Sermon for 14 November 2010
Luke 5: 1-11
On January 24, 1986, two fishermen were walking along the shore beside the Sea of Galilee in Israel when they discovered the remains of an old fishing boat. There had been a drought in the area and the water level of the sea was very low. The Sea of Galilee is really an inland lake, also called Lake Geneserat by the local people. People have fished on this body of water for thousands of years, before the time of Jesus to the present day. These two modern-day fishermen wondered about the age of this wooden relic, so they contacted the archeological authorities. By the scientific technique of carbon dating, it was determined that the boat was built within the time span of forty years before and after the birth of Jesus. The archeological community was excited because never before had the complete hull of an ancient vessel been uncovered.
The boat hull is about 27 feet long, 7.5 feet wide and 4 feet deep. The boat is approximately the length of two pews placed end to end and the width of two pews placed side by side. If we were to push together the front two pews from both sides of the centre aisle, we would have the approximate size of this ancient fishing boat.
In addition to its archeological importance, the boat has religious significance for both Jews and Christians because of the numerous times that boats and fishermen are important in the scriptures. For example, boats of this type are mentioned almost fifty times in the gospels of the New Testament.
In our gospel story today, Jesus was standing on the shore of this same body of water surrounded by crowds who wanted to hear him preach. When he saw two boats on the shore, he got into one of the boats and asked the fisherman to put out a little into the lake. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When Jesus had finished speaking, he said to the fisherman, whose name was Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon replied, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
Simon must have sensed something special about this holy man Jesus, but he could not have anticipated what would happen when he let down his nets again into the deep water. The catch of fish was so huge that the nets began to break and the boats began to sink. Since we have an idea of the size of the boats in our story, we might think the catch was not very large, but to these fishermen, who had caught nothing all night, and then were swamped with fish, the catch was miraculous.
Simon’s reaction was to be frightened of the power of Jesus, but Jesus said simply, “Do not be afraid.” Then he said that curious phrase, “from now on you will be catching people”. In the older translation of the Greek scripture, the phrase is, “fishers of men.” The image of catching people or fishing for men was an old one in the Hebrew scriptures, which meant gathering people together. Jesus was telling these fishermen that their new vocation would be to gather people together into a new relationship with God.
What can we learn from this gospel story? We are ordinary people like these fishermen and we too are called by Jesus to offer ourselves to his mission to bring people to God. Whatever our skills or talents we can contribute to the well-being of God’s people. That miraculous catch of fish would have provided food for many people in the village. Whatever we have, we can offer to God’s purpose as Simon willingly gave Jesus the use of his boat. Sometimes like these fishermen we are discouraged when our efforts seem futile, but we too can be inspired by the teaching of Jesus to have faith that with God all things are possible. It may mean that we need to venture into deep water, to risk failure, and to try again, perhaps in a different way. Jesus offers us renewed hope in our own abilities to participate in his mission for the world.
For centuries, an image of the Christian church has been a boat, a ship with its sails to the wind. The central space in a church building where the congregation gathers is called a nave, a term from the Latin word for a ship. Sometimes the boat sails smoothly over calm waters. At other times, the boat feels empty and is tossed about in stormy weather. We are all members of the crew, all fishers for people. We all have something to contribute to the care of the boat, and in turn, the boat offers us a way to draw closer to God. As disciples of Christ, we have been called to keep our boat afloat, to endure the storms, and to seek the winds of God. With God’s help, amazing things can happen.
Thanks be to God. Amen.