I have never been stunned, amazed or awed by this passage. And if you know me well, you know that that is a very unusual thing for me to say. Most of Scripture absolutely blows my mind. Even portions of Leviticus sometimes have power over me and rattle me with the holy shivers. But this passage? Not so much. And I’ve thought about that a lot. Why is it that this passage is so dull to me? Something incredibly profound happens in this passage. It certainly appears that Simon, James, and John undergo a radical transformation of their lives before the verses in this passage conclude. After hauling in what is very likely the largest catch of fish in their entire fishing careers, Simon, James, and John simply give it all up, shut down the business, and become followers of Jesus. They may even have left that extraordinary catch of fish right there on the beach, to rot. Practical people like me do not want to think about that, and the standard preacher excuse is to add a couple of words to verse eleven so that it reads, “When they had brought the boats to shore, they sold the huge catch of fish, left everything and followed Jesus. Is that what really happened? Who knows? It certainly makes for a better story than what Luke has given us, at least from our point of view. We like to make sure that things are all tidied up before moving on to something else. But other places in the Scriptures, when Jesus invited people to become his followers, tidying up was not an allowable option. And Luke certainly does not feel any need at all to tell us what became of those fish. Luke prefers to leave the whole thing a bit messy, and a whole lot mysterious. Luke seems to be more interested in getting us to focus on the radical transformation that took place in these three guys’ lives.
And I guess that’s where the whole trouble is in this passage. We are not a people, who by nature, welcome any kind of radical transformation into our lives. We prefer that our lives be orderly and tidy and at least somewhat predictable, but mostly we want them to be under our control. We pride ourselves on our ability to be cautious and sensible. We do not make rash decisions. Instead, we deliberate; we consider all the options, we eliminate risks, and then and only then do we move on. We do not invite opportunities for radical transformation into our lives. We cannot see ourselves behaving like Simon, James, and John. In fact, a well-used, worn out, preacher trick is to say that we would have simply added Jesus to the fleet. We would have developed an associate relationship with Jesus, by simply adding him in someplace in our lives. If Simon, James, and John had done this, business would have been fantastic. Put Jesus in the boat, he’d point out the fish, and the catch would be huge all the time, and the cash would match the catch. Associate relationships with Jesus are always very safe, quite predictable, and totally reasonable and practical. Here’s how it works: we live our lives normally, and the way that we choose, and Jesus is there to help out a bit when there’s a problem or a crisis, or just when we feel like we could use an extra blessing or two. But, if we’re only looking for an associate relationship with Jesus, we’re probably in the wrong religion. This religion, that we call Christianity, is a constant invitation to step on to a path that leads to our deaths. And it is not we who add Jesus into our lives, it is Jesus who adds us into his life. We don’t take Jesus on as an associate, Jesus takes us on as a disciple.
And that’s just what happened to Simon, James, and John, even though they were certainly not planning on any of that happening.
I’m convinced that all radical and dramatic life changes begin rather innocently, as does this one in our passage. It is probably still morning, and Jesus has come down to the shore of the lake of Gennesaret. It is a pretty normal lake-side scene; fishermen have returned from a night of fishing and they are busy tidying things up. What’s not quite so normal for a morning lake-side scene is that a crowd has already besieged Jesus. They want to hear the word of God.
And so Jesus gets into Simon’s boat, the two of them push off a bit, and Jesus begins to preach. When the preaching was finished, Jesus said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” That is a very direct statement, bursting with meaning, (like nets filled with fish), and it was completely lost on Simon. Jeff Morse is fond of saying, “There’s a big difference between fishing and catching.” Jesus isn’t talking about fishing, he’s talking about catching.
I can hear Simon, muttering under his breath, “Just because you’re in a boat doesn’t mean you’re a fisherman. We’ve been out all night, and caught nothing. I’ll show him, what does he know about fishing any way?” “Master, we have worked all night long, but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” No sarcasm there. Fishermen are not sarcastic.
And form that moment on, Simon’s life became completely unraveled. Simon is down on his own knees staring straight into Jesus’ knees. And he is totally undone. And he knows that he is in the presence of someone who is far superior to him in every way. Ironic, actually, only a moment ago, Simon was feeling far superior to Jesus. Simon is in the presence of the Divine, and like Isaiah of old, he says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” * Only in Simon-speak, it came out, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Simon knows that he has no business being with Jesus.
Prior to this, Simon has had at least one other encounter with Jesus. Jesus had come to Simon’s house, and at the time, Simon’s mother in law had been suffering from a high fever, and Jesus cured her. Word got out about that, and that evening, lots of sick people came to Simon’s house, and Jesus healed them all. This must have been impressive to Simon, but it didn’t change his life. And with mother in law jokes set far, far and away, it really should have changed Simon’s life. Something like that should change our lives. But Simon’s life wasn’t changed until Jesus sat in Simon’s boat, and whacked him hard, where he was living.
We could debate all day about whether Simon should have become undone when he witnessed his mother in law’s miracle, or when he was swamped by a whole boat-load of fish, but we would get nowhere with that argument. What really matters is that Jesus ultimately made his way into Simon’s heart. But what matters even more, is that Jesus finds his way into our hearts. Have we ever had a moment in our lives when we were completely overcome by the presence of Deity? Have we ever realized, like Isaiah and Simon, that we are people of unclean lips, and that we dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips? Have we ever cried out, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful person!”
Simon understood that he had no business being in the presence of the man who sat in his boat with him. Like us, Simon was a sinful man. And like Simon, we have no business being in the presence of Jesus. We do not belong there, any more than Simon did.
But, and here’s where is gets important. Neither we nor Simon belong in Jesus’ presence. But look who it is that has come into our presence! This is the whole and wonderful mystery of the incarnation! Jesus has come to us! Jesus wants to be with us! It isn’t we who come into Jesus’ space, it is Jesus who comes into ours. And when Jesus enters our space, our lives are transformed forever.
As a result of his moment of undoing, Simon became a disciple of Jesus, and even got himself a new name. But Simon also became a life-time servant of Jesus Christ and eventually died in service to his Lord.
Even today, and perhaps especially today, Jesus is calling for disciples who will make a life-time commitment to the cause of the Gospel. Jesus is looking for people, who, because of their experience with him, will become his willing servants, as did Simon and James and John.
Some of us are afraid to become undone. I understand that. Some of us are too tidy to even consider getting all undone like that. And that’s OK, too. The Bible is chockablock full of stories of people, who upon encountering God, totally lost it. Those stories indicate that the folks who became undone didn’t have much choice about it. It just happened. And that’s why Jesus says to Simon, “Do not be afraid.” Becoming undone is, according to Jesus, nothing to be afraid of. And so we ought not to be afraid of that happening to us.
But the Bible is also chockablock filled with stories of people who just stepped on to the path and followed Jesus, and became his disciples. No heart-stopping crises, no woes is me, no go away from me Lord’s, just a step onto the right path. That path also involves a lifetime of discipleship followed by an eternity of joy.
* Isaiah 6:5