Put Out Into The Deep
Many of you have traveled to the Holy Land. Outside of Jerusalem and Bethlehem a main attraction is the Sea of Galilee, or the Lake of Genesaret, as it is called in our Scripture lesson this morning. (It even has a third name—the Sea of Tiberias.)
I have stood on its shores, trying to imagine that scene in which Jesus called his first disciples.
Of course we cannot know the exact spot where it happened. The local Chamber of Commerce has not picked out one particular place, erecting a sign saying this was where Jesus preached to the gathering crowd. After all, the Sea of Galilee in Jesus' time was 13 miles long by 8 miles wide, which would give the tour guides a lot of spots to choose from.
But who needs the exact spot? Anywhere you stand you feel the tingle of excitement as your imagination conjures up the scene. Today there isn't much population around that shoreline, but in Jesus' time there were nine townships around that lake, each of them with no less than 15,000 people.
This would certainly account for the large crowds that followed Jesus. In today's story the crowd is pressing around him too closely; there was no platform with a nice pulpit, no committee on arrangements, no security job for protection. So Jesus gets into a boat just offshore, sits down and starts to talk.
Whose boat is it? It is Simon Peter's boat. He and his fellow fishermen had just put in a very bad night with no results. The fish knew they were coming. We can easily imagine the conversation with Simon when Jesus finished speaking to the crowd. "So you had a bad night, Simon." "Yes, Master, one of the worst; the fish took the night off."
Now the New Testament is very terse in its description of these events. It does not give us all of the details we might like to have. It doesn't give us conversational fill-in. It simply states what happened.
"Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch." And Simon Peter answers, "Master, we couldn't catch a thing all night; but if you say so, okay, I'll let down the nets out there." The result was a large catch of fish; enough to break their nets, enough to have them calling for help, enough to fill two boats, enough to push down the gunwales to the water line.
Simon Peter blames himself for having shown such lack of faith in the Master and says, "You'd better leave me, Lord, you want nothing to do with one who has such little faith as I; I am a sinful man," which meant he was saying not, "I'm just an ordinary man, subject to all the foibles and shortcomings we all have," He was saying to Jesus, "I'm just not good enough to play ball in your league." And Jesus replies, "Let's not worry about that, now you have caught fish, tomorrow you will be catching men."
Now there's no need to allegorize this message. Many preachers of the past have used the fish in the story as symbols for people, to represent all the multitude of people who would become Christians through faith. No, in this story the fish must remain fish. But there are three points that come alive out of this passage.
The first is that the word of God comes to us where we are.
Jesus didn't find his original followers by putting an ad in the Galilee Gazette saying "Evangelistic meeting tonight at 8:00 P.M. Come to the Temple. Admission free; loose offering to be taken. Coffee hour to follow."
No, Jesus went to their level, where they were, where they lived their lives. The great movements of history began not with an announcement to come to a meeting, but by someone's moving out to make contact in the market places of life. Undoubtedly the Methodist Church is strong today because in the beginning, John Wesley went into the fields and vacant lots and reached out to people, where they were. There was the dynamism of person-to-person contact.
The Congregational Church began as the Separatist movement in England toward the end of the sixteenth century. There was no way they could announce Separatist meeting in the local Anglican churches. They had to visit people individually and whisper the news, as it was dangerous to go against the ecclesiastical laws of the land.
The face-to-face encounter is still the best means to convey a message, to sell a product, to make a point, to save a world.
The Apostle Paul traveled the Mediterranean world preaching the message, talking to any and all who listen, and churches were built—the seeds were sown that flowered into the faith that shaped the world.
We have our gospel today because God made a personal appearance on this earth in the person of Jesus Christ, who made His personal appearance to those in the market place who would listen, whose apostles made their personal journeys to engage in personal dialogue, personal witness, that changed people's lives.
The second point is that the Christian way of life is meaningless to us unless we understand our own shortcomings. Now I didn't say eliminate our shortcomings, but I did say understand them. I have preached from this pulpit before about the impossibility of eliminating all the sin from our lives. If we could eliminate sin entirely, we'd have that Utopia some of us dream of, but which never works because of the human condition. My own opinion is that Utopian communities could be rather dull. And where would there be room for god's grace in a perfect world?
Peter demonstrated his temporary lack of faith in his Master when he doubted there were any fish out there in deeper waters. Having been proven wrong, he fully recognized his shortcoming of faith and he said, "You'd better go on without me, Lord, for I am a sinful man; I'm bad news for you."
Jesus' response to this was to promote him; for he saw that Peter understood his own sin. It seems to me that understanding sin is our greatest difficulty—for we tend to equate sin only with badness. Being a sinner means simply being alive in a sinful world. It has little to do with whether you have bad thoughts or do little selfish deeds. True, it has something to do with it, but ministers can really alienate people by constantly reminding them that if they are not solving all the social ills that beset us, they are sinners. It seems to me that overly liberal ministers have highlighted social sin too much and evangelistic ministers have highlighted personal sin too much.
If you understand grace to be a close relationship with God, with others and with yourself, you can understand sin to be a breaking of this relationship. If we can see sin as our inadequacy to serve God as our conscience might wish us to serve God, then we are ready to be used by God.
When we understand our self-centeredness as a kind of willfulness to eliminate God from our living, when we tend to proclaim our own worthship over God's worthship, and when we realize we are so doing, then we are ready to be useful to our Lord—for God chooses sinners for work in the world.
Peter said, "I'm not worthy to be with you." Jesus' reply is, in effect, "Fine, now we're ready to get to work; if you didn't see this about yourself, you would be no good to anyone. Now let's all put out into the deep together, for the real challenge of life and the real rewards are out there, not in these shallow waters of little sins we like to worry about."
You get the picture—the Lord may be ready to take us sinners out into deeper waters. Will we go?
The third point is that belief must be transformed into faith. To be a believer is one thing; to be faithful to the call of God is another. To be a believer is to give intellectual assent to propositions or ideas or principles. That's easy.
There were those in Jesus' audience who nodded willingly to his ideas. "Yes, he speaks the truth," they said. "He's got some great ideas; I believe him." But faith doesn't begin until the intellectual assent is transformed into a changed life. When Jesus preached from that boat, Peter and James and John could well have agreed with the wisdom of what was said, but their faith began when Jesus said, "Follow me," and they put aside their nets and followed.
The faith must indeed be conveyed by the preacher, and all who hear have the choice. Choosing faith means an obedient, personal response to the "Follow me," and bring your shortcomings with you.
Faith is not something accomplished or attained once-and-for-all at one specific moment; it is a relationship which must be maintained by constant striving, constant following, constant loyalty, constant loving. The temptation of your shortcomings is to say, "I just can't be that constant." Well, nobody can. Peter couldn't , but that didn't mean he stopped following.
You see, Peter followed, then faltered, then followed again, and faltered again, like the rest of us. But the spirit won him at last. The salty, fighting hands of the cursing fishermen became the healing hands of the saint, even nailed upside down on a cross, and they signal to the after ages his apostolic benediction—all because he transformed his belief into faith, his hearing of the word into the doing of the word.
Belief started him on the road to faith. It was belief that led him to put out into the deep of life's waters where all is risk. But it was the obedience of faith that provided the strength to survive even death. Obedience is our stumbling block. It was Kierkegaard who said, "It is hard to be faithful, because it is so hard to obey." The moral? Don't let your shortcomings put a kink in your obedience.
But I think we have a leg up on the matter when we realize that God reaches out to us where we are, sweeping aside our shortcomings as irrelevant to accomplishing God's purpose. And God calls us to be believers who are willing to escalate our beliefs into faithful action. Being open to that amazing possibility is the most glorious pursuit of your life.