by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 5:1-11
If you didn’t detect the foreboding tone of this Gospel text, you may have heard what you expected to hear: a miracle story in which Jesus saves the day. If you filtered today’s Gospel reading through Matthew’s and Mark’s similar but briefer and gentler stories about Jesus enlisting the first disciples, you may have missed the terror in today’s plot. The other synoptic Gospels report simply that Jesus called to men casting their nets into the sea to “fish for people” and immediately they left everything to follow him (Mt. 4:18-20; Mk. 1:16-18). Short. Sweet. No danger. But Luke’s version of this event describes Jesus exposing the fishermen to a treacherous fishing trip that yielded a great catch before inviting the fishermen to follow him.
Luke’s conclusion of this particular “call story” lines up fairly closely with Matthew’s and Mark’s. In all three versions, Jesus promises the fishermen they’ll be “catching people.” (Sounds a little creepy, doesn’t it?) “Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people,” Jesus calls—-so the first of the disciples do indeed leave everything to follow him. But compared to Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts, Luke’s lead up to that decision is a much more detailed and suspenseful narrative. Luke doesn’t let us as readers jump on board easily. Luke’s Jesus insists that we “put out into the deep water” (5:4). As a pastor who encourages prospective church members to take their time checking us out and counting the cost, I appreciate Luke’s honesty about the risks of discipleship and a life committed to loving all that God loves.
Of course, the author of Luke wants us to identify with the disciples who follow Jesus. Like the first disciples who “left everything and followed him” (5:11), the reader might feel drawn to a similar experience with Jesus. Sometimes I do come away from this fish tale inspired, but at other times wary and overwhelmed. If I weren’t already a Jesus follower, I’m not sure the story of this incredibly successful fishing trip would cause me to sign on as crew mate to “catch people” with Jesus. It’s hard for me to get past the danger, the darkness, and the depth of the sea.
After all, it’s by following Jesus’s instructions to go deeper that the crew takes on a catch so enormous that the nets begin breaking and the two boats begin sinking. If you’re not feeling a little panicky during the story, reread it. And recognize that hauling in people drowning in rough waters is a risky business—and may symbolize a more ominous ominous political reality. Scholars suggest Lake Gennesaret (Sea of Galilee) may represent the dangerous Roman Empire, which had, upon occupying the territory, taken control of the lake and began taxing the fisherfolk for the fish they caught from their ancestral waters. Jesus’s implied critique of the Roman Empire’s exploitation of the people and natural resources was itself a risky move.
Those of us who grew up on our beautiful Gulf Coast probably associate the sea with both risk and delight. Think of the perils we as young children were taught early on to avoid: jellyfish, sharks, riptides, sunburn, colorful fishing lures in our fathers’ tackle boxes that looked like toys but, we were warned, had sent more than one careless child to the emergency room. Think of the hurricanes we prepared for and lived through with a mixture of excitement and terror. Think how young we were when we learned to swim, water ski, fish, read the sky for approaching storms. Ancient peoples, enticed by the depths of the sea, were also respectfully wary of its threats.
Now imagine a fishing expedition on Lake Gennesaret with Jesus as the captain. Hear that final demand from Jesus afterward to leave everything and follow him and go into the deep to pull other poor souls from the dangerous waters of the Empire. Would you blithely jump into that boat with Jesus? Maybe not, unless you, too, had been pulled from the sea into the safety of the boat. Maybe once rescued, you then would want to help others bobbing in the swells. Luke’s first readers recognized that the vessel pulling people from the waters was the Church.
Church architecture later played up this metaphor. Cathedrals and many churches were and are built with high arched wooden roofs constructed to look like the overturned hull of a great ship to symbolize the Church as a ship bearing the people of God through the storms of life. In fact, the main section of the church building where all the people sit underneath that arched roof is called the “nave,” which is Latin for “ship”– the same Latin word from which we get the word “navy.” The church gathers inside this great ship.
Earlier we sang a hymn that refers to the Church as “our boat” that is “a common shelter for all found by [God’s] grace.” People belong not in the violent sea controlled by the Empire but in the safety of the boat that is the church. To remain in that boat that goes out deeper and persists in bringing others to safety has its own risks, however, as the fuller story of the life of Jesus is going to reveal. Following Jesus in this enterprise of going deeper had and has its costs. Writer C. S. Lewis described Aslan the lion, the Christ figure in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as unsafe. When one of the children asks Mr. Beaver if Aslan is safe, he replies, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
Jesus isn’t “safe.” His first interaction with Simon, James, and John included a risky miracle at sea entangled with the dangers of the deep. Yes, they escaped drowning in those depths. Yes, they wound up with the catch of their lives. But it was a terrifying experience.
Luke’s story may pull us down, deeper, to plumb the big questions. Giving up our spiritual “floaties” and swimming below the surface of life can help us go deeper relationally and theologically.
I don’t have to tell you about the perils of deep relationships. Each one of us has experienced a relationship that brought us pain. To be vulnerable with friend or lover or family member or colleague involves risk. A person you’ve grown close to can betray confidences, exploit your generosity, prove unfaithful, exhaust your time and patience, take but never give, or simply drift away for reasons you never understand. Going deeper requires risk.
Vulnerability is also necessary to be authentically part of a congregation, too. Because you’ll be in relationship with people pursuing meaningful work together and exploring ideas and spiritual practices of profound significance, it’s likely you may find deep and enduring friendships within a church setting. I hope so. But if those relationships become strained, the disillusionment can be especially intense and can ripple outward beyond just the two individuals who experience a relationship rift. Again, going deeper is risky.
Likewise, gaining theological depth can come at great cost. To gain a deeper relationship with God may feel as if you have to give up a previously beloved image or experience or idea of God. To go deeper with God, we may have to trust God enough to be able to ask challenging questions and pursue them fearlessly even as we assume that our answers will always be tentative. That’s risky. But here is a church that says, “Bring on the questions.” We don’t promise we have all the answers. We know we don’t. No one does. But God lives in the depths of those challenging questionings.
With all this risk, maybe our church should provide some warning labels. On this pulpit we might need to post, “Warning: The theology espoused by the person behind this pulpit is hers alone. Members of this congregation cannot be held responsible for her heresy.”
On our worship bulletins right under our mission statement we could print, “Warning: We are trying to follow Jesus but much of the time we screw up.”
On the entrance door of the chapel we should place a sign that declares, “Beware as you enter. Folks inside do not all agree with or understand all of the words of all the songs, prayers, litanies, and scriptures all of the time. You don’t have to either.”
On the Bible we ought to slap this warning: “Read this at your own peril. Read this only through the lens of love.”
Going deeper is risky. I’m glad we’re going deeper together into the heart of God.