Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Today we turn to one of those gospel stories I thought I knew pretty well: the story of Jesus calling the first disciples. But God has a way of surprising us even when we’re in familiar territory.
Right away in verse 1, we learn that this whole episode starts “while… the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God.” Wait. Why do we call these fishermen Jesus’ first disciples then? If he had huge crowds following him around by this point, specifically to hear him teach, weren’t they also his students, his disciples? But we get the sense there will be something a little different about this small group we’re introduced to here in Luke 5.
In verse 2, Jesus spies a couple fishing boats, steps into one of them, and asks its owner to join him and push off from the shore. For want of an adequate pulpit, the crowd probably couldn’t hear Jesus very well. Simon, busily washing his nets at the time, might not have thought to offer the solution he had at hand (a boat smelling of fish guts as a podium for a famous speaker?) but when Jesus asks, Simon agrees. And because of Simon’s willingness to do what Jesus asks, the word of God is proclaimed by the Son of God to a whole crowd of God’s children from his boat.
Once he’s done teaching, Jesus tries to offer Simon a thank you gift. “Push out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” he says in verse 4. Simon can be forgiven, I suppose, for explaining that if there were any fish out there, they would have caught them already on the night shift. But notice, even though he thinks he knows better, he still does what Jesus asks. “If you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:5) And boy, does he get his reward. So many fish, in fact, that two boats-full could barely stay afloat.
The miraculous catch prompts Simon to confess his unworthiness (“go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” he says in verse 8). This sounds a lot like the prophet Isaiah’s response to finding himself in the presence of God in the Jerusalem temple: “woe is me… for I am a man of unclean lips… yet my eyes have seen … the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5) And Simon’s business partners, James and John, are equally impressed by Jesus. So much so that once their boats are back on shore, they too leave everything to follow him.
For those of us not prone to impulsive decisions, I think this can be the hardest part of the story to understand. If we’ve read ahead in Luke’s gospel we know what they’re in for once they sign onto Team Jesus, but they don’t know. Still, they decide to follow him. I believe it was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” As today’s text concludes, we find Simon and the others taking that brave first step. Setting themselves apart from the crowd. Not content simply to listen to what Jesus has to say, they choose to respond.
I don’t know about you, but I’m inspired by the example of the first disciples, and at the same time I find their choice suddenly to drop everything and follow Jesus hard to understand. Me, I’m big on knowing. I like a degree of certainty about what’s coming next. Stepping out onto a staircase I can’t see? Definitely not my strong suit.
So I was pleasantly surprised to notice this time around that Simon’s initial responses to Jesus, at least, weren’t quite so enormous in scale. To be fair, in Mark’s much briefer account, Jesus says “follow me,” and “immediately” the fishermen drop their nets to follow him (Mark 1:17). But here in Luke, as we’ve just seen, there’s more of a progression. Simon doesn’t have to do the giant scary thing right away. He simply has to do the next thing - the next right thing – at each stage along the way.
First, Jesus steps into Simon’s boat (notice it’s Jesus who takes the initiative) and asks him for a ride. “Take the boat back out? I wasn’t quite done with my nets, but ok. I guess I can do that.” This also gives Simon a chance to hear Jesus as he addresses the crowd on shore. Only after he’s done speaking does Jesus then say: “push out into deeper water and you’ll find more fish.” Simon hesitates: “we already tried that.” But whether out of politeness to his guest, or because he wanted to show the teacher how things worked out here on the water, or – who knows? – maybe even because of something he’d heard Jesus say when he’d had that front row seat for his lesson, Simon does what Jesus asks. And suddenly there are more fish than they can handle.
Interestingly, even at the end of this scene, we don’t hear Jesus say “follow me” in Luke’s version. I looked for it, because again I thought I knew this story and of course it would be right there in the text… except it’s not there, not in Luke 5 anyway. Instead, Jesus offers words of comfort (“don’t be afraid”), followed by a declarative statement rather than a command: “from now on you will be catching people.” (Luke 5:10) I’ve got a plan to do something pretty amazing, in other words, and you get to come along.
I find Luke’s telling refreshing. Don’t get me wrong. Jesus says, “follow me” and people instantly follow, as we read in Mark? That’s amazing! I’m in awe of that kind of courage. But in that scenario, I’m likely to be the one still scrubbing my fishing nets over to one side, quietly watching the bolder types take off with Jesus. Here in Luke’s telling, it’s easier to imagine there’s a place for me.
Remember: Jesus first shows up, steps in Simon’s boat, and asks for something that’s right in Simon’s wheelhouse. He needs to be willing to let Jesus’ interrupt him for a bit in order to lend a hand. But he’s got all the tools he needs to do it. Boat? Check. Boating skills? Check. “Push off from shore? That I can do.” What resources or skills might Jesus be asking you to share?
Next, Jesus provides Simon with an opportunity to learn. Again, he’s the lucky guy with a front row seat for this lesson Jesus is teaching from the boat, before he’s asked to do anything further. Where might Jesus be inviting you to learn or to grow to get ready for his next invitation?
Once Simon’s learned a bit more, Jesus challenges him a bit more. Invites him to be part of a new thing God’s about to do. “I know you’ve always done it this way. I know you think the lake is fished out. Seriously, though, give it another go.” And Simon gets to see God at work in a big way. Is there something new Jesus could be inviting you to try? Something that might allow you an exciting glimpse of God at work?
Finally, that lesson behind him, Jesus gives Simon a preview of what’s coming next. “Don’t be afraid; from now on you’ll be catching people.” And it’s at that stage, a number of teaching moments in, that Simon decides to come along. Still brave of him, of course, but at least we know a little of the back story now.
When I see the calling of Jesus’ first disciples broken down into steps like this, I see some steps even I can take. In any given moment with Jesus, I don’t necessarily have to do the whole thing. I just need to do the next thing. The next right thing. And that? Well, maybe that I can do.
Certainly, I can watch for Jesus to show up. And I can listen for him asking me to share something in my wheelhouse: a resource or a skill set I have to offer. I can allow myself to be interrupted long enough to share it. And I can take a step back, now and then, from the things I’ve always done and the way I’ve always done them, to try something new at Jesus’ invitation. I can stand amazed at God’s greatness when things happen as a result that are way beyond what I’d imagined was possible. I might even hear Jesus saying, “fear not,” and extending a gentle invitation. “I’ve got some amazing plans, and you’re welcome to come along.”
To make this a bit less abstract for a minute, let me offer a few examples. As I told some of you at coffee hour last week, I believe one of the next right things for me personally as a disciple of Jesus is to volunteer some time with World Relief Seattle to help a recently arrived refugee practice English. So I’ve taken steps over the past 2 weeks to make that happen: filling out the volunteer paperwork, attending a volunteer orientation session on Zoom. Concrete tasks that will set me up to do the next right thing. I’m also hearing a call to write letters through Bread for the World asking for legislative action to address food insecurity here in the US. So I’ve begun carving out a small amount of time each week to do that, and it turns out it’s extremely simple to use the templates the organization provides.
Jesus’ tug on your heart could be similar or it could be entirely different. Some of us from the Just Mercy book group back in the fall are, for instance, looking into partnering in some way with the Center for Children & Youth Justice here in Seattle, and we’ll be bringing in a speaker at some point to tell us more. Heaven knows there are plenty of next right things to go around.
I’m also excited about a brand-new program our Session has been discussing this week for our church as a whole. We’re hoping to gather a small group from MPC to participate in a two-year cohort with representatives of other churches around Seattle Presbytery. We’ll learn from each other, collaborate together, and aim to build transformative, intercultural relationships in the particular communities in which we’re located. What will be the final outcomes of this process? We don’t know. That much of the staircase isn’t clear yet. But starting this journey feels to us like faithfulness. It feels like one important thing we can do to be responsive to God’s call and open to new models of ministry. We hope, among other things, it will find us as a whole congregation building bridges with neighbors who don’t look like us and learning from their wisdom about our community, its strengths and its needs. So we as a Session are simply taking a first step and applying to be part of this program, believing it could be the next right thing for MPC.
The way Luke tells the story, courageous disciples of Jesus aren’t so much born as made. They’re nudged and nurtured and called and coached. They’re asked to do the next right thing, in any given moment, and to let Jesus be in charge of the outcome. Some days the next right thing might be something grand and bold and remarkably brave. And some days it might be the smallest of steps on that staircase of faith.
Sometimes, too, we’ll attempt the right thing and fail. We may even fail repeatedly. Like Simon, like Isaiah, we know we’re weak and make mistakes. But as long as we have breath we can keep trying. Disciples are students, after all. We’ll never be completely discipled for that would mean we were finished products who’d learned it all. There’s always room to grow. And I expect Jesus is far more interested in our willingness to push off in the boat with him and try than he is in how perfectly we fish.
So back to our original question: what distinguishes a disciple from the rest of the crowd? Disciples don’t simply listen; they respond. They engage.
Like Simon, we each have something Jesus can use. Let’s share it when he asks for it. Let’s allow him to interrupt us, teach us, challenge us to try something new even when we’re unsure of the outcome. (“Let down our nets here? If you say so…”) Let’s notice and celebrate the mighty work of God in unexpected places. And then let’s follow, setting aside our fear, eager for new adventures, wherever Jesus leads us next. Amen.