“Into Deeper Water” – Luke 5:1-11

I love looking at family trees.  It provides a portrait of where we come from and can provide insight into where we are going.  It is interesting seeing how lives have been woven together and how some nuts don’t fall far from the family tree.  Looking at our heritage is a good practice, not only as individuals, but for our corporate lives together as well.  It says who we have been and can help paint a picture for where we are going.

The Church of the Nazarene began its life in California on Skid Row.  “Nazarene” was sometimes used as a derogatory name for this group of misfits.  But, those early Nazarenes wore the name as a badge of honor because it pointed to the kind of people we wanted to be and the type of people we felt called to serve.  They were ministering right in the thick of their community’s deepest hurts and darkest sins.

These Nazarenes ministered to those struggling with alcohol addiction, broken families, and poverty.  They jumped right into the mess and proclaimed the hope of Jesus by word and deed.  They built hospitals, homes for unwed mothers, orphanages, schools, churches, and so many other places to meet the great needs of their communities.  Their message and way of life captivated people with the freedom offered by the Gospel of Jesus.  Not only did these Nazarenes seek to make a difference for people in the next life; they extended hope and help, here and now.  They cast nets for people in the most troubled waters of our world.  That is our heritage.

Our story begins with Jesus proclaiming a word from God, a word unfolding the Kingdom before his hearers.  Like those aching for bread, the crowd presses in on Jesus.  They want to hear his words, they draw closer still until Jesus is right near the water’s edge.  The teacher sees two boats sitting on the shore, the crew washing and mending the nets after a futile night of catching seaweed but no fish.  Jesus steps into Peter’s boat and asks him to push off into the shallows.  Peter is obviously tired from a long night of catching nothing.  But, he nods in response and pushes out into the water, keeping the boat from floating away with the current.

Jesus sits down in the boat, the position of a teacher, the position of one in authority.  The word continues to be proclaimed.  Words of hope and a future.  Words that speak life into the dead places.  They are fascinating words.  Words that bring to life an imagination long dead and dull from the pain and suffering of life.  The crowd stands at the shore and Jesus is calling to them from the shallows.  But, that’s where the crowd stops – at the water’s edge.  Maybe some of them allow the water to wash across their feet.  But, they move no further, no closer – a safe distance.

Jesus concludes his teaching to those gathered at the shore’s edge.  Jesus turns to Peter, whose arms are probably aching from the long night and lack of sleep, and tells him to put out into deep waters and to let down his nets.  Move from those shallow waters to the deeper, troubled waters.  They are going fishing in those deeper waters.  Some are content to remain at the shore’s edge, but if you’re in the same boat with Jesus you might just find yourself sailing into deeper waters.

Deeper waters have stronger currents.  They pull and push the boat relentlessly.  The swirling waters are dark and often mysterious.  We do not always know what lies beneath the surface.  Deep waters can be frightening.  But, that’s where Jesus sometimes calls us – deeper waters.  The danger of capsizing, of being overturned is ever present.  Even skilled sailors can quickly find themselves in treacherous places in those waters.  There’s risk, make no mistake, in heading out into deeper waters.  But, that’s where God will sometimes call us.  Will we row out into those deeper waters?

We live in a time of troubled waters.  It’s all around us, threatening to swell and overwhelm our little boat.  The troubled waters of deep anxiety, riddled with violence crash against the side of the boat.  Poverty; refugees forced from their homes; abused children and spouses; homelessness, which is only growing; substance abuse; deadly diseases killing large populations; natural disasters leaving many dead or without shelter.  The current threatens to sweep our boat away from the safety of the shore, to submerge our boat, to drag us down with it.  The problems of those deep waters seem much too big for our little boat to handle.

But, that’s where Jesus calls us to drop anchor and drop our nets – in those deeply troubled waters.  That is where Jesus desires to go and the very place where the Church should be found.  Like the boat that carries Jesus and the disciples “into the deep” places, the Church is the vessel which continues to be out on those troubled waters carrying Jesus and the disciples.  The boat was never meant to remain on the shore or in the shallows.  The Church was never meant to remain on the sidelines and watch the world from the safety of its four walls.  Ever and always has Jesus climbed into the boat and said, “Let’s go to deeper waters.”  And, disciples are the ones that follow Jesus out into those troubled places.

“Cast your nets.”  Can you imagine Peter’s puzzled look?  He is a fisherman by trade and knows the “sweet spots” on the lake.  If he can’t find fish, nobody can find the fish.  It’s broad daylight and fishing with nets is meant for the night.  The fish will see the net.  This appears to be an exercise in futility.  There is no way on God’s green earth that they will catch anything but perhaps a stray fish.

How often that is our very attitude as well.  “Jesus, just look at the state of these people.  They are the most broken, the most vile, the most destitute, the least worthy, the least noble, the least likely candidates.  Casting our nets in this place is pointless.”  We may very well feel like Peter looking at the problem and saying, “There’s really no point in trying. It’s a foregone conclusion.  We will fail.”  Yet, even while Peter was skeptical of success, he cast out his nets in obedience.

We may have been fishing all night without catching anything.  We may wonder if we are simply beating our heads against the wall.  We may have tried with all our strength to reach people only to see no return.  That may discourage us to the point that we have stopped casting our nets.  Instead, we drag them to the shore and busy ourselves washing and mending them – but not fishing.

We content ourselves with staying on the shore, avoiding the deeper waters.  But, going deeper with Jesus does not lead us away from the problems of the world.  Rather, drawing nearer to Jesus, getting in the same boat with Jesus, usually leads us right into the mess of our world as those casting their nets to catch people and pulling them into the boat, the Church as a foretaste of the Kingdom.

It surprised Peter when the nets began to tug and pull.  The weight of the fish as these fishermen began pulling them up made the men strain against the load and they couldn’t do it alone.  Peter waved to his fishing partners in the other boat.  Even with both boats, it was hard, tedious work.  They lifted, strained, and struggled.  They were sweating and aching and tired.  Yet, they labored on.  The load of fish caused both boats to begin sinking.  It was simultaneously exciting and frightening.  What a great catch!  But, they’re in deep waters with two boats sinking!  Peter drops to his knees and bows before Jesus, exclaiming, “Lord, I am a sinful man.  Go away from me!”  He and the disciples are astonished and afraid.

I think we avoid the deep waters and casting our nets for a couple of reasons.  The deep waters frighten us.  We want to avoid the messes of the world, while we complain about them behind closed doors from the comfort of our recliners and at the safe distance which our television screens afford.  We want to keep our distance.

The second reason is because casting our nets and pulling them up is difficult work.  Evangelism and discipleship are hard tasks, difficult tasks.  They require energy, patience, and compassion.  And, we’re not even sure we want to expend the necessary energy, patience, and compassion.  Maybe that’s why we place blame on so many people for being in those dire situations in the first place.  They deserve to be in the positions they find themselves.  And, as such, we can excuse ourselves from doing the very work to which Jesus calls us.

“I’m comfortable on the shore, Jesus, thank you very much.  I’ve done my part.  I needn’t do any more.”  Or, we think, things like worship and faith are just about my personal experience alone.  I have no responsibility for others’ lives.  So, we watch from the shore, content to watch Jesus from a distance, but not willing to be inconvenienced by his call to cast our nets in deeper waters.

But, notice that Peter isn’t the only one straining at the nets.  Other hands join his to hoist the nets and the catch into the boats.  The many hands of the Church work together to lighten the load.  Each and every person has something to contribute to the work of the Church.  Every person that is a part of the Body of Christ does not stand idly by, but lends their hands in service to the task before us.  Everyone has gifts which God has given them for such moments.  Keep in mind that some of the crew are steering, some are rowing, and some are tending the sail.  But, each is contributing to the mission of the Church in response to the call of Jesus.

Oh, but it is hard work, make no mistake.  Joyful, but hard.  Things don’t always go as planned.  Casting our nets for people in the midst of those troubled waters can be painful and exhausting.  It is often inconvenient and will sometimes feel like things are coming loose at the seams.  The disciples’ nets begin to break.  The boats begin to take on water.  All the chaos of those waters threaten to come over the edge of the boat, dragging us down into the murky depths.  It can be frightening to feel like the boats won’t float any longer.  And, many have become frightened whenever the Church has been threatened by those deep waters.

When we were younger, my sister and I attended a swimming party at a neighbor’s house.  A lot of our friends were there to celebrate the birthday of one of the girls.  It was noisy, busy, and festive.  Children were splashing and screaming and stuffing their faces with cake.  It was a bit chaotic.  Although there were several adults in attendance, it was nearly impossible to keep an eye on everything happening.

At one point, my younger sister began to have difficulties swimming.  She was treading water but could hardly keep her head above the waves.  The side of the pool was too far for her to grab and she was in a deeper section of the pool where footing was impossible.  I didn’t think, but immediately jumped in to help her.  However, my sister’s problem quickly became my problem.

As I reached her, she immediately grabbed me and shoved me under the water, using me as a prop to get air.  She has a death-grip on my head while holding me totally submerged.  I can’t come up and didn’t have much air when I went down.  Free training tip: Always approach drowning people from behind so they don’t drown you also.  Back to our program.  Luckily, I was able to escape her grasp and help her get to the side.  Trying to help her had almost ended badly for me and it was terribly frightening.  But, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  When we try to help people drowning under the weight of the world’s brokenness, we might find ourselves being submerged.  It may feel like we’re drowning in the process.

When broken people, like you and I, come through those doors, we often bring those troubled waters with us into the boat.  We bring the mess of our lives right through those doors.  We carry our guilt, our shame, our brokenness, our anger, our bitterness, our lust, our greed, our poor attitudes, our fear right into this place like rushing waters.  And, the torrent can feel downright overwhelming at times.  Perhaps that’s why we try to keep our messes hidden from each other.

We dare not let others know our brokenness and sin for fear of chaos breaking out, of being cast out of the boat.  And, for those with more visible problems, we may say a kind word but we dare not make them feel welcome enough to stay.  Those problems belong “out there,” but not in this boat.  The nets are already strained to the breaking point and the boat is threatening to tip.  We might wonder if some fish aren’t just better tossed back in the pond than having to deal with their messy situation.

But Peter’s confession has always been the Church’s confession: “Lord, we are sinful people.  Surely, there’s better qualified people than us to do your work.”  While Jesus may call us to be “fishers of people,” we better remember that we were the fish pulled out of those troubled waters to begin with.  “Lord, we are sinful people.”  We are people that are deeply submerged in those mirky, troubled, deep waters.  We are the broken.  We are the destitute.  We are the impoverished.  We are those living in darkness, those living in sin, those loving our shame.  “Lord, we are sinful people.”

Jesus responds to Peter’s confession, even as he calls out to us now, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people alive.”  Peter recognizes that he is in deep waters, sinful.  Jesus has cast his net and brought him into the boat, calling him to do the same for others.  Peter and the disciples will do for others what Jesus has done for them – caught them out of death for life!  The only appropriate response is to leave everything behind and follow Jesus.

Would there be a better response for us today?  Wouldn’t it be great to be a church that is known for following Jesus into the deep and troubled waters, casting our nets out to catch people out of the ways of death of the world and pulling them into the Church to be part of the new Kingdom of life here and now?  There are no disciples sitting on the shore, only an entertained crowd.  The disciples are where Jesus is, right in the messy waters of our world catching people for new life.  That is and has always been the Church’s mission.

As Emil Brunner once remarked, “Mission work does not arise from any arrogance in the Christian Church; mission is its cause and its life. The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no Church; and where there is neither Church nor mission, there is no faith.”  We can’t be part of the Church without also being part of its mission.  Jesus calls us out into deeper waters, to cast our nets, to catch people up into this newness of life we have found together in Jesus.

 

“Fishers of People” – Mark 1:14-20

I love fishing.  Some of my favorite memories growing up are stories about fishing with my cousins on their family farm.  One such instance, we caught a catfish using a stick, fishing line, a hook, and some chewed bubble gum.  We fastened the stick into some mud, tied the line and hook on, and molded the gum around the hook, throwing it into the pond while we went to dinner.  When we came back, we found a fish on the line and began dragging it to shore.  My cousins ran with the stick up the hill, while a friend and I pulled the fish into shore.

Finally, the fish popped up onto the bank and immediately slipped off the hook, flopping perilously close to the water, threatening to waste our perfectly good bubble gum bait.  My friend and I jumped onto the fish and pinned it down in the mud, finally wrestling it into a bucket with water.  We were proud of our catch, so we took it to the house and got pictures together with the fish.  After that, we released the fish back into the water.

That’s always been my kind of fishing – catch and release.  I’ve never really acquired a taste for fish.  But, I love the sensation of hooking a fish and reeling it into the boat on a warm summer’s day.  It’s satisfying, fulfilling, and requires very little thought on my part.

In the past, that is how I have imagined fishing in the story of the gospels.  Jesus comes along the shore, sees some rugged fishermen, and says, “Hey, come follow me and I’ll make you fishers of men.”  The fishermen put their reels down and head off behind Jesus to win the world, to save some souls.

It’s a beautiful, serene picture of a call to evangelism, matched by immediate obedience.  That’s, perhaps, how many of us read this story, especially as people that spend any amount of time fishing around nearby lakes.  Thus, we might look at this call from Jesus as a call to hook people to bring them into heaven.

But, in reading Jesus’ call to the disciples in this way, we have done great damage to the power of this story.  In essence, we have altered it beyond recognition for what the initial disciples would have heard.  This seems to me to be the reason that the Gospels have become so powerless.  Discipleship has been minimized to getting people into the boat, counting the number of decisions that have been made for salvation, and thinking that this is the whole purpose of Jesus’ life and ministry – getting people to heaven.

But, you may recall the Lord’s Prayer: “May Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  The whole purpose of Jesus’ life and ministry, culminating in the cross and resurrection, is bringing together heaven and earth in a sort of marriage, so that heaven and earth are “one flesh.”  In other words, God’s will and way would be embodied on earth as it is in heaven – perfectly!

If the Gospel is about Jesus being crucified that I might go to heaven, we relieve ourselves of any responsibility for what happens in this world.  It suggests that the whole point of Jesus coming to earth is to zap us out of here, allowing us to escape this prison.  We have de-politicized the Gospel because we have taken it out of its Jewish context.  In other words, we have not connected the stories of Scripture to their Jewish background.

So, let’s go back to the story at hand.  Jesus shows up in “Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:14b-15).

  1. Scott Spencer gives us insight into the political situation of Galilee, writing: “While the fishermen themselves might profit from their toil, fishing revenues in Herodian-controlled Galilee were severely siphoned off by a tightly regulated political monopoly. Buoyed by his opulent new capital city Tiberias, dedicated to the emperor on the western bank of the Galilean sea, as well as by the booming demand for Galilean fish sauces and stews throughout the empire, Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, seized the opportunity to make the small inland lake of Galilee into a real “sea,” his own private “little Mediterranean” pond.

The Roman client-king developed his own microcosmic version of Caesar’s claim to own all the oceans and waterways of the realm and everything in them.  At every turn, family fishing businesses, like those of Jesus’ disciples, were caught in Antipas’s conglomerate net, forcing them to procure fishing licenses and leases, to produce demanding quotas, and to pay taxes, tolls, and other fees to an extensive bureaucracy monitoring the whole fishing enterprise, from catching to processing to shipping” (F. Scott Spencer, “Follow Me”: The Imperious Call of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, 144-45).

Herod Antipas owned not only the sea, but everything in it.  He also owned everyone that made a living from those waters.  The fishermen, even those that were moderately well off, were vassals to Herod and, by extension, Caesar.  Antipas had his hooks in the people, and it was difficult, if not impossible, to escape.

This is the cultural landscape in which we find Jesus strolling along the beach, proclaiming the kingdom, and telling fishermen to “Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”  Here we see Jesus enacting politics, quite bluntly.  He calls these fishermen, those participating in the kingdom of Herod and Caesar, to come be part of this new kingdom and to fish for Jesus instead of Herod.

The Jews had longed for deliverance from Exile for so long.  In fact, Josephus, the Jewish historian for Rome, said that this is the reason that the Jews revolted against Rome in the middle of the first century.  The Jewish people had calculated that the time had arrived in which they would finally be delivered from Exile.

This stems from the prayer in Daniel 9.  Daniel prays to God asking when they would be delivered from captivity.  After all, Jeremiah had said it would be 70 years.  God responds, saying that God has heard Daniel’s prayer.  There is good news and bad news.  The good news is that God’s people will indeed be delivered.  The bad news is that it won’t be 70 years but 70 weeks of years.  Or, 70 times 7, which is 490 years.

The vision in Daniel’s writings describe four kingdoms, represented by various beasts arising out of the sea to power.  Because of Israel and Judah’s disobedience to God, these kingdoms will keep the people in Exile.  But, then, this wonderful vision turns.  Daniel sees one like a son of man sitting next to the Ancient of Days, establishing God’s kingdom forever and dashing to pieces the kingdoms that were opposed to God’s way in the world.

This is the tension that the Jewish people are living under, anticipating the establishment of God’s kingdom.  Jesus’ call to these fishermen is to follow him as members of God’s kingdom, even now being established in the midst of the kingdoms of the world.

Jesus goes even further by using the metaphor of fishing for the task that the disciples will be doing as his followers.  Again, we think of fishing that isn’t extremely messy and difficult work.  But the reality is it was extremely hard work.  The mending of nets used to drag bottom to pull in large amounts of fish.  The wild weather that could quickly whip up a storm on the sea in which those boats could easily sink.  The smelly task of gutting and cleaning the fish.  As Spencer puts it: “In a word, fishing was taxing business, in both the physical and financial sense” (F. Scott Spencer, “Follow Me”: The Imperious Call of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, 144). 

Not only that, but the image of fishing is used as a metaphor for judgment in the scriptures.  Jeremiah 16:16-18 reads: “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them; and afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks.  For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight.  And I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with the abominations.”

As fishers of men, Jesus’ disciples are the agents through whom God will judge the world and its false kingdoms of power, manipulation, and oppression – or, idolatry.  In essence, the disciples are the primary agents that begin to proclaim to all that God, in fact, is now King over all.  This is what is commonly known as Theocracy – God reigns and rules.

Such a violent image of fishing and hunting for the disciples’ task is a little terrifying.  We are distrusting of the notion that the disciples, and by extension the Church, is the agent of judgment against the world.  After all, one need only look at the various abuses of power that the Church has wrought down through the centuries to be skeptical.

The Inquisition, the Crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, and other historical actions by the Church have wrought serious destruction, which seems no different than Rome, Caesar, Herod, or any other king or nation.  Point taken.

But, this is precisely the point in which we must ask what kind of God is this, whose agents enact judgment against the world.  Would we not confess it to be the God of Genesis that brings the world into being and blesses it and also takes a wondering nomad and promises to make him the father of nations?  It would most certainly be the God in Exodus that delivers slaves from Egypt and makes them His people.  It is the same God that promises to give the people a heart of flesh rather than stone.  It is the very God that tells Israel they are engraved on His hands.

And, what does that look like?  It looks like a Jewish peasant that came proclaiming God’s kingdom, enacting freedom for the oppressed, sight for the blind, and release for the captive, proclaiming Jubilee, the Year of the Lord’s Favor, and the forgiveness of sins.  This coming of the kingdom stands in total opposition to the world’s use of power.

We see this quite clearly in John’s Gospel as Jesus is standing before Pilate, the kingdom of God confronting the kingdom of the world.  “They argue over kingdom and truth and power.  Pilate sends Jesus to his death and Jesus wins” (N. T. Wright, Kingdom and Cross).  Jesus even tells Pilate that if his kingdom were like the kingdoms of this world, his followers would defend it.  Jesus’ defeat of the kingdoms of this world comes through sacrifice, not tanks.  Rome’s peace (pax Romana) was maintained by the sword; God’s peace is won through costly forgiveness

In this way, Jesus is the climax of Israel’s story.  And, for Jesus to call disciples to follow him is to say that he believes that they can do what he does in fulfilling that very story – to be agents of reconciliation!  After all, it is no accident that there are 12 disciples and 12 tribes of Israel.

God is re-constituting Israel through Jesus and his disciples.  And, even as Israel was intended to embody a community upon whom God had a particular claim, one that called for total allegiance, the disciples are invited to live as citizens of God’s kingdom here on earth.  Now.  To live as those that embody judgment of the world by “daily taking up their cross and following Jesus.”

As Jesus walks the shore proclaiming the kingdom; he also calls for repentance.  That is – Jesus calls all those who might hear him to turn from the false kingdoms of this world and become fully fledged citizens of God’s kingdom, whose way of ruling this world is through Jubilee, forgiveness.

So, here we stand in the boat, hearing Jesus’ call.  We can stay in the boat, remaining in the security of what is familiar and potentially beneficial politically, financially, or socially.  The Church has sometimes opted for the safety of the boat of culture.  The German church that refused to stand against Nazi Germany and collaborated in great atrocities against other nations, the Church that remained quiet while African Americans were abused and oppressed; the Church that acts out violently, both physically and verbally, against its enemies both far and near; the Church that turns a blind eye to the poor and oppressed, perhaps even benefitting from their labor while giving them insufficient wages to help build profits.

When we cease to call the world’s way of power into question because we are part of it or are silent, we are no different than those kingdoms and fail to live as God’s kingdom people.  Without repentance, without turning from those kingdoms, we inevitably cease to be disciples of Jesus and choose to remain in the boat.

Or, we can opt for the insecurity of following Jesus.  It’s dangerous and difficult to follow Jesus, not least of all in the Church.  We will be confronted by kingdoms that use power to threaten us with death and destruction, both physical and otherwise.  To be a people of the Kingdom is to be a people marked by the cross, which is a new way of utilizing power in the world.  It is learning to forgive even mortal enemies.  It is sharing generously with those who don’t have resources and networks of support to weather the storms of life.  It is embodying non-violent resistance, like Martin Luther King, Jr., to those who implement violence as a means of getting what they want.  It is living as a vessel of blessing through which God may bless others.  Stepping out of the boat is scary because it demands “our life, our all.”  But, thank God, “those who lose their life find it.”

Jesus calls, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news… Follow me and I will make you fish for people!”  Living as an alternative to the kingdoms of this world as God’s agents of judgment, fishers of people, means that our lives should call into question the ways this world employs power.  God uses power to extend love and mercy; the world uses power as a means to domination.  In talking about this very tension, Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best: “You cannot drive out darkness with darkness, only light can do that.  You cannot drive out hate with hate, only love can do that.”

Hearing Jesus’ call to follow him, let’s move out of the boat together and engage the world as God’s Kingdom people!