A sermon by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ar.
5Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
I like the story Luke shares about how Simon Peter eventually became a follower of Jesus. According to the story, Peter and his partners in the fishing business were washing their nets after a disappointing night of work. How disappointing? Peter’s words are clear. “We have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”
Those words describe how many people feel. They apply to how people feel after spending much time and effort in domestic relationships that leave them feeling empty. We have worked all night long but have caught nothing.
Simon’s words fit how people feel after devoting years of study and preparation gain job skills only to find the world economy stagnant and their job prospects bleak. Whether one is young and entering the work force or is looking for work after losing a job, many people who have filled out job applications, submitted resumes, and left job interviews hopeful only to later receive rejection letters and calls or messages identify with Simon’s statement. We have worked all night long but have caught nothing.
Simon’s words also apply to people frustrated and dejected about the result of their struggle to make a difference for good in the world. Many people devoted their lives to fighting the physical, political, social, economic, and religious lynching that included the injustices of Jim Crow segregation in public education, housing, employment, and political involvement. We should be pleased now that a black person has been elected President of the United States twice. We should be pleased to see women holding positions of power and prestige. We should be pleased to see longstanding discrimination against homosexuals starting to crumble.
Then we learn that President Obama approved a policy that allows the Central Intelligence Agency to hunt and kill American citizens abroad even without proving whether the people targeted for killing are about to hurt anyone else. According to John Brennan (President Obama’s designee to become the next director of the CIA) and Eric Holder (Attorney General of the United States), this policy is beyond the power of any court, be it a court of law or public opinion.
Survivors of the civil rights era and others who thought we understood the meaning of justice and due process learned a chilling lesson last week. NBC News published a briefing paper that had been leaked from the Department of Justice, headed by Attorney General Holder, the first black person to hold that office. According to that briefing paper, due process doesn’t require anything beyond a secret decision by some un-specified “informed, high-level official of the U.S. government” who “has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violence against the United States.”
Even if the “informed, high-level official” has no clear evidence “that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” an American citizen abroad can be targeted and killed because he or she has been deemed “an imminent threat of violence against the United States.” As much as one might rejoice about the election of the first black president and the appointment of the first black attorney general, this policy perverts every ordinary and reasonable understanding about what an “imminent threat” means. It is no other than a fabricated excuse for the government to commit murder.
We do not know how many innocent civilians have been killed or wounded by CIA drone attacks, but at least four American citizens have been killed by them. One of the Americans killed was a sixteen-year-old boy who had run away from home to search for his father in Yemen. The father of the boy, a man named Anwar al-Awlaki, had been killed two weeks earlier in another drone attack. When President Obama’s long-time advisor Robert Gibbs was asked about the drone attack that killed the sixteen year-old who had no history of involvement with terrorism, Gibbs remarked that the boy should have had “a more responsible father.”
President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. He took the oath for his second term with his hand on Dr. King’s Bible. We who worked, prayed, and rejoiced to behold the first black president and the first black Attorney General of the U.S. understand Simon’s words. How can Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder associate Dr. King’s dream of a beloved community with CIA drones dropping bombs on Americans who are never been charged, tried, or convicted of any crimes? We have worked all night long but have caught nothing.
Politicians in Arkansas appear determined to pass laws that will allow people to bring concealed firearms into places of worship, deny women the freedom to determine whether to terminate a pregnancy, and limit opportunities for low income people to obtain affordable healthcare. People who spent years trying to eliminate the stain, stench, and stigma of injustice associated with Arkansas can identify with Simon’s words. We have worked all night long but have caught nothing.
We should consider these and other realities as we ponder Jesus telling Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon had been fishing all night long. He was tired and disappointed. He was preparing to go home to clean up, eat, and rest. He didn’t need more fruitless effort and disappointment.
Luke’s account of this encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter beside the lake of Gennesaret is a lesson about Christian evangelism and discipleship. Jesus didn’t say anything about where Simon would spend eternity, heaven, hell, and so forth (thereby flunking the Billy Graham model for evangelism). Instead, Jesus invited Simon to look past a long, tiresome, and disappointing night, get himself and his fishing boat “out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Christian evangelism and discipleship, at least based on this encounter between Jesus and Simon, is about nurturing people who “have worked all night long but have caught nothing” to “put out into the deep water and let your nets down for a catch.” Jesus didn’t shout at Simon from the shoreline to believe that there was a catch in deep water. Jesus was in Simon’s empty fishing boat. Jesus was close enough to see the lines of fatigue and sleep-deprivation on Simon’s face and see the empty nets.
Authentic and redemptive evangelism requires that kind of up-close involvement with people who are tired, frustrated, and dejected by life. Authentic and redemptive evangelism involves living with so much love and hope that tired, frustrated, and dejected people are inspired to go into the deep water of life where they can’t see the bottom. Authentic, redemptive, and liberating evangelism means living and loving with so much compassion and hopefulness that tired, frustrated, and dejected people are somehow inspired to try again, hope again, and wait again. As Simon put it, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
Simon not only found a catch. He and his boat crew caught more fish than his nets could hold. Simon and his fishing partners, James and John, went from being tired and empty-handed to being overwhelmed by their success. When Simon saw how many fish they caught he realized that the bountiful blessing happened despite his unbelief. Perhaps that is why he said, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Like Simon, we often wrestle with guilt and a sense of unworthiness in the face of God’s love. We are so overcome by our shortcomings that we have a rough time believing that God has a purpose for us.
Whenever you and I are threatened by a sense of guilt, self-doubt, anxiety, and our failings, we can remember Simon surrounded by more fish than he imagined after he had washed his nets and was about to go home empty-handed. God has more in store for us than we know, no poorly we think of ourselves or how poorly others view us.
When Jesus told Peter “from now on you will be catching people,” Jesus pointed Peter and us to the real meaning of discipleship. Discipleship certainly involves the exercise of spiritual disciplines, but it involves much more than devotional studies about spiritual discipline. Discipleship involves prayer, but it is more than learning about how to pray. Discipleship involves more than learning about prayer, self-sacrifice, and faith, as much as we need those lessons.
When Jesus told Peter, “from now on you will be catching people,” Jesus was talking about a living commitment to take people alive for God, not trapping or capturing people in oppressive systems of life. The kingdom of God needs people who have caught a redemptive, liberating, and hopeful vision of life, not dead fish.
Discipleship involves following Jesus in taking people alive for God so they become part of God’s love, truth, peace, hope, and joy in the world. It means following Jesus in liberating people from oppressive forces and systems—including cultural, social, political, economic, and religious forces and systems—that trap and cripple them. Discipleship involves following Jesus in living as God’s good news and work for freedom, healing, peace, love, justice, joy, and hope. This meaning of discipleship—following Jesus—in “people-catching living” gives the term “catch and release” an entirely new meaning.
Peter didn’t understand that much when he, James, and John left their fishing boats, nets, and the biggest catch of their lives to follow Jesus. Even after three years, Peter had rough edges and was so unsettled that he denied knowing Jesus when he thought it was too risky to be associated with him.
But discipleship, like everything else involved in being alive for God, is a call to grace-filled living. The grace of God that calls us despite our failings, frustrations, fears, and feeble faith also claims, holds, protects, and preserves us as God’s people when we stumble. The call to people-catching living includes a call to forgive ourselves and each other because God forgives us.
Knowing that God loves us so much makes all the difference in the world! God loves us so much that faults, fears, and failures cannot hold us hostage. God loves us so much that the past cannot determine our potential. God loves us even when we aren’t sure what God is doing with us. God loves us and has a purpose for good in us even when people hate us and are determined to turn us back.
Because of the people-catcher named Jesus, we know God loves us! Because of the people-catcher named Jesus who had compassion on a tired, frustrated, and dejected fisherman about to hang up his nets, we know God loves us. The people-catcher named Jesus calls us, as he called Peter, to follow him in people-catching living for God with people who, like Peter, are tired, frustrated, dejected, and about to hang up their nets. Let’s follow him by God’s grace to catch people alive so they too can be blessings in God’s world! Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.