Letting down the nets

(Sermon for February 7, 2010 || Epiphany 5, Year C, RCL || Luke 5:1-11)

I wrote this sermon before a blizzard dumped three feet of snow of my town, so I never got to preach it. Accordingly, here’s a recording of the sermon as it would have sounded. Use the audio player below or download it here.

Imagine with me the Apostle Peter, who is in Rome near the end of his life, thinking back on that day when he met Jesus by the lake of Gennesaret.

“He sounds like my kind of fellow,” I remember saying to the traveler at my stall, just days before I met Jesus in the flesh. The traveler was gossiping with the rest of my customers about the goings-on in his hometown of Nazareth. According to him, an angry mob nearly threw Jesus off a cliff for something he said in the synagogue. That was the first thing I heard about him. Like I said, my kind of fellow.

At the end of the next Sabbath day, I was getting my gear ready to go out on the water, when my brother Andrew burst through the door. He stumbled into the room and panted, “He’s coming here.”

I stared at him, both eyebrows arched. He kept talking: “Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is coming here.” Then he grabbed me by both shoulders. “I need to tell you, I just saw the most incredible thing: there was a man in the synagogue with a demon that was screaming at Jesus, but he told it to be silent and go, and it did, and the man’s not even hurt.”

He said it all in one breath. I don’t think I’d ever seen Andrew so excited. “He’s coming here?” I said it as a question, and then realization dawned. “He’s coming here.” I looked around the house. I hadn’t realized how dirty my home had become since my wife started taking care of her mother. “Why?” I asked.

His reply came all in one breath again: “Your mother-in-law: I told him about her fever, and how she was getting sicker and sicker, and he wants to help, and I ran ahead, so he should be here any time now.” Right on cue, I heard a knock on the door. I barely remember what happened next. Jesus shook my hand, and ten minutes later, my wife’s mother was cooking dinner like she had never even been sick.

A month later, I met Jesus again, and I remember that second meeting like it were yesterday. We’d just finished arguably our worst night ever. Not a single fish. And we weren’t out there with bait and tackle. We were using trawling nets, and we still didn’t catch anything. To make matters worse, a crowd of people was surging onto the docks, which creaked and groaned under the weight. I looked up from my net and saw Jesus at the front of the crowd, backing slowly toward the end of the dock. I thought about the cliff in Nazareth. Was this crowd trying to drown him? I couldn’t reach him from where I was, so I dived into the water and swam a diagonal to the other side of the pier. He and I reached the end of the dock at the same time. “Simon,” he called, and laughing, he hoisted me from the water.

I could tell by the way he said my name that he wasn’t in immediate danger of being tossed from the pier. “You remember me?” I said.

“Yes, and I also remember you have a boat. It doesn’t happen to be one of these, does it? My friends want to hear me speak, but I’m afraid they might knock me into the water by accident.” He gestured to a pair of boats moored to either side of the jetty and then out to the crowd still pressing onto the docks. “Here,” I said, untying the lines to my boat. We embarked, and I pushed a few yards into the bay.

Then Jesus sat on the gunwale, his legs dangling over the side of the boat, and he began to speak. His tone was casual, like he was speaking just to me, though I expect everyone thought the same thing. I can’t quite remember what he said that morning, but I can remember the feeling. His words got inside me somehow. They got inside me and found a hole that I didn’t even know was there. And they filled the hole. I wish I could explain it better than that, but I’m not an educated man. I just know that those little gnawing fears and disappointments that I always have and my frustration with the night’s fishing mattered less while he was speaking.

When he was finished, he swung his legs back into the boat. “Put out in the deep water and let down your nets for a catch,” he said.

I stared at him. I’m sure my mouth hung open. I was tired and sore and hungry and I just wanted to go home and flop onto my bed and sleep. Or at least I should have been tired and sore and hungry. I was always tired and sore and hungry after a night’s fishing. But that morning, I wasn’t. His words had invigorated me and soothed me and fed me. Of course, nothing Jesus ever said purged me of my natural cynicism, so my response came out with a hint of sarcasm: “We’ve worked all night long but haven’t caught anything. Yet if you say so, I’ll let down the nets.”

I steered the boat to where Andrew sat scrubbing the nets, and he dragged them aboard. We tacked for the middle of the lake and let down the nets. Within minutes, the boat began to list to starboard, groaning under the weight of so many fish. Through my bare feet on the deck, I could feel the small tremors of lines breaking underwater. Frantically, I signaled to James and John in the other boat. Andrew and I began hauling in the nets, and Jesus lent a hand, all the while shaking with unrestrained glee.

My boat started taking on water because of the added weight of so great a catch. I splashed to my knees in front of Jesus. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” I said. Again, Jesus hoisted me up, saying, “That’s precisely why I’m staying with you.” Then he looked at all of us. We stood there, on sinking boats with torn nets in our hands, looking back at him. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “From now on you will be catching people.”

That day was longer ago than I care to remember, and still I feel ashamed for not understanding those final words until years later: “From now on you will be catching people.” Jesus had cast out the demon from the man in the synagogue and healed my mother-in-law. He had spoken to everyone while making me feel like he was talking to me alone. He was so personal. He healed and loved and encouraged and admonished each individual person he encountered. For years, I thought his personal approach meant he was being selective, like an angler casting for one kind of fish. But I was mistaken.

He told us to catch people – not to fish for them. No selectivity. No specificity. No discrimination. He told us to catch people like we caught fish: throw the nets in the water and trawl for everyone.

Years later, I finally understood this call. I was living at Joppa when I had a vision: I saw a sheet descending from heaven loaded with all kinds of food that I’d never eaten before. The food was unclean according to the law, but a voice called to me: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” That same day, a group came and took me to Ceasarea to meet Cornelius the centurion. Cornelius told me about his own vision of a man in dazzling clothes who told him he was remembered before God. At that moment, I remembered Jesus’ words: “From now on you will be catching people.” I looked at Cornelius and all his friends, and I said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”

That day on the lake of Gennesaret, I met Jesus for the second time. He taught a crowd with his legs dangling over the side of my boat. I heard his words, and he filled a hole I didn’t even knew I had. All those years later, his words continued to teach me. God shows no partiality. Jesus told us to throw our nets into the deep water and catch everyone: not just a select few, but everyone.

Like I said, my kind of fellow.

Notes

Special thanks to my friend Steve for unlocking the ideas in this sermon. He writes the blog draughting theology.

7 thoughts on “Letting down the nets

  1. Thank you Adam. I always feel you are talking directly to me and you enriched my Sunday with your lesson. Stay safe and God bless you.

  2. sweet….how amazingly the fishermen seemed to kinda get it a little then….and then years later some more….my life is so like that ….the old mirror dimly idea is so true for me…i cant wait to see face to face….before you leave tell us the stuff we must carry on in your absence brother adam

  3. I had only read a couple of your things in the Christian Century when I decided you and I have a similar way of expressing things. After reading this, it seems uncanny that we also approached the text this past week in the same fashion. Great work!
    Do you enjoy the snow in W. VA, or is it so commonplace that it is just a bother? I’d be skiing, perhaps!

  4. Adam,

    It was a sad day that you left our midst, but you will always be lovingly remembered.

    I hate to admit that this is my first visit to your entries and I have spent the whole day enjoying them. Look forward to reading all your writings.

    Look forward to many more. Sylvia

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