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Putting Out into Deep Water

Sermon Preached at St Richard's, Hanworth, 15/02/2009, 10.45am
Revd Sue Groom, Director of Deanery Licensed Ministers

Second Sunday before Lent
Reading: Luke 5:1-11

There was Simon Peter, washing his nets after a long night of fishing, a long night of catching nothing, a long tiring, frustrating night of hard work, all for nothing. No doubt he was anxious about feeding his family, hungry himself, and most probably feeling a failure.

Meanwhile, nearby a crowd presses around Jesus. Luke tells us that they are ‘listening to the word of God.’ By using this language he indicates that Jesus is a prophet. The scene is not a synagogue with a hushed crowd listening to an eloquent exposition of a favourite psalm by a well-known rabbi. Jesus is out among the people, standing by the lake, on a smelly landing, near the frustrated fishermen cleaning their empty nets after a long night of fruitless fishing.

Jesus climbs into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon Peter, and Jesus asks Simon to help him: he asks him to put out a little from the shore. You could imagine that Simon might feel obliged to help Jesus, because he had recently healed Simon’s mother-in-law, according to Luke. But I suspect that there is something more to it than that, that there is something about Jesus, something that causes the crowd to press around him, something that causes them to expect him to speak the word of God, something that means that Simon Peter simply cannot refuse his request. I doubt whether anyone could articulate that something at this stage.

Jesus does not tell Simon how much, he, Jesus has to offer Simon, nor does he explain to Simon Peter how his life will change if he follows Jesus. Instead, he asks for Simon’s help. He asks Simon to use his boat and his skills as an oarsman. The request comes from within Simon’s everyday experience, from within the scope of his skills and abilities. Jesus wants to use the boat as a platform and he needs Simon to control the boat whilst he speaks to the assembled crowd. In a large lake, particularly one like Gennesarat, boats do not remain still, they drift, and Jesus needs Simon to control that drift if the boat is to be an effective pulpit. This requires considerable rowing skill. Jesus invites Simon to help him by doing something which both comes naturally to Simon, and which is necessary in this situation.

Notice, that at the same time, Jesus is actually ‘fishing’ from the fishing boat. He is catching people and as he does so he gives them new life. In contrast to this, Simon Peter uses the very same boat to catch fish and in that process they will die.

You can imagine Simon relaxing as he steadies the boat in the water, he can do it without thinking, he is in his element, confident and secure. So he relaxes and listens to Jesus teaching the crowd on the shore. Luke’s mention that Jesus sat down in the boat to teach, indicates that he was assuming a posture of authority, the rabbis sat down to teach in the synagogue.

When Jesus has finished speaking, we might expect him to ask Simon to row him back to shore. However, Jesus, a landlubber, a carpenter, tells Simon Peter, the professional fisherman, to ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.’

What a ridiculous suggestion! Simon was exhausted, he and his partners had been fishing all night. Any fisherman would tell you that the fish in the lake feed at night. They hide under the rocks during the day. No one in their right mind would go fishing with nets during the day. It would be a complete waste of time. Simon may not be able to participate in rabbinic debates but he does know about fishing on Lake Gennesarat.

So Simon answers, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.’… then he continues, ‘But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’ Something about Jesus means that Simon Peter simply cannot refuse him. He trusts Jesus and obeys him.

When the experienced fishermen let down their nets, against their better judgement, they catch so many fish that their nets begin to break! What an astonishing abundance! Simon signals to his partners. He doesn’t shout out the good news. Voices carry across the water and he doesn’t want everyone to know. He has a business to think about. So Simon waves to his colleagues to come and help. Even then the abundant catch threatens to sink the two boats.

Jesus has approached Simon on his own ground, the fishing ground. Jesus has removed Simon from the pressure of his peers, he has got him out onto the lake in his own boat, where he can have his undivided attention. Jesus has provided the greatest catch of fish Simon could ever imagine. Who is this man? A landlubber, a carpenter from Nazareth? The man who recently healed his mother-in-law? The man whose teaching the crowds flock to hear? The man who speaks the word of God? The man who knows where the fish are? Who is Jesus?

In the back of his mind, Simon slowly identifies what it is about Jesus. He begins to articulate his findings. Jesus is different, Jesus is unlike any other man, Jesus is holy, Jesus is so holy that Simon is awestruck, like Isaiah in the temple, and Simon is afraid. Simon Peter knows that he is not holy, he knows that he is sinful. Simon cannot stand before this so holy man, Simon falls to his knees and declares, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.’

The law taught that what is unclean defiles what is clean on contact. Simon would not want to defile Jesus, hence his insistence that Jesus goes away from him. But Jesus saw things differently. With Jesus the clean purifies the unclean on contact. Jesus can purify Simon in the same way that he could heal his mother-in-law. Jesus brings healing and cleansing to those with whom he comes into contact, Jesus restores people to wholeness.

When Jesus responds to Simon Peter. He repeats words that angels and messengers from God are often heard to proclaim when visiting mere mortals, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ And true to form Jesus then gives Simon a commission, a task, a vocation, ‘From now on you will catch men.’

Simon’s fishing skills are still needed only from now on he will be catching people, not fish, and he will catch them so that they will live, not die. As he has witnessed Jesus catching people from his own boat, so now Simon will catch people… but without his boat.

Luke records, ‘So they pulled their boats up on the shore, left everything and followed him.’ They forget about the business, they are no longer concerned about the competition, they leave the abundant catch of fish, the nets, the boats, their source of livelihood, they abandon all their possessions.

We might consider that to be a very dramatic response, maybe an exaggeration. But Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘When Christ calls someone, he bids them come and die.’ Bonhoeffer was subsequently executed in a concentration camp for resisting Hitler. I wonder how Simon would have responded to Jesus if he had known what would happen to him during the next couple of years. Would he have insisted, ‘Go away from me, Lord?’ I suspect not, for Simon had encountered the living God and his life would never be the same again.

Our God is a God who calls, not just Simon Peter and the apostles, God continues to call men and women today. God is always seeking people, as Jesus went out from the synagogue to speak to the people where they were, so God comes to us where we are. God requests our help in the work of bringing his kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. He asks us to use the skills and abilities that we already have, to make use of our experiences in serving him.

The American preacher and writer Frederick Beuchner suggests that your vocation, the kind of work God calls you to, is usually the kind of work (a) that you most need to do, and (b) that the world most needs to have done. He suggests that if you really get a kick out of your work, you've presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing deodorant commercials, it could be that you've missed requirement (b). (Does the world really need deodorant commercials?) On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you've probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you're bored and depressed by your work, the chances are you've not only bypassed (a), but you probably aren't helping your patients much, either. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep satisfaction and the world's deep hunger meet.

Like Simon Peter we may not be able to articulate what it is about Jesus that calls us to follow him. We may not be able to explain the hunch or inkling or urge or desire to do something different. We may not feel able to identify it as coming from the Holy Spirit. We may not be able to understand how God is working. Yet for some reason, we know that we cannot refuse, that we must obey.

Vocation has the element of knowing that if you respond to the call, you are faithful to your own inner being and you are enhanced by it. Your own awareness converges with some need out yonder and intersects with it in such a way that you have a sense that you were born to this. And in living out your true vocation you are blessed beyond imagining. That is not to say that living out a vocation is always easy or pleasant, Simon Peter left everything behind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer died for his faith. We are called to put God and his kingdom first in our lives and that inevitably means sacrificing other things.

There is one particular type of vocation, which I am involved in promoting: Deanery Licensed Ministry. Deanery Licensed Ministers are people who exercise a ministry as a deacon or priest in their local area, their Deanery. Deanery Licensed Ministers are people who have a deep and searching faith. Deanery Licensed Ministers are people who desire to share their faith with others. Deanery Licensed Ministers are eople who can see further opportunities for ministry in their local community. Deanery Licensed Ministers are people who may have thought about ordination before but because of family or work commitments felt unable to respond at the time. Sometimes Deanery Licensed Ministers are people who have been identified by their friends and colleagues as being suitable ministers.

If you feel that God may be calling you in this way then please speak to Alan or myself, and do get in touch with me if you would like to learn more about what might be involved in training for Deanery Licensed Ministry.

As Simon Peter responded to Jesus’ call on his life, I pray that you may be able to discern God’s call on your life and that you too may have the courage to respond.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography
As with any sermon, various ideas come together over a period of time and it isn't always possible to retrace my steps to every source of inspiration. I am particularly indebted here, however, to Kenneth E Bailey's Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (SPCK, 2008), Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison (SCM, 2001) and to Frederick Beuchner. I will gladly acknowledge any other sources if brought to my attention. Thank you.

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