My ordination service is next Saturday. I’ve been thinking a lot about the journey I have been on, the people who have been on it with me, and where God is calling me to next. When I did my student chaplaincy, we chose a person and a passage in the Bible and told the story from our point of view. I have often identified with (the pre-Pentecost) Peter with one foot out the door and one foot in my mouth. This is the sister passage to John 21 that I wrote about in A Simple Act of Hospitality and Commissioned. It’s a little long but hopefully you find it worth the time.
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God, he saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. – Luke 5:1-3 (NIV)
Have you ever had a moment when you had complete clarity? I don’t have them often. Usually, my mind is a jumble of my to-do list, a conversation I had yesterday and several other internal conversations. I think I’m rarely completely present in what I’m doing.
I guess that’s why the few times I’ve had complete clarity – if only for a split second – it sticks with me. It’s not just that I feel focused but colors seem brighter and sounds are louder. I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about, but I need to give you some background information first.
I’m a fisherman, along with my brother, Andrew, and our friends, James and John. This isn’t casual fishing – it’s the family business. You see, we all work together. It’s hard work, and fishing can be dangerous business. I’ve seen men fall overboard and never heard from again. I’ve also seen storms come up so fast you would swear they just dropped down from heaven. It’s good to have friends.
We fish at night because it’s cooler. On a good night, we could fill the boat and be in bed before the sun was up. Then there are the nights when we can’t find a fish. All night we throw our nets and move the boats to try and find a hot spot – but nothing. On those nights it takes longer to clean our nets when we get back to shore than it does to clean the fish. What’s worse, I have to go back home to my family with nothing.
Well, the day I’m thinking of was just like that. We got our sorry selves back to shore with nothing to show for a hard night’s work. We had just finished cleaning the nets and were getting ready to dock the boats when Jesus came by.
There was a crowd of people following him, just like there usually is. He was talking and teaching about Scripture. Jesus just has a way about him. When I listen to him talk, it’s like I just know it’s true. His words stay with me, too, and the examples he uses. I like the rabbi in town, but there’s just something about Jesus.
But it’s not just the teaching.
My brother Andrew used to go out in the wilderness to hear this guy John. Not the John we work with but John, son of Zechariah. Some people call him John the Baptizer because that’s what he does. He actually baptizes people as part of their repentance.
Anyway, Andrew is the spiritual one in our family, and he was always going out to hear this John talk. Andrew is always talking about the Messiah. Really – ALWAYS: All night, every night when we fish. He is always telling me what Scripture says about the Messiah. He thought for a while that John was the One, but John was pretty clear that it wasn’t him. There was going to be someone else.
One day, Andrew comes rushing into the house and tells me that he has found the Messiah. “Sure you have,” I think to myself. But he’s really serious. He insisted that I go with him to see this “Messiah”. He takes me to Jesus.
Jesus just looked at me and said, “You are Simon, son of John.” (“Duh,” I thought. I mean, he knows my brother.) And then he says, “You will be called Cephas.”
Cephas means “rock.” Did Jesus know I’m a fisherman? Rocks and boats and water don’t really go together. Anyway, Jesus left the next day, so I didn’t really hear much more about this whole rock thing.
But then Jesus came back to the area – and Andrew would not let me alone until we went to go hear him some more. I thought maybe this whole Messiah thing would go away, just like John the Baptizer. So we went – and we listened – and we watched. And then we went home. I thought that was it. Boy, was I wrong.
Not long after, Jesus shows up in Capernaum to teach in our synagogue. I found this out because I get home from fishing and he’s at my house! I guess Jesus stopped by while I was still at work and told my wife and her mom that he was a friend of Andrew and myself. They invited him in and asked him to stay.
The next day my mother-in-law woke up with a fever. She didn’t look good, but it was the Sabbath and so there wasn’t much we could do. We’re all getting ready to eat after synagogue and my wife said how her mom had taken a turn for the worse. Before I thought about it, I turned to Jesus and said, “Can you help her?”
Everyone stopped talking and just stared at me. Everyone, but Jesus. He went over rebuked the fever – just like he was telling a stray dog to get out of the house. You could have heard a fishhook drop to the ground when she got up – better than ever – and just started serving lunch. I don’t think another word came out of my mouth, but someone must have said something because after the sun went down, people came out of the woodwork bringing the sick and the possessed over for Jesus to heal them.
Remember how I said there’s always a million things going on in my mind, well, I still didn’t get it. Jesus left the next day and I went on with my life like nothing had happened.
Until that day.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. – Luke 5:4-7 (NIV)
As I said, I’m cleaning up the nets after a night of nothing when I see Jesus. I figured he’s busy and might not even remember me. He had been all over Galilee preaching and healing. But as I look up, Jesus was standing right there. He asks me if he can sit in my boat while he talks to the people. I don’t even know if I answered him but I did it. I sat there – kind of like a voyeur – as he talked. It wasn’t really for me, but I couldn’t help but to listen.
Before I knew it, Jesus is turning around and telling me to take the boat out into the deep water and let the nets out. At this point, it hits me that I’m tired from a long night and it’s starting to get hot. If we go back out, I will hardly have time to get everything cleaned up again and get dinner before I have to come back out here. Even a carpenter has to know that fish aren’t out in the heat of the day. But all I can muster is, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
Jesus didn’t flinch, so out we went. We get out into the deep water and put the nets out. They were hardly out of the boat when we started to capsize to the right. I couldn’t believe it – but those nets were full! I thought they were going to break. I call out to the guys on shore to help. There were so many fish; I thought both boats were going to sink.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. – Luke 5:8-11 (NIV)
Everyone was laughing and yelling – but for me, time just stood still. I looked at Jesus and then just fell at his feet. “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” It was that moment of clarity – I didn’t know what I was saying but I knew it was true. I couldn’t do anything but lay at his feet. The sun was so bright – blinding – but yet I could see his face and those fish so clearly. The laughing and yelling was distant – like it was on shore – but yet I could hear the waves lap against the boat like I was alone on the lake in the middle of the night. At once I was full of dread and fear knowing that I am indeed a sinful man.
But at the same time, I was full of calmness and had an overwhelming sense of mercy.
It was all so clear, so simple.
Then Jesus spoke: “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.” And then time started again. We got everything back to shore and just left everything and followed him.
Most of the time, I feel like a camel in a pottery tent. I’m always saying stuff I shouldn’t and acting before I give it a single thought. I’m not even going to tell you about the time we were caught out in a storm and Jesus came strolling by. But even as I stumble and stammer, I can’t shake that moment in the boat. I also can’t shake the feeling of somehow being both a sinner and a saint.
You probably think I’m crazy; most people do. Luckily, I didn’t have to explain it to my wife. She knew it before I did. She saw her mother’s eyes after Jesus healed her. You know, it’s the eyes that give people away. I’ve seen people with sight, who are really blind as mice. And I’ve seen blind people, who see clearer than a watchman on the wall. It just depends on whether they’ve seen Jesus – just like I did that day.