© Robert J. Elder, Pastor
January 27, 2013
...they caught so many fish
that their nets were beginning to break...
With one pull of the fishing net, Peter and his fishing friends went from having nothing to having more than they could handle. Living as we do in the era of get-rich TV programs and lottery jackpot amounts dangled tantalizingly at the counter of every convenience store, we spend lots more of our time as a culture considering what we don’t have and how much more we might like to have, than we do thinking on the downside of what it would be like to have more than we can handle.
I remember speaking once with a friend of mine who is an accountant. He said that he had never seen an instance when a young person – someone under 30 years of age – had inherited a large estate in which that money was then wisely used. Sometimes an overwhelming bit of good luck can turn out to be just that: overwhelming. Witness the many stories of lottery jackpot winners who have considered that time following their lucky day to have been the most overwhelming portion of their lives. Many emerge bankrupt or worse. Fights, both legal and physical, break out among those who have joined forces to buy a winning lottery ticket. Sometimes gaining a windfall means that other things must fall as well, unaccustomed things, perhaps even cherished things.
It was Peter who first recognized the enormity of what they had experienced. It wasn’t just their nets that were beginning to break as they pulled them into the boat, it was that their view of the world and their accustomed place in it was being broken and re-made right before their eyes, and they were powerless to stop it. “Go away from me, Lord,” he said, “for I am a sinful man!” Yet he did not go away, and within the space of a few verses, we find the fishing nets draped, neglected, on an old worn piling of a lakeside dock. Through the webbing of the nets you can see that immense pile of fish, steaming in the sun, but no people. The scene looks like an abandoned town, and all you hear is an occasional slap of the tail fin of a dying fish, and the gentle lapping of waves alongside the dock. They’ve all gone off to be with Jesus. It is a magnetic story, it just draws me in every time I read it. The loads of fish, a first century version of a small fortune for the fishermen, just left there along with the unrepaired and discarded nets.
Jesus made them “fishers of men” as the old versions have translated it, people catchers. They would no longer need nets, they would be the net.
Here is a truth we can remember, and which should carry us all forward in our discipleship, whether we are officers in the church, pastors, musicians, members: We do not manipulate the net, we don’t own it, it is not ours, we do not mend it, tend it, or haul it in; rather, by the grace of Christ, we become the net. It is we who are heaved over the side of the boat called the church, out into the waters of our world, and it is we who can return with the sort of catch that defies description if only we will remember to be the net.
I have had conversations with other pastors, and among us we know something is going on which pastors are generally loath to admit. Attendance, participation levels in our churches, are off in the past few years. Over time, we have seen a gradual decline in attendance at worship and in other activities around our churches. What do you suppose is going on?
One preacher once declared flatly that it would make life easier for us all if the reading for today had stopped with verse 6. By the end of verse 6 we have the sort of lesson we may have come to expect in church: If at first you don’t succeed, try again. But this is not a lesson about trying harder. It is a lesson about being caught up in something bigger than we are, it is about becoming catchers ourselves. Sometimes we forget the disciples’ central task, to become fishers.
Anyone who has spent much time in the church knows that lots of fishing nets turn up empty. Walk around these halls, you might well catch bits of conversation like these:
“Pastor, I once taught Sunday School for six years here and not one person ever said ‘thank you.’”
“Pastor, I worked as a mentor for an elementary school student, met with him every week, but he still flunked!”
“Pastor, We worked for six weeks to get that study group started, and in the end, only two people showed up, two people!
We all know about discouragement, about the frustrations of working in volunteer organizations and developing simple church programs in a world that has sold its soul to the high energy, big budget entertainment industry. We all know how frustrating it is to throw that net in the same pool of people time after time and come up with little or nothing. But perhaps it’s that pool of people that is part of our problem. With a look at membership statistics in many churches, it doesn’t take an advanced degree in math to discover that many people don’t leave their congregation to go elsewhere, they simply stop going to any church. It is not just their own participation that is missed when they are gone, but their willingness to reach out to others in their schools, neighborhoods, and at their workplaces with the simple invitation to come and see what goes on at church. As they have gone, the disciples’ net has developed a hole. We can only repair that hole by taking their place, by being that part of the net, and then casting it into a larger body of water than we’d thought we could.
Typical Presbyterian thinking about outreach by the church into the community often goes this way: We know that the fish are out there; yet, often we think we have done our job if we carry an aquarium to the edge of the sea and wait for the fish to jump in.
Here is a phrase which can be easily memorized and used in about any circumstance when we find ourselves talking with someone about our church. If they express interest, we can just say, “Well, could I come by and pick you up for the service next week?” Practice it. Say it with me now: “Can I come by and pick you up for the service next week?” Don’t say, “Let me draw you a map to the church,” or write down the address, or give them the web page, or express a hope that they will find their way here sometime. That is to act as if we were the owners of the net. That is carrying that aquarium to the sea and waiting for fish to jump in. Outreach requires invitation. “May I come pick you up at 9:00 next Sunday?” is the statement of someone who has recognized Jesus’ call to be the net.
Now this may be a bit frightening. If you've ever been recruited from doing something you’re already satisfied with, into a position you don’t feel qualified for, then you probably know how Peter and the others felt. All of us may be a bit afraid of words like “evangelism,” or “witness.” But Jesus made a promise, and he started his promise in a most interesting way: “Do not be afraid;” he said. I like it that when Jesus is coming at us with something we don’t expect, something completely out of our frame of reference, he so often begins by telling us that no matter how it appears, there is no reason to fear. “From now on,” he said, “you will be catching people.” You will be the net.
Now we may actually want to be afraid of that charge, we may want to be people who hope other folks will be the net and we can be maybe net managers, or net number criticizers, or net observers in the outreach movement of the church. But that is not the call that Jesus gives to disciples from the start. He says, “from now on you will be catching people.” Often we emphasize a different word in the sentence, We say, “from now on you will be catching people.” But I think it also needs to be read, “from now on you will be catching people.” That’s right. You. And you and you and you. And don’t bother being afraid about it, because it is the most natural thing in the world for someone who has received good news to want to share it, so that is what you will be doing. On that score, C.S. Lewis once reminded his readers that “the work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord.’”
With today’s scripture, we remember that Jesus’ call by the sea to be the net is not made to pastors, or elders, or deacons only, though certainly it does come to them. It comes to us all. It is part and parcel of discipleship, not an alternate choice from a menu of ways to serve.So, go this day and be the net. Your net results will surprise you, I promise!