Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly amazed by Jesus. The popular view of him is like a character from a Norman Rockwell painting, set in a landscape by Thomas Kinkade—a lot of earnest niceness set against a softly glowing backdrop. Jesus, the unthreatening guy you’d let buy your kid ice cream at the park—even if you didn’t know him—the kind of guy who smiles patiently at the obnoxious teller, with that kind of every-body-has-a-bad-day-every-now-and-again smile that seems possible only in saints and Hallmark greeting cards—Mr. Rogers with a beard and toga.
It’s enough to make you wonder why he got killed, unless there was some massive Roman conspiracy against gentleness. The way Jesus is usually portrayed, crucifying him is tantamount to crucifying a kindergarten teacher.
But that portrait of Jesus just doesn’t square with the Jesus we find in the Gospels—in our passage today, for instance. The heading in your pew bible reads, “Jesus Calls the First Disciples”—which means nobody’s very well acquainted at the start of this passage.
The first verse in chapter five has Jesus “standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God.”
All of that seems innocent enough, doesn’t it? He’s standing on the banks of the lake, doing some preaching. People are jostling to get a better place to hear.
The next part seems odd, though. Luke tells us that Jesus sees two empty boats, the owners having gotten out to clean their nets.
Jesus sees his chance and invites himself aboard. Then, if walking onto someone else’s boat uninvited isn’t brash enough, he asks the boat’s owner, Simon, to cast off a ways from the shore so he can keep preaching to the crowd.
It strikes me that this is the social equivalent of inviting yourself onto someone else’s beach towel, and then asking to move it because you like the sun better over there.
See what I’m talking about? This Jesus can be a bit pushy.
But, Jesus is just getting started. After using Simon’s boat for an impromptu altar call, Jesus tells Simon, let’s go for a ride—out in the deep water. Oh, and let down your nets.
Simon’s much more polite than he might otherwise have been if Luke hadn’t intended this for family ears. Had it been me, I probably would have said something like, “Look pal, I’m a fisherman. I’ve been fishing all night. I’m glad to do you solid by letting you use the boat for your little reunion, but I’m really tired. I just want an Egg McMuffin and some shut-eye. So, you know, if you don’t mind.”
But Simon says, “Whatever you say.”
Then what happens? They throw the nets over the side, and whaddya know, “they caught so many fish, their nets were beginning to break.” So Simon got the other boat to come over and take some of those fish. But there were so many that both boats started to sink.
Good news, right? Things hadn’t gone well the whole night before. They were tired, ready to call it a day, admit they were beat. Then Jesus brazens his way onto the scene, says, “Just do what I say, and see where it leads.”
Next thing you know, they’ve got more fish on their hands than they know what to do with. That’s a success story, isn’t it? That’s like Howard Schultz and Michael Bloomberg stuff, right there—transforming nets into wealth.
So, you’d think Simon Peter would be a bit more grateful. “Thanks, Jesus! This is really going to help with the new dishwasher and the kids’ braces!”
But how does Simon Peter respond? He falls to his knees and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Wait … what? Where did that come from? “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Why does he say that?
Well, I have an idea about it, but I’m not very happy.
Simon Peter could have saved me a lot of grief—saved us all a lot of grief—if he’d said something like, “Thanks, Jesus! This is swell! Can we meet you down here tomorrow? I’ve got my eye on a pickup truck, and another haul like today could make my long-bed-extended-cab dreams come true.”
That would make sense. Hang out with Jesus, and you too can cash in, become the success you always dreamed of.
But Simon Peter is afraid. What’s he afraid of?
Well, it might be that he’s afraid of success. We in the church can understand that, can’t we? We live in a culture that sees the church as largely irrelevant. We’re used to stories about how the church is tanking, how we’re getting older and grayer, how all the smart, young, hip people have better things to do with their lives than get all dressed up and spend time in dusty old sanctuaries.
Bad news is what we’re good at.
I remember after taking my first call out of Seminary, down in Appalachia, hearing about the rapid decline of the mainline denominations. The Disciples of Christ had the unenviable distinction of topping the list of denominations shedding members.
When I started there in 1993, Middlesboro, the city of my first call, was listed on the headline of the Daily News as “the fastest declining city in the Commonwealth,” according to the 1990 census.
And the church itself was in rough shape. They didn’t really have any kids in the church. I’m not being hyperbolic; there weren’t any kids at one point.
The people walked around wringing their hands, talking gloom and doom. “We’re going to die! If we don’t get some young families in here, we’re just going to die.”
So, I got tired of listening to it after a while. At one particular elders meeting, I’d had enough. I told them to take out their bibles, and turn to the Epistles.
“See all those churches? Ephesus. Philippi. Thessalonica. Colassae. Corinth.”
“Yep. So what?”
“Have you heard lately about the new stuff those churches are doing today?”
“Um, excuse me preacher, but I don’t think any of those churches are even still around.”
“Exactly! So, let’s stipulate that God has killed off better churches than we’re ever going to be . . . and just get on with it. If we’re going to die, why don’t we just put the pedal down and see what this old thing can do?”
The church is used to bad news, wouldn’t know what to do with success, if it should came up and bit us on the backside.
It may be that Peter’s afraid of success, because being successful rarely solves your problems. More often than not, it just gives you a whole new set of problems.
I suspect that it’s these problems that have Simon Peter rolling around on the bottom of the boat, telling Jesus to go away. If Jesus’ entrance into Simon Peter’s life is any indication about his modus operandi, there’s reason to be nervous.
Jesus is always showing up uninvited, asking you to move your beach towel someplace less convenient. And it’s not just that you when you move it, other people follow along, but that these people are always kicking sand in the potato salad, using up your sun screen, losing your place in your Danielle Steele novel.
In other words, if Jesus says let down your nets, you never know just who you’re going to catch. And that’s kind of scary.
So, there you go. The church is God’s idea of a good time, God’s idea of a fun bunch of people.
We in the church know something about fishing all night without catching much. It’s when Jesus says, “Let down your nets,” and what we come up with bears not even a passing resemblance to what we were expecting that we start getting nervous.
In one of my favorite stories, one you’ve probably heard me tell before, Will Willimon tells about an evangelistic campaign:
“In my last congregation, we decided that we needed to grow. We voted to launch a program of evangelism. Evangelism. You know what that means. It’s the ‘We-had-better-go-out-and-get-new-members-or-we’ll-die’ syndrome. Beginning in the 60's, our church had begun a two-decade decline in membership, so we figured that a little church-growth strategy was in order.
“We studied a program from our denomination telling us how to get new members. Among other things, the church-growth program advocated a system of door-to-door visitation. So we organized ourselves into groups of two and, on an appointed Sunday afternoon, we set out to visit, to invite people to our church.
“The teams went out, armed with packets of pamphlets describing our congregation, pamphlets telling about our denomination, fliers portraying me, the smiling, accessible pastor, inviting people to our church. Each team was given a map with their assigned street.
“Helen and Gladys were given a map. They were clearly told to go down Summit Drive and to turn right. That’s what they were told. I heard the team leader tell them, ‘You go down Summit Drive and turn right. Do you hear me, Helen, that’s down Summit Drive and turn right?’
“But Helen and Gladys, both approaching eighty, after lifetimes of teaching elementary school, were better at giving than receiving directions. They turned left, venturing into the housing projects to the west of Summit Drive. We told them to turn right; they turned left.
“Which meant that Helen and Gladys proceeded to evangelize the wrong neighborhood and thereby ran the risk of evangelizing the wrong people.
“Late that afternoon, each team returned to the church to make their report. Helen and Gladys had only one interested person to report to us, a woman named Verleen. Nobody on their spurious route was interested in visiting our church, nobody but Verleen. She lived with her children in a three-room apartment in the projects, we were told. Although she had never been to a church in her life, Verleen wanted to visit ours.
“This is what you get, I said to myself, when you don’t follow directions, when you won’t do what the pastor tells you to do. This is what you get . . . a woman [from the wrong part of town] named Verleen.”
What if Jesus showed up around here and said, “Let down your nets, things are fixin’ to get interesting?” Would we hear that as good news?
What if Jesus said, “I’ve got something for you to do, but it’s not anything like you were expecting?”
Would we find ourselves rolling around on the bottom of the boat, telling Jesus to go someplace else?
Or would we look at who shows up as a gift? The people nobody else has any time and space for? Are those the people God wants to put in our path because they’re just the kind people Jesus was notorious for hanging out with?
And if that’s the case, the question this passage puts to us is: Are we willing to trust Jesus enough to let down our nets in unknown waters and be fine with whatever happens next?
It’s tough getting out in a boat with Jesus. It’s hard telling what might happen. Fishing with Jesus can be a pretty dangerous affair. You might just catch some folks you didn’t anticipate.
It’s all right, though. God knows what’s going on. Helen, Gladys, Verleen, me, you . . . It’s God’s church, God’s idea of a fun bunch of people.
I’ve got a feeling we’d better get ready, though. I’ve seen Jesus lurking about around here. Something’s getting ready to happen.