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Encouragement for Deepsea Fishers


Luke 5:1-11


I: — Sunday attendance at mainline churches in Canada peaked in 1965. Turn-outs have decreased every year since then.  There is no suggestion the trend is about to change.  Our society is vastly more secularized than our foreparents could ever have imagined. There is now an entire generation of young adults who have no “Christian memory”; that is, they weren’t taken to Sunday School, were never exposed to worship, have grown up without any instruction in elementary Christian truths, and are wholly ignorant of the Bible.

Today teachers of English literature must assume that their students are unable to recognize the biblical allusions that saturate English literature. Only a few years ago the hardest-bitten atheist still spoke of being “a good Samaritan”. The mother who was alienated from the church still longed for the return of her “prodigal”. Even the sportswriter bemoaned the team owner’s “crucifixion” of the coach.

The Roman Catholic Church still controls (largely) public education in the province of Quebec . And the result?         Sociologists tell us that Quebec is the most thoroughly secularized region of North America; sociologists tell us too that Quebec children grow up hating the church that educated them.

Of course we shake our heads nostalgically when we read in the first verse of the gospel lesson that the crowds “pressed upon Jesus to hear the Word of God”. “Crowds”, “pressed upon” – it all recalls St.James United Church , Montreal , in the 1930s when the preacher was Lloyd C. Douglas.  He was writing such bestselling novels as Magnificent Obsession and The Robe.  The sanctuary at St.James seats 3,600.  It was full twice a Sunday. Today 35 people gather for worship.

The process of secularization continues.  It appears there’s nothing we can do in the face of it.


And yet there is something we can.  Like Peter we can “put out into the deep”.  (Peter is spokesperson for the group of disciples throughout the gospels. Peter represents them all.) In obedience to the command of Jesus he moves out to greater depths.

In a secular age the church must understand that shallowness attracts few; it even puts people off.  We haven’t always been aware of this.  For decades we borrowed the world’s agenda unthinkingly.  We conformed to what we assumed was expected of us, and conformed inasmuch as we thought that making ourselves “relevant” would render us effective. When the human potential movement came along (Sensitivity Groups, Transcendental Meditation, Transactional Analysis, even the bizarre notion that preaching is group therapy) we co-opted it uncritically.  We assumed that the world’s wisdom (which was often anything but wise) equalled the truth and reality of the Kingdom of God . We used a biblical vocabulary without really grasping the force of the words. We recited liturgies while unaware that liturgy is the theatricalization of that singular Word which is “sharper than any two-edged sword”.         In it all we failed to grasp something crucial: the gospel is by nature a counter-cultural movement.  The gospel contradicts the world’s self-understanding.  The church isn’t needed for the public to know the public is thinking; the public knows this already.  The church is needed, however, if the society is to be acquainted with the truth and wisdom, the purpose and persistence, of the God whose depths are fathomless. In a secular society the church will prove profoundly winsome only as the church embodies what the wider society can’t give itself.

We mustn’t think that our Lord’s command to “go deeper” means that credibility for the church and its message will be restored immediately. There won’t be an instant turn-around. It was for good reason that Jesus called the first leaders of his church from the ranks of fishermen. Fishermen, after all, are those whose everyday work acquaints them with failure, disappointment, scanty returns, hardship; the occasional bonanza, to be sure, but also much drudgery and more than a little danger.  This is the fisherman’s lot.

I learned of the rigours of commercial fishing when I was posted to a seacoast village upon ordination.         Lobster, cod and mackerel were fished in boats with three feet of freeboard on the sides when frigid North Atlantic waves were ten feet high. Those who fished smelt used a chain saw to cut a slot in the winter ice thirty feet long, two feet wide, and as deep as the ice was thick (five feet).  These men dropped a weighted net into the slot and then pulled it up several hours later. Smelt have to be fished on the change of tide: 2:37 a.m. , 4:15 p.m. , 3:10 a.m. , and so on. For only pennies per pound these fellows endured constantly interrupted sleep and 75 kilometre per hour winds blowing off the North Atlantic at temperatures of minus 40 degrees.  One night a salmon fisherman (a night’s fishing cost 200 litres of gasoline) hooked onto an 800 pound tuna.  Excitedly he brought it ashore and spent hours removing head and entrails and skin — only to be told that mercury contamination might be unacceptably high in a fish that large.  A Federal Fisheries officer confiscated it.  The fisherman (a financially needy person with eight children to feed) was heartbroken. Do you know what he did next night? He put back to sea and fished again.

When Jesus called the twelve he could have called dreamers, visionaries, political sophisticates, academicians, or even religious experts. These people were all available. Instead he called those whom hardship, disappointment, fatigue and undeflectable persistence had already prepared for the greater work ahead of them.

In obedience to Jesus Christ Peter “goes deeper” and lets down the nets, despite the fact that at face-value Christ’s command was silly because futile.  It was daytime, and everyone knew that fish in Gennesaret (or Galilee ) were caught at night – and caught as well as in shallower water.  Yet Peter obeys even when his obedience invites failure.

But then Abraham had obeyed when the sacrifice of Isaac would have meant the failure of the very promise of God which sustained Abraham: “Your descendants shall be as numberless as the sands of the seashore.” Moses had obeyed the command to lead even as he knew that his appearance and manner engendered failure. (How much leadership could a public figure exercise today when afflicted with a disability like stuttering?)   Naaman had obeyed — “Bathe in the filthy river” — when to do so meant he would fail to find the cleansing he craved.

In the midst of a secularized age which writes off the church and its message Christians must do three things.         One, we must go deeper. The day of attracting people through superficiality, obsolete sentimentality, or ridiculous attempts to be “with it”; this day is gone. Two, we must recover and then hold up the irreducible, irreplaceable truth and substance of the gospel even when it’s the gospel that is ignored, even when it’s the church’s preoccupation with the gospel that appears to guarantee the church yet greater marginalization and embarrassing failure.  Three, we must do all of this with the patience, resilience and persistence of fisher folk who don’t quit despite scanty returns, relentless hardship and ineradicable risk.

Only as we do this will we know ourselves to be precisely what our Lord has appointed us to be: fishers of men and women.  Only as we hold all three together will the day come once again when the gospel is cherished for what it is: the power of God unto that salvation which everyone needs in any era.


II: — In the story we are probing the disciples obey Jesus and immediately are met with what appears to be startling success: they had fished in vain, now they are inundated with fish.  Yet Peter responds in a manner that startles us: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man”. Peter knows that there’s nothing in him that merits what his Lord has just done. The miracle he has witnessed isn’t a reward for any secret virtue that he possesses.  He knows that the magnificent fruitfulness which has attended his obedience is the sheer gift of God.  It humbles him. The holiness of God highlights Peter’s depravity, and he can only confess himself to be sinner, deep-down sinner, through-and-through sinner.

Not so long ago a man informed me exuberantly that he would have given everything to have been with Moses on Sinai when God spoke to Moses and gave Moses the Ten Words.  But of course the man wouldn’t have been thrilled at all; he would have been terrified. Everywhere in scripture fear engulfs the people before whom the all-holy God has loomed. (We need only read Luke’s Christmas stories to see that throat-drying fear accompanies every development even in the gift of him who is unqualified blessing.)   This fear isn’t a sign of a craven spirit or a fragile ego, never mind a neurosis. It’s a sign of that uncommon spiritual depth which finally recognizes the horror of its own sinnership.

If one manifestation of the church’s “going deeper” is a recovery of the saving substance of the gospel, another manifestation will be the church’s reawakening to the human condition, even the church’s reawakening to its own sinnership.  In other words, Christians will always be less quick to identify sin in others than to stand aghast at their own depravity.  Peter doesn’t come to see, with a measure of sober insight, that there is this or that about him that is unworthy of the master; he blurts his awareness that sin is all he has to admit.

Of course it’s the one who is love-Incarnate who steeps Peter in horror at himself. In precisely the same way it will be love, and nothing but love, which exposes on the Day of Judgement what has been hidden in your heart and mine. To assume that judgement means that God is resentful or a grudge-holder is as false as it is shallow. Profounder people know that love searches, love convicts and love horrifies as nothing else can.  When the love of Him who is Love (John 4:8) exposes my apparent altruism as subtle manipulation; when the kindness of God exposes my seeming sensitivity as fear of not being commended; when love’s intensity unmasks my generous smile as the cloak for the vindictive spirit I’d rather not display — what can this produce in me except that horror which cries, “Depart from me”?   If my wife loved me only slightly, then excuses for my ill-treatment of her and others would be readier-to-hand and more believable. As it is, the very love which sustains me, shames me.  Can God’s greater love do any less?

Yet a church which “goes deeper” will also know that its Lord doesn’t leave us here. No sooner does Peter cry out in anguish than Jesus comforts him, “Fear not.”   Everywhere in scripture where God is met and fear consumes, the pronouncement “Fear not” is heard immediately.   “Fear not” is a command of God, to be sure; yet it is command only because it is first and last God’s gift.  In commanding us to “fear not” God is turning us to face him, recognize his love and acknowledge his mercy as he quells in us that fear we should otherwise never be rid of.

John Newton, slavetrader-turned-preacher, hymnwriter and spiritual advisor; for the remainder of his life moments of appalling self-disgust lapped at him concerning the suffering he had unleashed through the slavetrade and which he was now powerless to prevent.  Newton ’s heart was one with Peter’s when Newton wrote,

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear

And grace my fears relieved.


Grace both quickens fear and relieves fear.  The church that beckons winsomely to a secular society is the church that has ceased speaking of sin in terms of trivia and instead both recognizes profoundly the predicament of humankind and also glories gratefully in that love which unmasks us only to remake us.


III: — It’s the “relieved” disciples who come ashore and are told that henceforth they will “catch” others – whereupon they leave everything and follow Jesus. The crowds, meanwhile, have remained on the shore, and remained hungry as well for that Word which they want to hear inasmuch as they can’t generate it for themselves. It’s as Peter and his friends “leave” and “follow” that the crowds will be nourished with the bread of life.

We need to understand something crucial here.  To “leave everything” and follow Jesus meant a change of livelihood for Peter and his colleagues.  But it didn’t mean this for others.  Others could follow as devotedly (and indeed were called to follow as devotedly) while remaining a tentmaker (Paul), a member of the city council (Erastus), a seamstress (Dorcas), a businesswoman (Lydia), a royal attendant (the unnamed Ethiopian).  The many like them followed Jesus every bit as devotedly as the few who ceased their customary employment.

Then in the course of following had they in fact “left everything?” Yes.  To “leave everything” is profoundly to leave behind an entire world (with its distorted outlook, its grasping self-preoccupation, and its narcissistic self-promotion); it is to embrace that new world which our Lord has brought with him in his resurrection from the dead.

Upon coming to faith in Jesus Christ and joining Christ’s people in Corinth Erastus remained the city-treasurer.         Yet Erastus now lived in a new world.  Accordingly, while he was considerably more affluent than most others in the Corinthian congregation, he wouldn’t think himself superior to them; neither would he exploit his social privilege and “lord” it over them or manipulate them.  At the same time, the non-Christians in Corinth would know Erastus could be counted on to bring integrity to the job:  public monies wouldn’t be siphoned off for personal gain or private ventures. That world had been left behind forever.

Lydia , a businesswoman who handled carriage-trade women’s clothing, was the first European convert on Paul’s mission.  Lydia bore witness to the gospel with the result that her household (family and employees) cherished the Word and were baptized.  Thereafter Lydia extended hospitality whenever she could.  Now in first century Europe hotels were largely places of a reputation better left undescribed.  To extend hospitality promptly and graciously, as Lydia did, declared one’s repudiation of what the hotel-trade represented; it proved that you now lived in a world renewed at God’s hand.

Prisca and Aquila were tentmakers (like Paul.) Paul was everlastingly grateful for these two people inasmuch as they had risked their necks for him. (Surely to risk one’s life is to “leave everything”.)   What’s more, this Christian couple were Jewish.  They had saved from untimely death the man who spoke of himself as “the apostle to the gentiles”.  For this reason Paul declared, “All the churches of the gentiles give thanks for [this Jewish couple.”] (Romans 16:4) In addition, they opened up their home so that a house-church could gather there on Sundays. Their courage, as well as their open hand, open heart and open home, plus the boost they gave the gentile mission — all of this points to people who have “left everything” in order to follow.

Jesus insists that followers leave everything, for otherwise “following” will be more of the order of meandering, flipflopping, or lurching. The instability of it all is corrected by one matter, according to the apostle James: singlemindedness. As usual Soren Kierkegaard says it with unique pithiness: purity of heart is to will one thing. To leave all and follow is to resolve that henceforth the one good we pursue is the kingdom of God; the one word that orients us in the midst of confusion is the truth of the gospel; the one lord to whom we cling is Jesus Christ; and the one reward that exhilarates us as nothing else is the sight of others joining us in singleminded discipleship as they too are “caught” through the witness of those who have gone ever so deep themselves.


The day will come, in our secularized society, when in response to those who have “gone deeper” God honours their diligence and patience and suffering. In a word, the day will come when the crowds press forward once again to hear the Word of God.


                                                                                                    Victor Shepherd         

March 2007