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.