Deep Water

Scripture can be found here

Have you ever wondered why, exactly, the disciples followed Jesus? I wonder about it every time we share these stories, tales of these early encounters between Jesus and the ones we know will eventually follow him. When he meets them, of course, they’re doing other things. Mostly, they’re fishermen—at least seven of the original twelve. One’s a tax collector. One is politically engaged enough that we know him by his party—Simon the Zealot. The others—we don’t know. And they all have their lives—their families, siblings, parents, wives, children. They all have their responsibilities—as men, the ancient traditional job of providing for the family. So… why do they follow? What is so compelling about Jesus? How can they leave everything?

We have four gospels that tell us these stories, and they each have their own particular lens. In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus sees fishermen—the brothers Simon and Andrew—cleaning their nets, and says, “Follow me,” and they do! Just like that. In the gospel of John, Andrew meets Jesus first, and brings Simon back to meet him, at which point Jesus promptly changes Simon’s name to Peter, and the brothers are part of Jesus’ retinue. Done. Why? Why do they do it? How can they leave their obligations behind so easily? You might even say, carelessly?

But today we’re in the gospel of Luke, and the call of Simon, who eventually is known as Simon Peter, and then Peter, is different here. Very different. And it begins, not with this story, but one that takes place a little earlier.

When last we saw Jesus, he was making his way through a hostile crowd that wanted to throw him off a cliff. He heads from there to the synagogue in Capernaum, where he teaches, and he heals a man, and he is warmly received. Everyone loves him. He leaves the synagogue, and goes to the home of Simon—and in this gospel, that’s the first time we hear that name, and that’s the first occasion on which we meet this person. How did Jesus and Simon meet? Did Jesus simply pick his home at random and present himself there? Did Simon hear Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue and invite him home to supper? We don’t know.

When Jesus gets to Simon’s house, the people bring Simon’s mother-in-law to his attention… she’s suffering from a fever, and Jesus’ reputation as a healer is growing. Jesus “rebukes” the fever, and it leaves her, and she immediately gets up from her sickbed and serves the family and their guests.

Because Jesus is getting that reputation, now, for teaching and for healing, of course, this draws people to him. “As the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them” (Luke 4:40). The next day, Jesus is off, again, proclaiming the good news—the agenda God has set out for him, the agenda we’ve been talking about these last several weeks: freedom, healing, and hope.

This brings us to today’s story. Jesus is standing by Lake Gennesaret, which the gospels also call the Sea of Galilee. The crowds are growing, larger and larger, and Jesus, in an attempt to be able to be heard by all (but also, maybe, to claim some personal space), decides to get into a boat. Simon’s boat. He asks him to put out a little way from the shore, and then he sits down, and begins to teach the crowds, all still standing on shore.

What must be going through Simon’s head? What is he thinking? Let’s imagine, he’s heard Jesus at the synagogue, which means he also witnessed a healing there. And then he brought Jesus back to his home, where he witnessed Jesus healing, first, his mother-in-law, and then, all those people that were brought to him. It’s clear that the people, the anxious crowds with their desperate and their ill, can’t get enough of Jesus—his words and his healing touch. And now… Peter’s boat is a kind of floating pulpit for Jesus, and he’s teaching these enormous crowds, and the crowds keep growing.

Is Simon thinking, “This is great! This is so exciting!”? Or maybe, “Why do I keep running into this guy?” Or even, “What am I doing? What is happening to my life? This is getting out of hand…”

Or maybe some confusing combination of all these?

Eventually, of course, Jesus’ teaching comes to an end. And he turns to Simon and says, Put out into deep water. Let down your nets for a catch.

Simon answers Jesus, and one specific word he uses is revealing. Note how Simon addresses Jesus. It’s the Greek word “Epistata,” and our translation uses the term, “Master.” Anyone who is familiar with US history immediately hears echoes of “taskmaster,” or “slavemaster” in that word. But it’s also used elsewhere in the bible to mean “commander” or “officer” (in military context) or “overseer” (in a church context), or “teacher,” (as in “schoolmaster”), or even, “doctor.” It’s revealing, because it tells us how Simon is thinking about Jesus in this moment. Simon sees Jesus as one in charge, a teacher, a healer. Someone to defer to.

So despite the miserable night of fishing, Simon does lower the nets, and, well, you know what happens. He catches some fish—Ok, not some. A lot. An enormous amount, so many that the nets are strained to the breaking point. So many that the two men in Simon’s boat are not strong enough to haul in the catch, and they have to get help from the other boat, so that four can bring in this stunning payload. So many that both boats begin to sink into that deep water.

And… did you notice?... suddenly, we’re calling Simon, Simon Peter. Simon Peter, when the enormity of this catch, the uncanny, impossible abundance of what has happened at Jesus’ command sinks in… he falls to his knees. He falls at Jesus’ feet. And… then he says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

Now, for Simon Peter, Jesus is not “Master” or “Commander” or “Overseer” or “Teacher,” but “Lord.” “Lord,” meaning, the one with power. Lord, meaning the one to whom we kneel—not because we are pushed to our knees by force, but because we fall to our knees in wonder, in awe, in the presence of power we know to be unimaginable.

What do you suppose is going through Simon Peter’s head now? He says, “Go away from me.” He says, I am not worthy to be in your presence. I am not worthy. Our text says, “For he and all who were with him were amazed” by what had just happened—and that includes the unnamed man in Simon’s boat—I’m guessing, his brother Andrew—and the brothers in the other boat, James and John, sons of Zebedee.

We overuse that word “amazed,” I think. I know I do. In the original language, this phrase is much stronger. It says, “Awe engulfed them.” They all knew they were in a different kind of deep water with this Jesus. There was no mistaking it.

And then Jesus says something we usually hear from angelic messengers in the bible, which also makes sense, because their presence also engulfs people with awe, swamps them in the deep waters of mystery. He says, “Do not be afraid,” and then he adds this tantalizing prediction, or maybe it’s an invitation: “from now on you will be catching people.”

I wonder what Simon Peter and the others think of THAT statement. Does it mystify them? Does it confuse them? Are they put off by it? Something I read this week pushed me to see this prediction/ invitation from a different angle:

People who fish know that some fish swim near the surface; others live in deeper waters. Those who fish with a pole use bait to attract a certain kind of fish and are only able to catch one fish at a time. But those who use nets dip them into the water and haul in an abundant catch—fish of all sizes and varieties—the fish that are highly prized for flavor, as well as the slimy bottom feeders; the fish whose scales shimmer and the fish that are spiny. Some of these fish are tastier than others, but all are hauled in. When you fish with nets, you cannot pick and choose what you catch; you pull up everything. And it's the same in Christ's community—the catch is abundant and includes everyone.

Why do these men leave everything behind—everything: wives and children, mothers and mothers-in-law, boats and nets and daily catches—to go off with Jesus? Is it possible the awe-engulfing (not to mention boat-swamping) catch of fish enables Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John to know Jesus, to begin—just begin—to understand him? And to understand, in a way that, maybe, only fishermen could? Do they see, in the magnificent catch of fish something they long to be caught up in, too? Some notion, some recognition, perhaps, that, no matter where they fall on the scale of shimmering to spiny, they long to be found in the deep waters fished by Christ? That they see in him healing for their hurts, and wisdom for their hearts, beyond loss, beyond cost, beyond anything they’ve known before?

And what about us? What does God ask us to leave behind, so that we might be a part of the great catch? What holds us back from saying, “Yes, Lord,” “Here I am, Lord”? What beauty in those deep waters calls to us, and says, “Follow me?”

Thanks be to God. Amen.