By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
If you could go back in time to the First Century, A.D. and relive one of the stories of Jesus, which one would it be? Which would you most like to have experienced for yourself?
Would it be the wedding at Cana in Galilee where Jesus turned the water into wine? Can’t you just imagine the astonishment of the guests when they found out what had happened?
Or, what about the time when Jesus fed the multitude? What would it have been like to have seen Jesus take this little boy’s sack lunch – five loaves and two fish – and feed a hungry crowd of over 5,000 men, women and children? If you’re the adventurous type, perhaps you’d prefer to have been on the Sea of Galilee the night the storm came up and Jesus walked on water and calmed the wind and the waves, to watch as Peter stepped out of the boat and walked toward Jesus, only to lose faith and start to sink.
There are lots of stories told of Jesus. Which one would you most like to have experienced for yourself?
What about the story for today? Can you imagine standing on the shore of Lake Genessaret and hearing Jesus talk about the Kingdom of God? Let’s rewind the tape and play it once more.
It was a cool and crisp morning on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. The early morning fog was just beginning to burn off. The sand was damp from the dew. The fishermen had just come in from having been out on the lake all night. There was the smell of fresh coffee in the air mixed in with the smoke of campfires up and down the beach. Jesus came there often. It was a popular gathering spot. He was sure to find a crowd to talk to. At the same time, crowds gathered there in hopes of hearing him. He spoke like no other they’d ever heard.
This particular morning was especially crowded. He spoke softly, and the people pressed toward him to hear every word. He stepped back to give them room, and back, and back, until he was literally standing at the water’s edge. He turned to one of the fishermen and said, “May I step into the bow of your boat?” The fisherman, a lumbering, rough-hewn salt named Simon, nodded. Jesus climbed into the boat and spoke louder. The crowd listened to his every word.
When he finished his teaching, he turned to Simon and Simon’s brother, Andrew, and said, “Put out into the deep for a catch.” Simon was busy in the stern, straightening out the nets from the night before. “But, sir,” he protested, “we’ve fished all night and caught nothing.
We’re tired. The sun’s up. It’s already getting hot. With all due respect …”
But Jesus persisted: “Hoist your sails, man. Put out into the deep.”
Simon looked at Andrew and shrugged his shoulders. “Very well,” he sighed. “If you insist.” And in no time, they were underway.
They sailed across the lake and headed south toward Tiberius. Peter was at the helm mumbling to himself, “Why are we doing this? What does he know about fishing?” All the while, Jesus held his position in the bow of the boat. “Cast your nets here,” he called, and Simon and Andrew furled the sails and put out the nets, just as they had done the night before, much in the same place. But this time, as they pulled the nets back toward the boat, the resistance was strong. Had they snagged a sunken vessel? They’d never pulled so hard. Slowly, the net inched its way toward them. As it drew closer to the surface, fish began popping up everywhere out of the water.
The net was filled to overflowing. “We’ll never get them all in,” Andrew shouted, “the net will break under the strain.” Simon grabbed a small seine and began scooping out fish, a dozen or so at a time –huge fish, of every shape and kind. The hull of the boat began to sag under all the weight. Water began to lap over the gunnels. “Better stop,” Andrew called. “Another dozen and she’ll sink for sure.”
Simon looked down into the crystal blue water. There were even more fish than before. He looked up at Jesus standing in the bow, now smiling. The realization hit him: This was no ordinary man, this was the son of God; this was no ordinary catch, this was a sign of God’s Presence. Simon threw down his net and fell headlong across the fish at Jesus’ feet. “Lord, have mercy upon me,” he sobbed, “for I am a sinful man.” Jesus smiled all the more as he reached down and took Simon by the hand. “It’s O.K., Simon,” he said, “From now on, you’ll be catching men and women for the Kingdom of God.”
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Wouldn’t you love to have been there on the boat that morning out on the lake and heard Jesus’ words and seen Simon’s face? It was what we call a “Christological” moment – Simon seeing in the face of Jesus the Presence of God; and seeing himself, not the strong, capable seaman he appeared to be, but a poor unrighteous sinner, unworthy to stand in the sight of God … while, at the same time, Jesus seeing beyond Simon’s impulsive, impetuous ways to the heart and soul of a man with shoulders broad enough upon which to build a church able to withstand the very gates of hell.
What I like most about this story is that it demonstrates how God calls ordinary folks – folks like you and me – to be the church, the body of Christ in the world today. God isn’t limited to those who are particularly gifted, capable, of the “right stuff.” As often as not, God chooses the unlikely, the ones we might easily discount and overlook, including ourselves. Remember what Paul wrote to the Corinthians? He said,
“For you see your calling, brothers,
that not many are wise according to the flesh,
not many mighty, and not many noble;
but God chose the foolish things of the world
that he might put to shame those who are wise.
God chose the weak things of the world…
and God chose the lowly things of the world,
and the things that are despised…
that no flesh should boast before God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-30)
God’s calling is coupled with humility. After all, our task is to introduce others to Jesus Christ. Is there anyone here who feels capable? Worthy? Adequately prepared? I doubt it. Our goal is to represent God’s Kingdom. Do you feel up to that? I don’t. Furthermore, we’re called to reconcile the world to God. Now, that’s a pretty ominous ambition. Most of us do well to reconcile our bank accounts!
God’s calling carries a heavy freight, and I don’t know about you, but every time I consider the demands of discipleship, I feel pretty inadequate: “Surely, there’s been some mistake. Surely, God had someone else in mind, someone smarter, wiser, more eloquent, more righteous than I.” Yet, in spite of it all, the truth is, we are among those whom God calls. Not because we are worthy. Not because we are capable. Only because God deems it so.
It’s when we say yes to God’s calling that exciting things begin to happen. Others come to faith because of our witness, and we are as surprised as they are! Others find encouragement and hope through us, and we stand in awe! Others’ lives are transformed by our love, and we can only watch in amazement! It’s not we who make the difference, it’s the Spirit of God working through us. Yet, how exciting it is to see it when it happens! Like a catch of fish for tired, discouraged fishermen, so great that they can’t pull them all in.
The story is told of a young woman named Sarah who had just graduated from seminary. She’d completed her studies, passed her ordination exams, circulated her Personal Information Form, and received a call from an old, declining inner-city congregation. To be honest, she’d hoped and prayed for a call from a young and growing suburban church. “Oh, well!” she sighed, “If this is where God is calling me, then this is where I’ll go. She accepted the call and hoped for the best. Right off, she began to wonder. Her congregation was made up of mostly older women. “I have a gift for working with children,” she proudly announced at her first session meeting. To which one of the elders replied, “Well, you won’t find many children around here.”
For weeks she agonized and prayed and cried, “I’ll never be able to succeed in this parish. God, why did you call me to this church in the first place?” One day she noticed a string of children walking by on their way home from school. “God, show me the way to reach these children,” she prayed. Later in the week, she was visiting one of her members, a woman named Mable, who hadn’t been active in the church in years. In talking with her, she found out that, in her younger years, Mabel had been a vaudeville pianist.
“I’ve played with the best of them,” she said with a gleam in her eye – Al Josen, Jimmy Durante, the Dorsey brothers … you name ’em, I’ve played right along side of them.” “Do you still play?” Sarah asked.
“I don’t,” Mable said, “but that’s not to say I can’t!”
“Would you be willing to play the piano in the Fellowship Hall next Wednesday afternoon?” Sarah asked.
“Wednesday? Sure,” she replied, “if you don’t think those old biddies up there will run us off!”
“Oh, I think they’ll enjoy it,” Sarah said. “Let’s make it about 2:30, three o’clock.”
The following Wednesday afternoon, Sarah had a couple of men open the double doors to the front of the Fellowship Hall. It was an entrance facing the street with a large covered porch, which hadn’t been used in years. They rolled the old piano out on the porch and Mabel began to play. The children were just getting out of school, and as they passed by on the sidewalk, they were struck by the sight of this old woman playing boogie-woogie and ragtime piano.
They gathered around. Some of the other women had prepared cookies and lemonade, which the children eagerly accepted. During a break in the music, Sarah introduced Mabel and the other women to the children. Then she told them a story about Jesus and his disciples and wondered what kind of music they enjoyed? The children munched on their cookies and drank their lemonade and listened politely. Mabel played a few more tunes, including a jazzed-up version of “Jesus Loves Me,” and the children went on their way.
Sarah invited them back next Wednesday. “Same time, same place,” she said. The children waved as they disappeared around the corner. The next Wednesday, Mabel, Sarah, the other women and the children gathered on the porch of the Fellowship Hall for cookies, lemonade and ragtime music. In time, they moved indoors. Before long, some of the children showed up on Sunday morning. They brought their parents. Mabel did a soulful version of “Precious Lord” for an offertory.
Slowly, the old church breathed new life. There was music, and laughter, and warmth, and love they hadn’t experienced in years. And every Sunday, as Sarah stepped to the pulpit to begin her sermon, she’d take a moment to survey the faces of the older people and all the young children, and she’d whisper a prayer, “Thank you, Lord.”
The truth is, God calls ordinary folks – folks like you and me – to be the church, the body of Christ in the world today. God isn’t limited to those who are particularly gifted. As often as not, God calls those you’d never expect – people like a gangly fisherman named Simon, a minister named Sarah, a man named Jim, a woman named Alice … and he says to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers for men.” May we have the courage to respond and say, in the words of Isaiah, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
Copyright 2004, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.