here is humility.
When I came back from sabbatical last year, I shared at my presentation the work of George Bullard on ‘The Life Cycle of a Congregation’. He compared the birth, growth, decline and death of some churches with the stages of a human life cycle (not that this should suggest a sense of inevitability). The point at which a church starts to decline, he said, is the stage of ‘maturity’. And that is characterised by an attitude of saying, ‘We know what we’re doing.’ The moment we think we know what we’re doing is the time when we no longer need humble dependence upon God. We can get on with the life of faith all very easily, thank you very much. Remove the need for humble dependence and we cut ourselves off from the power of God. No wonder many of our churches are so lifeless.
However, Simon doesn’t look at the miraculous catch of fish, start a backslapping session with his colleagues and say, ‘I knew it would all work out. After all, we are professional fishermen, and our expertise would win out in the end.’ He can’t say that, because he knows that the amazing result of the surprise expedition is down to trusting what Jesus has said and living in the light of that.
So what if – like the disciples – we’ve failed to catch any ‘fish’? It seems to me that rather than shopping around for some technique we can employ, Jesus calls us to something simpler, yet more demanding. It’s to match the obedience we’ve already spoken about with humble trust. Never mind new programmes or good management – they both feature on the ‘decline’ side of the ‘Life Cycle’ model – it’s about vision and relationships with God and one another. And all that means humble trust. It means saying, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing’ and looking to Christ to give us a challenging way forward.
The third quality is one we are used to observing in this story – discipleship means mission. Just as the holy Jesus won’t depart from sinful Simon, so the disciples of holy Jesus must not stay away from sinners. In fact, quite the opposite:
Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (Verse 10b)
It’s the famous ‘fishers of men’ line from older translations, of course. But familiar as it is, I learned something about it this week that I don’t ever recall coming across before. It’s to do with the expression ‘catching people’. The word translated ‘catching’ is a compound of two Greek words. One has the general meaning of ‘catching’ or ‘hunting’, and so that describes the basic outlook Jesus expects of Simon and all his disciples: he always intends us to be on the lookout for people who need the Gospel of his love. Mission isn’t an add-on for the enthusiasts in the church, it’s the responsibility of every Christian. We may not all be evangelists, but we are all witnesses. A community of Christians is meant to be fundamentally outward-looking by design. If it is not, there is a serious flaw.
But here’s the other thing I discovered this week, and it tells us something about the way in which we participate in mission. I said the word for ‘catching’ was a compound word, and that one half meant ‘hunting’ or ‘catching’. The other half means ‘alive’. When we put the two halves together it doesn’t so much mean that we ‘capture people alive’ (as opposed to dead), it probably more likely means that we captivate people with life. In catching people for the kingdom of God, we are doing so in order to restore them to life and strength.
Our attempts to catch people for Christ are not attempts to bolster our numbers in order to keep our church going. We do this because people need the life of Christ in them. Therefore our relationships with people we are in contact with must reflect the life of Christ. It’s no good condemning people who have no idea of our ways and our etiquette: if we are to minister life, our dealings with people must be saturated in grace. Anything less is contrary to the Gospel and therefore counter-productive. What I am sure about is this: no church can be complacent about this. Almost any church believes it is welcoming, but not every visitor supports that belief. We need to remember that grace and life are our currency. With them we are rich; without them, we are bankrupt.
There is a fourth and final quality of discipleship I want to highlight. Let me approach it this way. When I was at my Anglican theological college, one student who overlapped with me was a well-known evangelist who had felt called into parish ministry. His name was Eric Delve. He had been a travelling evangelist for nearly twenty years. One thing he told us about those times was that the Christians in every town he visited to conduct a mission always told him the same thing: “This is the hardest place in the country for the Gospel.” Over the years, Eric got tired of that attitude. He felt it said more about the Christians than the non-Christians.
What has this got to do with our passage? And isn’t it true that it’s difficult to bring people to faith today? Jesus’ approach seems so different. He sends his disciples to ‘catch people’. For them to do so, they ‘[leave] everything and [follow] him’ (verse 11). Catching people doesn’t require crying a tale of woe about how hard it is for the Gospel today. Rather, it requires ‘leaving everything’. Not, that is, always leaving ‘secular’ employment: ‘left everything’ has a particular nuance here, and it’s about being released or set free. It may be a release from work or from family obligations or possessions or some other personal priorities, but it may also be the need to be released from an attitude of heart: bitterness, pride or a superiority complex.
“The wrong question: What will make our church grow? The right question: What is keeping our church from growing?”
He goes onto say,
“All living things grow — you don’t have to make them grow. It’s the natural thing for living organisms to do if they are healthy. For example, I don’t have to command my three children to grow. They naturally grow. As long as I remove hindrances such as poor nutrition or an unsafe environment, their growth will be automatic. If my kids don’t grow, something has gone terribly wrong. Lack of growth usually indicates an unhealthy situation, possibly a disease.
“In the same way, since the church is a living organism, it is natural for it to grow if it is healthy. The church is a body, not a business. It is an organism, not an organization. It is alive. If a church is not growing, it is dying.” (p 16)
Now while that might be a bit simplistic – there are all sorts of reasons why churches don’t always grow – nevertheless it behoves us to examine our spiritual health. What is holding us back? What do we need to be released from? It’s a critical question, because we bring a Gospel that claims to set people free in Christ – in the forgiveness of sins, in enabling them to forgive others, in freedom from sinful habits and ultimately the eradication of all sin from God’s creation. If that is our message, it will only make sense if we too are on a journey into greater freedom ourselves.