Sermon at Saint Matthias Church on 4th February 2007
‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men’.
The life of the fisherman grows ever harder and more dangerous. Depleted fish stocks demand further and further travel in deeper and deeper waters; the need to earn an income drives ships to sea in weather that would have kept them in port in former times.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus used the work of the fishermen as a picture of the work of the church. The followers of Jesus were to go out and seek new disciples in the way that the fishermen went out to seek a catch.
Fishing was never an easy task;, even experienced men could find it hard to make a living at times. The waters of Galilee were heavily overfished and the experience of Simon Peter, in working all night for no catch, would have been common enough. This wouldn’t be the first time that Jesus would tell them to go out and try again. At the end of John’s Gospel, when the disciples had gone back to their former lives, Jesus appears and again tells them to put out their nets a second time.
What Peter, James and John would have made of modern fishing, I’m not sure, but there would have been boats laid up on the shores of Lake Galilee and there would have been plenty of fishermen who struggled to make a living. Their experience of hard work and uncertain future would not have been so far from the experience of men today.
Whether two thousand years ago, or today – the message to the fishermen remains the same, to survive they are forced out into deeper, unknown waters and they must work ever harder. Look at the instructions Jesus spoke to Simon in Luke 5:5, ‘put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch’. Peter is being told to move out into unpredictable, unknown water and he is being told that despite having worked hard all night, he must work harder still.
If the work of the fishermen is a picture of the work of the church today, then what do Jesus’ words say to us? ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch’, what is Jesus saying to us about our church?
‘Put out into deep water’, says Jesus, and there is a challenge for the church to be bolder in its approach, to be more adventurous in what it does. Peter’s problem was that he was staying in the shallows where there was no catch to be found.
Our problem is that it is much easier for us to carry on doing the usual familiar things, to stay in the spiritual shallows, but we know that the spiritual catch is getting smaller and smaller while we stay where we are. Deeper water can be unknown water with currents and eddies that make the voyage uncomfortable. Trying to move out into unknown waters, seeking a bigger spiritual catch, can be a very uncomfortable experience.
I would much prefer the gentle familiarity and peace of an evening service with a small congregation than trying to do different things with people with whom I am unfamiliar, but like the fishermen in Galilee, the deep water is the only option if we are going to survive. Following Jesus’ instructions may mean unsettled waters ahead for us.
‘Let down the nets for a catch’, says Jesus. Peter could have given him a very short answer, tired and dirty after working all night, he could have felt that he could not have worked any harder, but he summons his last reserves of strength and he goes to work again. The experience of our church has that we have not had to work too hard for a catch, we have been here and people have come to us. Such times are disappearing, to sit and wait for a catch now will leave the nets empty – we have to work harder. We have to look at ways in which all of us can work together to seek a catch. Jesus doesn’t give us the option to do nothing, any more than he gave Peter the option to go back to the shore and relax. ‘Let down the nets for a catch’, he says, get your heads down and work harder because I’m telling you to do so.
If you are like me, you feel reluctant to respond to Jesus’ words. I am happy in the spiritual shallows, I am happy doing what I’m doing. I am afraid of trying new and different things, because often they don’t work and, more often, people don’t like them. But what does Jesus say? ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men’.
How are we going to respond to his challenge? What are we going to do that’s new and different? How are we going to put more effort into following Jesus? ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch’, do we hear what he is saying?