One of the things I love to do when I am with a confirmation class or a youth group is to offer them the chance to ask me any question they’ve always wanted to ask a pastor. It’s a fun thing for them and fun for me as well. I often get questions like, “What do you do all week?” I always answer the same way: “I pray..all day…and if you’d stop sinning, I’d get some other work done!” Some ask about sermon preparation, others ask about seminary and a host of other things.
The number one question that young people ask, however, is, “When did you know you were called to be a pastor?” That’s a great question, one that is asked often of ministers. I like telling the story, but over the years I’ve come to realize that often when this question is asked, by either youth or adults, the implication is always that a “calling” is something that a professional Christian like a preacher gets. That ministry is a “calling” but normal work is more like a job.
But that’s a misunderstanding of “calling.” In fact, in the Scriptures we learn that when God calls someone it is rarely to something outside their experience or their vocation—indeed, every one who follows Jesus is called to do so in one way or another. In fact, the notion of professional Christians was unknown in the first few centuries of the Christian faith—calling was something that everyone received regardless of their vocation. It is the call to be a disciple of Jesus.
We see that kind of call in action in today’s text—the call of the first disciples. Notice that Jesus doesn’t approach them and ask them to become professionals; he doesn’t send them to seminary or confer upon them a special “holy” status set apart from everyone else. He calls them to be his disciples—his followers, even though they are still fishermen. They are in no way qualified for the task, but the right resume isn’t what Jesus is after. He’s looking for those who have certain character traits that are common to everyone who would be his disciple. If we have these, we will be able to live out the call of discipleship, regardless of our profession or situation.
Simon Peter, the fisherman, is the subject here as he will be throughout much of the gospel. He represents us in many ways—motivated but flawed, confident but afraid, a working man but a disciple. I think he demonstrates for us four characteristics of someone whom Jesus can use as his disciple:
A disciple is available
First, a disciple is available. Simon and his partners have come in from a long and unsuccessful night of fishing. It was typical in those days for fishermen to do their best work at night when the fish were more active near the shore and could not see the nets that the fishermen had let down. The nets, made of linen thread, would often dredge up things other than fish, so every morning was spent washing and mending them before the fishermen would go to bed while their neighbors were just getting up.
You can imagine, then, what an inconvenience it might have been for Simon to hear Jesus ask to use his boat. There are several inlets around the Sea of Galilee that act as kind of a natural amphitheater, and pushing out a little into the lake would enable Jesus to use the water as a natural sound system, enabling him to reach the crowd. Simon would have to row the boat, however, and listen to this itinerant preacher for who knows how long before he could wrap things up and get some sleep.
But Simon nonetheless makes himself available. Perhaps he has heard about Jesus of Nazareth (who in Galilee hadn’t at this point?) and wanted to listen to what he had to say. Perhaps it would enhance his business—being connected to someone who was gaining a little fame. For whatever reason, Simon turned back to the water and made himself and his resources available to Jesus.
The reason only a few people become authentic disciples of Jesus is that they rarely get past this first qualifying attitude. We’re busy people, after all, trying to make a living. Religion and following Jesus is something we do in our spare time. We’ll follow when it’s convenient, when we have the time. Otherwise, we have work to do and, my goodness, we need to get some sleep on a Sunday morning after all that work!
Simon teaches us, however, that when we make ourselves available to be close to Jesus, even at inconvenient times, when we are open to the possibilities he brings, it’s then that we take the first steps toward authentic discipleship. Over the course of my life as a follower of Jesus, time and again I have learned that it’s often at the most inconvenient times, or the times when I least want to be available, it’s best to be open because it’s at those times that I find Jesus most present and the lessons the most rich.
When that homeless lady walked up to me outside a Chipotle in Nashville a couple of years ago and asked for a meal, every instinct in me wanted to say I was too busy and didn’t want to be bothered. I’d had a long day of study about Jesus, but had missed the lesson in the text. The Holy Spirit, however, wouldn’t let it go and simply said, “Do it.” I bought her a meal and ate with her—it wasn’t my plan, but it was a Jesus moment—a world-expanding moment. When we make ourselves available to Jesus, amazing things can happen in us and through us.
A disciple is teachable.
That leads to the second qualification of a disciple, and that’s teachability. Simon is a professional fisherman. He knows fish and his knows this lake like the back of his hand. You can imagine, then, that after Jesus finishes his sermon and says, “Row out farther, into the deep water, and drop your nets for a catch,” that Simon’s first reaction might have been, “No way! That’s a waste of time! Everyone knows that you can’t fish during the day. We’ve already been out all night and caught nothing. The nets are drying, we’re exhausted, my wife is waiting for me. And that’s not to mention how the people around here will see us—fishing during the day. We’ll be a laughingstock!
But that’s not Simon’s approach. “We’ve worked all night,” he tells Jesus, “But because you say so, I’ll drop the nets.” Simon has heard Jesus teach. Like others, he recognized the authority in his teaching. He may not know anything about fishing, but he knows something. Simon, the expert fisherman, concedes that he might actually learn something from Jesus.
One of the great barriers to real discipleship is a lack of teachability. I had a guy once tell me that there was nothing more he needed to learn about the Bible or about faith. He already had all the answers and would not dare take any advice from a preacher who he believed knew a lot less than he did. He saw himself as an expert, but experts rarely make good disciples. How many Christians fail to become followers of Jesus because they’re not teachable? They’re so bound up in their certainty and expertise in things like religion, politics, and moral judgment that they can learn nothing—even from Jesus!
A teachable disciple, on the other hand, is open to being surprised and open to submitting to the authority of Christ in all things, even when it runs against conventional wisdom. It’s not that every idea is equally valid, it’s that following Jesus is always an opportunity to learn through his teaching and the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Part of being a disciple is allowing ourselves to be surprised from time to time. Jesus constantly does that with his disciples and we should expect him to surprise us as well.
To be clear, however, teachability is not just about acquiring more knowledge. It’s possible to be a Biblical scholar and yet not be a disciple. There are many of those out there. Teachability is not just about more information, but about imitation—imitating Jesus and imitating others who are imitating Jesus. Discipleship is a full bodied learning experience, as Simon discovered. He obeys Jesus even when everything he knows tells him it makes no sense to do so. For the disciple, Simon’s response—“If you say so”—is the phrase we need to learn when it comes to Jesus.
– If you say so, I’ll eat with that homeless person even though it makes me uncomfortable..
– If you say so, I’ll be more generous with my resources, even though they seem limited.
– If you say so, I’ll serve on that mission team, even though I’ve got a million other things to do.
– If you say so, I’ll commit myself to prayer and fasting even though I struggle with it.
Discipleship involves a thousand decisions like this—obeying Jesus and being teachable even when it’s outside of our regular experience.
Discipleship involves teamwork.
But while availability and teachability are individual attributes of a disciple, we also learn from the text that discipleship is never just individual—it always involves teamwork. Notice the subtle shift—in verse 5, Simon says, “I’ll drop the nets” but in verse 6 it says “they dropped the nets.” When we think of fishing, we usually think of it as an individual exercise, one person and one pole with a hook. Maybe that’s because we’re Americans and we love to focus on individuality, the lone fisherman out on the stream.
But commercial fishing in the ancient world was a group project, as it still is today. Simon would have been partners not only with his brother but also with the sons of Zebedee, James and John. The fish they were after were a kind of tilapia pan fish that is called musht (which means “comb” —a description of the fish’s dorsal fin) but is commonly known today as “St. Peter fish.” They tend to hang out near the warmer water near the shoreline at night, particularly near the northern part of the lake where there some warm springs that feed into the larger body of water.
Simon and his partners fished with trammel nets—three-layered nets that were set on the surface by a rope floated with cork and dropped to the bottom with lead weights. The nets were each about 35 meters long and were strung together. After setting the nets in deeper water, the boats would then move into the shallows and run back and forth parallel to the shoreline, stomping their feet on the bottom of the boat and splashing their oars to scare the fish into deeper water (and keeping their neighbors on the shore awake at night!). The fish would enter the more open outer layer of the trammel net and then get caught in the finer mesh of the inner layer, which caught the fish in a kind of net bag.
An acceptable haul of fish was about 200-300 pounds. Galilee fishermen report that there are sometimes epic hauls of about a half ton. What happens with Simon and his friends, however, is a miraculous haul—enough to threaten to sink both of the 27 foot boats. This was enough to stun even the most experienced fishermen and it took all them to bring in the catch.
Jesus is teaching Simon and his partners that the kind of fishing they will do in the future isn’t just an individual effort—it requires working as a team. Luke’s Gospel will show us how this fledgling group of fisherman will morph into an ever-expanding group of disciples called the church. Jesus takes what these first disciples know and will use their collective experience to change the world. He will use us, too, if we’re willing to go fishing together!
Disciples are humble.
But this sort of catch will not happen based on the efforts of disciples alone. It will involve the presence and power of Christ. Simon realizes that despite all his expertise, he was nothing in comparison to Jesus. He fell at Jesus’ feet, realizing his own inadequacy in contrast to Jesus. “Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinner!” he proclaims. He knows he is not worthy of Christ, which leads to another qualification for a disciple: humility.
We see here an echo of the story we read last fall about Isaiah’s call to ministry. Remember that Isaiah had a vision in the temple of God seated on a throne, with seraphs flying about and singing his praises. It was a terrifying vision, and when Isaiah saw it he could only proclaim, “Woe is me! I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet I have seen the king, the Lord of hosts!” We see similar responses in people like Moses and Gideon—people who became giants of the faith, but started by realizing their own sin and brokenness.
Real discipleship begins when we recognize our own condition. That we need to be saved by Jesus ourselves before we can ever begin to save others. A lack of humility leads to the kind of moralistic therapeutic deism that is so common in our culture today, especially in the church. We can begin to argue about the sins in others without looking at our own condition. Humility is an attitude that recognizes that we are in no way qualified to be followers of Jesus, but that our only qualification comes from his miraculous grace. Simon was so struck by Jesus’ presence that he wanted to send him away. Jesus responds, however, by inviting Simon and his friends to join him.
Oh, it’s not that Simon won’t make more mistakes along the way. There will be plenty of them—the worst of which will be denying three times that he even knew Jesus—and yet I’m certain that his memory returned to this incident many times along the way, remembering that Jesus had chosen him and that Jesus would redeem him. In fact, in John’s version of this story, it occurs after Jesus’ resurrection, after Simon Peter’s denial. Three times Jesus will ask him, “Do you love me?” It’s the counter to the three denials of Peter. He will be restored—and the fisherman will begin fishing again for people.
Fishing for people.
How do the disciples of Jesus “fish for people?” Well, it’s clear that people are not going to be drawn into Jesus’ net by expertise. Simon and his friends were good, but they weren’t so good as to get such a miraculous catch on their own. They needed Jesus’ help. Oh, it’s possible to fish for people without Jesus’ help as well. We can rely on better techniques, better music, better coffee, cooler stuff, and a message that doesn’t require too much of us. That will draw a crowd, but ultimately it doesn’t hold them; it doesn’t land them in the boat.
On the other hand, we can try the technique of driving people into the nets, stomping our feet at the evil in the world and screaming and beating the water warning people of the judgment to come. Like the other approach, that might have some limited effect as well, but it ultimately can scatter the fish more than catch them.
No, the best fishing strategy is to focus on being the best sort of fisher folk—a community of disciples who are characterized by availability, teachability, humility, and teamwork—a partnership in which expertise and knowledge give way to love for all people, especially the outsider, and where people focus their entire lives on imitating Christ. “Disciple” after all means “learner”—one whose lifelong pursuit is to be more like Jesus. The more we focus on these things, the more that people will be drawn to us and, through us, drawn into Christ’s net of grace.
Simon Peter and his friends found themselves caught up in Jesus—so much so that they left their nets and boats behind and followed him. We may not be called to change professions, but we are called to follow him. There is much we can learn when Jesus meets us where we are. Are we available to him at all times, whether it’s in an office, or on the street? Are we teachable, open to the lessons he wants to give us. Do we rely on our own expertise and busyness, or are we willing to be surprised by Jesus on a daily basis? Are we a humble people, or are we too busy trying to promote our own resumes for discipleship? Are we willing to go where Jesus leads us, both individually and as a church, or will we stay where we are and keep hoping that technique will make us better? Will you hear his call on your life?
“Push out into the deep water and let down your nets,” Jesus invites us as he invited those first disciples by the shore. Let’s go work the nets because Jesus says so!
Nun, Mendel. The Sea of Galilee and Its Fishermen. Kibbutz Ein Gev (Israel), 1989.