“Deep Water” Colchester Federated Church, February 6, 2022, (Luke 5:1-11) Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Jesus calls his disciples in this morning’s Gospel story. In Luke’s version of events, Jesus is standing beside the Sea of Galilee (or Lake Gennesaret depending on our Bible translation). The crowd is pressing in on him and Jesus boards Simon Peter’s boat to teach the crowds, and obviously to have more room to do so! After he’s done speaking, Jesus tells Peter to row out father, into the deep water, and drop your nets out there for a catch. Now Peter has his doubts because they’ve worked hard all night long and haven’t caught anything. But Peter has some trust in Jesus, so he does as Jesus instructs. The nets are dropped in those deep waters and the catch is so huge that their nets are literally splitting from the sheer number of fish. Peter signals for partners in another boat to come and help. Both boats become so full with fish that they are in danger of sinking. Peter falls on his knees before Jesus and declares himself a sinner. This miraculous sign of abundance somehow makes him feel unworthy. Meanwhile James and John (Peter’s partners) are simply amazed by the whole thing. Jesus looks with compassion upon Peter and tells him, “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people.” When their boats arrive safely to shore, these fishermen leave everything behind to follow Jesus.
We are probably familiar with this story. But there are some questions that may immediately come to mind every time we hear it. We may wonder whether or not Jesus had met Simon Peter, James, and John before he called them to be his disciples. Was this a random encounter that day on the lakeshore or was this moment in the works for a while? John Rosseau and Rami Arav wrote Jesus and His World combining archaeology and Middle Eastern culture to better understand Jesus’ world. They believe that Jesus was used to fishing, boats, and sailing. Remember that he apparently slept through a storm on the sea when the professional fishermen were the ones who were afraid. Arav and Rosseau relate, “Perhaps Jesus was connected with the fishing industry before his baptism by John. There is no reason to doubt that he had been trained as a tekton (carpenter or construction worker, Matt. 13:55, Mark 6:3), so he may have worked in boat construction or repairs in a harbor of the Sea of Galilee. Some of his acquaintances there became his disciples when he began his own ministry.”
It is an interesting aspect of this Gospel story to consider. Because it could have been that Jesus had never met any of these people before. It could have been that he boarded Peter’s boat to speak to the crowd and told Peter to row out to the deep water to cast his net, and Peter did all that Jesus asked even though he was a stranger. Or maybe Jesus knew these guys because he helped build the boats they sailed or repaired their boats when something became broken on board. They trusted Jesus with their livelihoods. Maybe he told them about how he wanted to teach, heal, and create God’s kingdom on earth when they had a lunch break or went for a swim to cool down on hot days. Jesus showed them that God is love and we are called to love one another. Perhaps these fishermen began to sense that this Jesus of Nazareth was someone special. One day he was ready to go about God’s work in the world. As his friends cast their nets into the sea (as he instructed) and came up with a catch so huge that their nets were splitting, Jesus asked them to follow him. “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people.” And they also knew the time had come. Those fishermen dropped everything, and left their old lives behind to walk beside Jesus.
Ever since I read this theory of Jesus being connected to the fishing industry on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, this story has taken on deeper meanings. Because for the disciples to drop everything, including leaving their livelihood and even their families behind, it makes sense that a relationship with Jesus was already there and starting to develop into something meaningful. Jesus was giving them a different purpose to fulfill: “From now on, you will be fishing for people.” Those words must have clicked so many things into place for them. Jesus recruits Peter, James, and John because he also saw something in them, and he couldn’t help but ask them to follow.
Peter’s faith and trust is remarkable in particular. After fishing all night without success he had every reason to think that casting out his net one more time would yield nothing. It would have seemed pointless. But he trusted Jesus enough, even then in the beginning, to do as he asked. The miracle of that abundance of fish follows. Peter responds to Jesus. Because Christian discipleship isn’t passive. It’s something that we do, it’s a call to which we respond. Jesus said, “Row out farther, into the deep water, and drop your nets for a catch.” The story would have ended right there if Peter refused to act on Jesus’s words. This speaks to our lives as disciples being about our loving actions.
It can remind us that Elizabeth Gilbert shared a joke she heard in Italy in her bestselling book Eat, Pray, Love. The joke was about this “poor man who goes to church every day and prays before the statue of a great saint, begging, ‘Dear saint—please, please, please . . . give me the grace to win the lottery.’ This lament goes on for months. Finally the exasperated statue comes to life, looks down at the begging man and says in weary disgust, ‘My son—please, please, please . . . buy a ticket.’”
Now please, please, please don’t hear this as me advocating gambling! It’s just a good illustration about needing to respond in life. The truth is, you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket. You can’t steal second base if you don’t take your foot off first. We cannot be disciples of Jesus Christ if we hear “follow me” and just sit there happily mending our fishing nets without rowing out into the deep water when called to get out there and drop our nets for a catch. At some point, we are called to follow the One who can lead us to new life. We go out to witness to God’s love in the world.
Even if we’ve been fishing all night and haven’t caught one single fish. Even if we’re tired and think it’s a lost cause. Even if everything feels like a huge bummer. This is a story about being invited to go into those deep waters with Jesus by our side. To trust and to have faith. To know that we don’t need to be afraid because as Christ’s followers we are also fishing for people. Let us have the courage to respond to the calls of Jesus with glad and grateful hearts, with hearts wide open to following the One who will lead us to new life. Thanks be to God. Amen.