10.02.19, Fourth Sunday before Lent
Putting out into deep water
I wonder, what goes through your mind when you’re starting off something new – when putting it together; the things you need to consider? If you’re a gardener, at this time of year you might be planning what plants to have or how you’ll arrange things in the vegetable plot; at work it could be getting a new project off the ground. What do you need to consider there? Or even something as relatively mundane as cooking a new dish for the first time. Whatever it might be, you find yourself weighing up the various elements, planning, maybe talking to other people to see how they’ve done it. All sorts of things come into play, don’t they?
I’m fascinated by our Gospel passage today. You might like to think of it as Jesus doing something new, starting a new initiative. He’s calling the first disciples. As a rabbi in New Testament times, having a group of followers around him, it’s perhaps not unusual. But Jesus still needs to get his group together; it’s early in his ministry and he’s not well-known. Each of the Gospel writers makes mention of Jesus gathering his first group of followers, though it’s only Matthew, Mark and Luke who have this episode by the lakeside; and only Luke who goes into any detail about how he did it.
Jesus’ task, his new thing, if you like, was on the face of it very straightforward. There were no forms to fill in, no lengthy consultations, not much ‘planning’ as we understand it today. The focus for him was people. But it’s clear that he made an impact, so much so that by the end the fishermen he was talking to got up and left everything to follow him – a detail (“left everything to follow him”) that only pops up in Luke’s telling of the story. And there are other things, too, in Luke’s version which help show us how Jesus arrives at this point, and what I want to look at today.
To begin with, Jesus gets into one of the boats on the lakeshore himself, and starts to speak. There are so many people about, Jesus needs to create some space where he can be more easily seen and heard. So he locates himself in the shallows and does his thing, teaching. So far, so good. And perhaps just like any teacher. But there’s this question, isn’t there – was he getting through; were the people getting the message; were the people that really needed to get the message hearing it? Was this all an exercise in rhetoric and persuasion? Because however wonderful the teaching might have been, imparting knowledge and so on – and I’m very happy to assume it would have been first class! – it seems that this wasn’t the point.
Sometimes we need to have those moments of encounter, we need to see something, to experience it. Things may not click just into place by sheer knowledge and argument alone. Jesus is trying to build up a relationship with those who would be walking with him, living with him in his midst for the rest of his life – to the cross and beyond; to the Emmaus Road and those appearances after his Resurrection. And so his way of reaching out, engaging in mission, speaks to the familiar – the world of fishing.
It hadn’t been a great night’s fishing for Simon. And so Jesus gets entirely practical, taking pity on him. You can almost hear him saying, “Let’s do something about this lack of fish.” And so in verse 4 we have the words, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” There’s first scepticism from Simon, doubtless thinking back to his empty nets, and in a way, who can blame him? But then that sense of utter obedience, trust, faith: “Yet if you say so,” he says to Jesus. Because he doesn’t see Jesus at this moment as a teacher – as a rabbi (in fact Luke never uses that term in his Gospel) – but as someone in authority, ‘master’, he says. There’s recognition that Jesus has come to do more than just teach.
Firstly, we sometimes hear that same scepticism in our world today. That Jesus is just a jolly nice chap and a purveyor of good teachings. Wrong on both counts. Because that’s so far from the reality, isn’t it? Instead, as God-made-man, this Jesus shows us someone who turns situations around, transforms them, turning empty hauls of fish into an absolute overflow to the extent that nets break and even a second boat begins to sink under the weight of it all. Just think of what that abundance of produce might have meant to those fishermen. A situation that was desperate is entirely transformed through the surplus.
Secondly, Jesus who shows that in the face of something so unpredictable and unreliable as fishing, what he represents is anything but. His words to Simon are dependable, bringing about certainty and God’s goodness. I’m not quite sure precisely why the huge catch causes Simon to fall on his knees and say “I am a sinful man,” but it’s perhaps recognition of God’s grace to him in that moment, made clear by that miraculous haul of fish. I mentioned that idea of encounter, and we might imagine that it’s that very encounter with God through Jesus that brings about Simon’s response – more so than any words.
Thirdly, we have a Jesus, too, who takes us out of the shallow water and into the deep. If that’s at first glance to us the riskier and less secure place to be, with Jesus it’s also the most fruitful and productive. In our church context, Justin Welby has said the church should be a safe place to do risky things. The deep water provides us with enough space to cast our nets well. It might be choppier, but that’s where the fish are. So can we find those places in our own lives which might benefit from some deeper water?
Well it might simply be those things I mentioned at the start: doing something in the garden that is a bit more different from usual; or with that project at work or at home, how necessary is it to have every box ticked at the outset? Maybe, indeed, we’re already there, and would say we’re already inhabiting the deeper waters. Things will, of course, be different for each one of us, but if we ever sense something is not doable, then let’s join with Simon in his faith to try once more. It’s about having our minds and perspectives challenged; finding the creative spaces; stretching ourselves appropriately. Not for the sake of it, but because in the right way this is how we grow. And just as the disciples weren’t on their own individually with Jesus, so we do it in the company of others. Over the coming weeks and months here at St Michael’s there are plenty of opportunities to do this. We’ve got an Exploring Faith course, with the chance for those who wish to be confirmed to do so; there are Lent groups; and there are house groups, which you can read about in Lynn’s article in this month’s Parish Magazine. Just let Kenneth, John or me know. Because with the words of Jesus to Simon ringing in our ears, I would encourage you all to “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”