This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What Does Our Net Say?

Luke 5:1-11.
            Jesus is developing a powerful reputation in Galilee as a healer, exorcist, and preacher.  People know that what he speaks is the “word of God.”  He speaks with authority; what he says actually happens.  On this occasion he is preaching on the beach by Lake Gennesaret (also called the Sea of Galilee).  The crowd that wants to hear him gets so big that he is almost pushed into the lake. 
            Two boats are there, pulled up on the beach after a night of fishing.  The fishers themselves are farther down the beach, washing their nets, perhaps bemused by this mob gathering to hear Jesus.  Jesus gets into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, the man whose mother-in-law he healed of a fever.  Simon is there, and perhaps helpfully pushes the boat into the water and keeps it there in the shallows while Jesus sits down to preach and the people can come right up to the water’s edge.
            We don’t know what he says, but we can assume he has the same basic message as his sermon in Nazareth.  He is opening the Hebrew Scriptures to them and announcing that he has come to fulfill what is written in them.  Maybe he still uses the hope-filled passages from the last third of the book of the Prophet Isaiah as his starting-off point.
            When he is done speaking, he wants to illustrate his sermon by some appropriate action.  It is somewhat like the way the sermon in churches is followed by the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; first we talk about the good news, then we do something, we eat together, to demonstrate and seal the good news in our hearts.  Jesus turns to Simon and instructs him to put out into deep water and let down his nets for a catch. 
            Now, fishing on Lake Gennesaret was usually a nocturnal activity.  Maybe during the day the fish went deeper down to cooler water, but daylight fishing was not usually fruitful.  And Peter is also probably very tired.
            “Master,” he says, perhaps under his breath and privately to Jesus so as not to show him up in front of this crowd.  “We have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”  He insinuates the point that he doesn’t expect this to work.  He knows Jesus is not a fisher, and may not know the best procedures and techniques.
            But he has also seen Jesus at work; he already knows that Jesus can do remarkable things, and that when he says something it tends to happen.  Maybe Jesus gives him a look.  So he says, “Yet, if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 
            Simon echoes what we have already heard Mary say, back in chapter one.  When the angel announces she will give birth to the Messiah, she says, “Let it be with me according to your word.”  And so, Simon as well, responds to Jesus’ “word.”  He trusts enough in what Jesus has said to bring the boat out into deeper water and let the nets down.  He does what Jesus says.  That’s how he demonstrates his trust.

            We don’t know what he feels in his heart.  He may thoroughly doubt whether this is going to work; he may just be going through the motions.  But, against everything he knows about fishing on this lake, he does what Jesus says.
            There is something to be said for simply doing what Jesus says.  Sometimes I realize it takes a bit of discernment, for which we need the support and advice of the gathering, for us to know what Jesus is asking of us… of me.  But often Jesus’ command hits us in the face directly, and our prevarications and avoidances are just that.  We know what Jesus wants us to do and we simply don’t want to do it.
            We say, “Well, the context was very different then, Jesus doesn’t mean the same thing today, for me.”  Or: “That was what Jesus said to that guy, but he doesn’t say that to everyone, and he certainly isn’t saying it to me.”  And that’s true.  Context is important.  And Jesus doesn’t always require the same specific actions from everybody.  It does take discernment.  But don’t use that to avoid the issue.  Sometimes you just know in your heart that: “Yeah, I don’t like it, but that word is for me.”
            When Jesus instructs Simon to sail out into deeper water and lower the nets into the water, I wonder if he isn’t saying this to his church at all times.  I wonder if he isn’t telling the church to get out there into the world and preach the good news.  Do the things Isaiah said the Messiah would do: preaching and healing and liberating and forgiving.  It is not enough just to listen to Jesus… and then nod your head and go home to mull over what he said.  After listening comes the acting.  After the sermon Jesus says now do this.  “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Jesus’ words are not just something to think about; they are something to do.
            Too often our boats stay on the beach, even after our nets are perfectly washed and mended, even after we have a PhD in alieology, the science of fishing, and our boats are in perfect, up-to-date condition.  We sit here on the beach and expect the fish to come to us.  We assume that people know where we are and what time our services are, and that they should be inspired to show up.  Maybe if we advertized…. 
            Presumably Jesus could have summoned the fish out of the lake and into the beached boats, but he doesn’t.  He instructs Simon to sail out into the deeper water and let down the nets.  Just as he is sent into the world by God, so he sends us into the world as well. 

            Simon doesn’t understand what is going on.  But he does as Jesus tells him.  When they get far enough out into the lake he does let the nets out.  And immediately the nets are full of fish!  They catch so many fish that the nets are beginning to strain and bulge and stretch, and might even break.  The fish are so heavy they have to call another boat out to help haul in the load.
            Now, this story is not really about fishing techniques.  It is about evangelism.  Just as Simon and his associates had to sail to deep water and let down the nets, so also Jesus’ gathering of disciples has to go into the world and preach the good news of God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus.  The good news is about the Kingdom of God, which is described by Isaiah as God’s new order of justice, peace, love, forgiveness, healing, and freedom.  Jesus is telling us to go into the world, go where the people are, and give them an opportunity to participate in a new kind of community.
            Our problem, I suspect, is that the fish are not attracted to our nets, as it were.  Maybe we’re not always acting in obedience to Jesus, but for other reasons and motivations.  If you let out nets that say, “We really need new members because we need more money to keep this institution going….”  I don’t know.  Is that going to work?  If our nets communicate the message that we need new people to come and take over doing what we have been doing… and they’d better do it right and exactly the way we always did it,” I doubt that will be particularly effective either.  If the net says judgment or condemnation or if it delivers dire threats, if it says you’re not the right kind of person, or if it has a long list of prerequisites and high “standards”….  Then it’s not a net that is lowered in Jesus’ name.
            But if the net says forgiveness, release, healing, acceptance, welcome, and cancellation of debts… in other words, if the net communicates the values of Jesus Christ, then we may expect it to be more effective in catching what we seek to catch.
            Our “nets” are our message.  And it is preached not just in words, but also deeds.  It needs to be very clear that this is a place where you will find love, support, friendship, togetherness, peace, acceptance, and hope.  You know, this church is not just named after the road.  We are named after an important theological virtue, one that is lacking in many people’s lives.  I think if we can convey that hope is not just our address but it is what we are all about, we will do fine.

            In the story, both boats are so overloaded that they are starting to take on water.  But they finally make it to land, with the crowd still standing there watching the whole thing.
            And when he gets to the beach Simon runs to Jesus and falls down at Jesus’ knees.  He says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  When we’re in the presence of this kind of holiness and power, here is the default response.  We bow down in penitence and worship.  We are made immediately aware of how far short we fall by comparison, and we are driven to our knees.  We are justly afraid that simple contact with holiness and goodness of this magnitude will consume us.
            But Jesus is not just about freedom and healing, he has also come to banish our fear.  Jesus knows what Yoda states in the Star Wars movies: “Fear the path to the dark side is.”   One of the people present at that event by the lake that day later wrote that: “There is no fear in love; perfect love casts out all fear.”  Fear is what keeps our boats on the beach.  Fear is what keeps the nets in the boat.  Nothing kills evangelism and mission as effectively as fear: fear of failure, fear of credulity, fear of looking ridiculous, fear of disappointment, fear of having your life transformed and overturned, fear of death.
            There is no place for fear in this project.  Fear is the opposite of trust; it undermines obedience.  Fear anticipates disaster.  And fear is warranted.  Association with Jesus will eventually get Simon, his name is soon changed to Peter, killed.  Even becoming a disciple at all means taking up one’s cross, it means dying to your old life.  Remember that the fish caught in the net do die.  Not only does realizing the good news in our life require a renunciation of our old ways, and our old life, but being a part of Jesus’ new community was considered subversive and liable to bring the wrath of fearful authorities.
            But once people encounter the Lord Jesus they realize that the new challenges and trials they are willingly taking on are better than the bondage and deterioration and disease they had been enduring before.
            Jesus commands Simon not to be afraid, and then points out that this whole episode is not really about fish.  It is about people.  Jesus is telling him that what he just saw with the great catch of fish will now be fulfilled in ministry to people.  He will be drawing people up out of their lives of despair, grief, and bondage, and into the light of God’s love, into the new community Jesus establishes, into joy and hope.

            But Jesus has seen that Simon has what it takes.  Simon has already demonstrated that he will obey Jesus, even when it is against his better – and professional – judgment.  When Simon and his associates reach the shore, they leave everything and follow Jesus.  Luke mentions Simon’s partners, James and John, and we know that Peter’s brother Andrew eventually joins them as well.  Whatever connections they have, they leave.  Maybe the proceeds from the fish would console whomever they left behind, but, having witnessed Jesus’ authority and power, they decide to follow him as disciples.
            I don’t think it is just because they see a miracle that they are so willing to drop everything and follow Jesus.  But Jesus is preaching the emergence of a new order for Israel and the world.  He is giving people hope.  And unlike other preachers who might have come around with even similar messages, Jesus delivers.  For the first time they have a taste of what hope looks like when it is fulfilled.
            This is not a circus that they’re signing on for; this is not about barking for Jesus the miracle worker, the entertainer, the novelty act.  They want to get in on this “fishing for people” thing.  Because if Jesus can do with people what he does with fish, then they’re looking at some real changes in the life of their people, and the world.
            Let us therefore consider where in our own lives we might be hearing Jesus say to us: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Realizing that the “deep water” represents the wider world and its dangers and promises, the place of commerce and interaction, where is that place for us?  Where are the people?
            What is the character of our “net”?  As far as our message, our presentation, the face we show the world, our actions are concerned, are we casting the message of Jesus?  Are we communicating a message of release, forgiveness, acceptance, healing, and blessing?  Or are we still throttled by other kinds of baggage, so that people hear judgment, criticism, condemnation, and rejection from us?  Are we ready to give people welcome and hospitality, or rules?  The good news or our own opinions?
            Finally, let’s not let our fear paralyze us.  Putting ourselves into Jesus’ hands by trusting in him and obeying his word banishes all fear.  Because to follow him is to follow the power of love at work in the world.

            Our story today begins with people hungry for the Word of God.  I think people are always hungry for God’s Word, even if they don’t know and can’t say what they are hungry for.  God’s message is one of liberation, healing, forgiveness, peace, and love.  And Jesus Christ has shown that he can deliver on this promise, if we follow him.  We may not be called to leave everything literally, but we are called to leave behind our old, fearful selves, and everything that would drag us down.
            May we see how Jesus banishes our fear, and sends us out as well, to catch people.

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