The Restoration Project 3
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, September 27, 2020
Reading: Luke 5:1-11
It is de rigueur in business and professional circles these days to talk about risk management. What an exciting topic for us to think about at the beginning of a sermon. But risk management is, I have learned, very important for an organization, very important for a church, and very important for people’s lives. As we’ve been exposed to great risk as our society, there is a need to understand risk management. Having heard the phrase bandied around numerous times, I decided to look it up to see what it meant. A definition from an audit organization: “Organizations face internal and external factors and influences that make it uncertain whether they will achieve or exceed their objectives. The effect this uncertainty has on the organization’s objectives is risk.”
The more I thought of that, the more I thought of today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, and its incredible story of Jesus and the disciples. If I could travel back in time 2,000 years, I would sit down with the disciples and say, “Are you sure you have done your risk management assessment? After all, you’re asking a carpenter to advise you as fishermen how to catch fish.” Not the first thing one would do.
It’s sort of like having your car break down and the first person call to fix it is the florist. Or maybe you need a wedding cake, so you call a plumber. It is not risk management at its very best nor does it achieve the goals you’re setting. You would say to the disciples, “Now hold on a minute. You’re asking a carpenter to advise you on how to catch fish.” It seemed bizarre. Yet, as the story unfolds, not so much. It wasn’t an ordinary risk encounter; it was an encounter between someone special and a group of people who needed to be led.
So, what exactly happened in the story of Jesus and the disciples and the catching of fish? We know this happened around the Sea of Galilee where so much of Jesus’ early ministry took place, like last week with the storm coming up in the middle of the lake. And we know that Galilee was known for having incredible resources of fish; panfish, carp, catfish; all manner of fish could be found in the Sea of Galilee.
We also find out that the disciples had gone out at night to do their fishing. Night fishing was the preferred method on the Sea of Galilee evidently because the fish would come to the surface where the water was warmer at night, and the fishermen could easily scoop a great catch up in their nets. But that night, they’d gone out and caught nothing. In the morning they did what normal fishermen do: washed their nets and left them dry for use the next night. They would be tired. They worked a whole night and had nothing to show for it. Then, this carpenter comes to them and says, “I want you to go out now. I want you to go deep now.” The disciples went.
When they did, they were astonished. They said to him, “If you say so, we will go.” They put out their nets and what do we find? They were able to catch so many fish that the boat became insecure and dangerous. The boats that they had in those days were not sophisticated boats. Many of them had very flat hulls with just a modicum of an angle. They could tilt very easily. Anyone of you who has been in a kayak or a canoe knows how easy it is to tip over with a shift in weight.
I'll never forget getting a telephone call from a friend of mine when I lived in Cape Town. He said, “Andrew, you’ve got to come down to the docks. You’re not going to believe what’s happening.” I drove down and Steve and I sat on the docks and we watched a container ship very gently, very slowly slide onto its side and begin to sink. It all happened so slowly and then very quickly. It was terrifying to watch this massive tanker having a shift in weight because they hadn’t balanced the containers.
These disciples get these massive fish – maybe catfish, carp, or panfish, whatever – and a suddenly the boat starts to tip over. They’re terrified and upset about it. And they’re amazed because they shouldn’t be catching fish in the middle of the day in that magnitude.
Why is this encounter between Jesus and some fishermen some 2,000 years ago of any importance to us today? Does it have any relevance? Does it have any impact on our faith? I think it does, because in that encounter on the Sea of Galilee something transformative occurred. This was the precursor to the call of the disciples, to Simon Peter and to James and John the sons of Zebedee and probably Andrew the brother of Simon Peter. It was the beginning of the movement to follow Christ in a meaningful way.
To really understand its impact, you have to look at what happened before and after the incident. Before the incident, we are told that Jesus was preaching to the crowds in Galilee. It must have been the morning, for the nets were washed and they were drying on the beach. A crowd is following Jesus but trying to talk to this crowd is not easy. To stand on a beach and to talk to people on a hill is not easy with a large crowd. So, Jesus does a brilliant thing. He gets on a boat belonging to one of the disciples, like a great amphitheatre, he’s able to proclaim the Word of God to the crowd. It’s almost as if there is a church being created outdoors. It wasn’t in the synagogue anymore.
We had heard that Jesus had been speaking in the synagogues, probably in Capernaum, maybe in Nazareth, or Bethlehem. He could have been in any of the places around the Sea of Galilee preaching (what is known today as Tiberius). Now he’s taking the Word of God out of the confines of the building and to the street, to the side of the lake where people are gathered. This transition from speaking in the synagogues – where he did his healings; his exorcisms; and told some of his parables – to outside of the confines of the synagogue with the Word of God.
I've thought about our situation right now and I think about how the synagogue, the church if you want to call it that, is an important place. Jesus went to the synagogues to preach. It’s important for the gathered community of faith to meet, but it isn't the sole outreach. It’s not the only place where the Word of God is heard. In fact, the vast majority of you today are actually not here in the room but you’re listening and watching in various places. Some of you are working today, and you have put the radio on or your phone with headset and you’re listening to this service right now. Some of you are in nursing homes and confined to your rooms or a small group of you are gathered. Some of you are in dormitories. Some of you might even be in your car on your way to a cottage. Some of you might be at the cottage. But the Word of God is not limited to a place. The place is an important gathering spot for you all today, but it’s not the sole method of reaching people. Maybe we’re in an unprecedented time. A time like Jesus standing on the shore of Galilee in a boat to communicate with people on a mass level. Jesus was an itinerant preacher and the Word of God was not confined to a place. The Word of God was spoken with power to the people. Jesus did that and reached out into that world, and as he proclaimed that gospel, people came to realize and appreciate everything that he was doing.
What happened after that? Because that’s just as important. The disciples did as Jesus said. When he entered their boat and said, “Why don’t we go back out to sea? Let’s go and catch fish.” Peter says, “I will because” – and listen to this word – “you say so”. Peter wasn’t just hearing the words of a carpenter. He was hearing the very invitation of God Himself in Christ. He knew that there was an authority to this Christ, that there was a power in this Christ that transcended anything that he would do, and he would risk anything to do that. But it was risky because catching fishing and getting those incredible shoals of fish on board can be dangerous. They were not used to going out in the day; and day fishing is totally different and has its own dangers and problems. They were worried I think because it’s obvious they were frightened not only from the fish coming into the boat and tilting them, but because they could see their boat sinking and their livelihood going to ruin. Still they obeyed. They followed Christ’s leadership, even though they knew that they were living in an uncertain moment.
I think it’s fair to say that there are a lot of people today who are very much like those disciples and are very uncertain. You might be one of them, about your employment or your security. There was a CTV poll done just this week and it suggests that – and I'm reading from the actual article – more than half of working Canadians are stressed out over money due to the pandemic. According to an online poll of more than 4,000 Canadians by the Canadian Payroll Association, 58 percent of respondents are more stressed about their financial situation due to the pandemic. Additionally, 60 percent of working Canadians are worried about the nation’s economy while 55 percent are concerned about their employment.
Now these are current numbers and it’s understandable why people are stressed. People are talking to me and saying things like, “You know I really shouldn’t be stressed.” Well, of course you’re going to be stressed. Of course! When the disciples set out on that boat, when they caught all those fish, and saw their boat and their livelihood going down with it, they were stressed. But was Peter’s response? “I am a sinful man. I haven't trusted in you.” He was concerned that maybe he hadn’t listened to Jesus. He was concerned not only for his own welfare but also whether he’d been faithful. “For I am a sinful man.” He recognized that he had some doubts and he was honest enough to say, “You know I'm not perfect, Jesus. You know, I'm a sinful man and all of this is deeply troubling to me.” I love Peter, don’t you? Doesn’t he sound like you sometimes, or sound like me?
As you know, we’ve been going through many public discussions over the last week about constitutional law in the United States. Discussions about the constitutionality of the monarchy has been another discussion that has recently resurfaced. I went back did some historical reading, which took me into the life of none other than – and I'm going way back now – Oliver Cromwell. If you’re talking about the father of modern constitutions, I suppose his model parliament and the constitution that he formed was really one of the more important in history. Hugh Trevor-Roper, who is a very famous Cambridge historian, wrote this about Cromwell, and I think it’s fascinating. He said, “He does not appear to have experienced conversion to Christianity until he was nearly 30. Later, he described to a cousin how he had emerged from darkness into light. Yet, he’d been unable to receive the grace of God without feeling a sense of self vanity and badness. He was convinced that he had been the chief of sinners before he learned that he was one of God’s chosen.”
Even someone like Cromwell, in his encounter with faith and Christ recognized his fallibility in the face Christ’s call. His assurance of Christ’s love came after he recognized that he was imperfect. There lies the parallel with Peter. Peter knew that at some point he had to trust Christ. Even in all his uncertainties, even with his business probably going down the tube or down the sea, he knew that at some point in his life he had to trust. So, what did Jesus say to him? Jesus said – and these are immortal words – “Do not be afraid.” Once he’d given Peter his assurance, and offered him this grace, he said, “For now you are going to be fishers of men.” You are going to reach out to people, men and women. You are going to actually do something great.”
For all the worry and anxiety about the boat, his income, and his life, Jesus was saying, “Don’t worry about any of that. Cast yourself unto me. Follow me and others will follow you.”
There is a great tradition in Jewish thought that the notion of catching fish is equivalent to the catching of people. We’re finding that now in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi writings. We’re seeing it in some Greek philosophers who talked about the outreach to others as being like brining fish into a net. So, Jesus is not talking in radically different terms to these disciples. Many of them would have understood what he was getting at. And when he said to them, “You will become fishers of people” they knew this was a call, an invitation. This was a moment for them to follow. It was a powerful moment and it changed their lives.
But how did it change their lives? And why would it make any difference to us? Well, to put it bluntly, we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for their witness. The gospels that we have giving an account of this would not have occurred had we not had the words of the apostles to explain what happened. More than that, this notion of Christ calling people in every generation in every age is a powerful one. It meant for the disciples that they had to reorder their priorities up front. They had to leave what they had trusted and move to something different.
I think that is one of the great transitions in life, to reorder your priorities. Maybe COVID-19, for all its pain and horror, is actually causing us to do that. I've been reflecting on this passage, how have my priorities been reordered. The priorities in life that I always have had are for the church, and for family, and so on. But there are things that kind of creep into your life that take on an importance all their own, when, in the face of real death, or the potential of real catastrophe, don’t seem important anymore.
For Peter, the boat did not seem important anymore when Jesus called him to commit his life and to follow him. It was a complete reordering of priorities. I think that, in so many ways, this is a moment in history, it’s a moment in time for us to think about the priorities in our lives and what really matters most. When you peel away the onion, the layers, what’s at the core, what holds us together, as people, as a community of faith, but also what holds us together as a society. If there isn't a bond of love, an embrace of the other, compassion for the needy and the vulnerable, then I really do wonder whether we’ve got our priorities straight. If ever there was a time, now is the time to embrace them.
There’s also a reordering of responsibilities in this. One of the things that I find notable about this story is that Peter knelt before Jesus on the boat. He acknowledged that his life was in honour of Christ who had just filled his boat with fish, who had given him an abundance, more than he even realized. He had caught fish before. He was a fisherman. There’s nothing miraculous about this, but the way that these fish were caught and the one who had led them to catch, that’s where the abundance and the blessing really came in and was seen to be from God and he knew this.
We’re all cognizant and aware of the symbolic power of kneeling. If a symbol over the last few months that has defined this era, it has been people kneeling. I watched a soccer match yesterday from England and, before the game began, all the players went to their knees; a sign of respect, of solidarity against racism. It’s a powerful image, getting on one’s knee, kneeling down is a sign of humility, respect, and honour.
There’s something more to this than meets the eye. I went online and read of a Bishop Ernest Lyght, an African-American bishop in the United Methodist Church. I love his stuff. I read him from time to time for inspiration. There was a blog that he put out in the last few days and it really hit home to me, especially in the light of this passage; he said, “Americans have taken a knee in protest against violence, discrimination and injustice.”
Dr. Martin Luther King took a knee in protest of America’s segregation against African-Americans. On the one hand, for King to take a knee was a symbol of protest, but it was also a sign of submission to Almighty God. While taking a knee, King and his fellow protestors, like Reverend Abernathy, offered their prayers to God. When we face injustices and difficulties and challenges in society, taking a knee should be for us all, not only out of respect for those who are in need, or are being discriminated against, but also in recognition of the source of our strength, encouragement, and truth.
Peter got on his knees and after he was called to be a disciple. He was called to be those who attract others to Christ. He was invited with the greatest invitation that has ever been issued in history, and it is the invitation, “Follow Me.” This invitation in this world right now is precisely that to which we should respond. Amen.