Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Trinity, July 16, 2017
“Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.”
I believe that one of our greatest technological advances of all time was seamanship. And according to the biblical account, it was God’s invention entirely, along with a Flood upon which that great ship floated. Noah’s Ark may not have been the first boat ever, but it has to be the most magnificent and most important. One and a half football fields in length, seventy-five feet wide, and taller than this church—the Ark was filled with every wondrous beast God had made, minus the dinosaurs. It thundered outside with torrents of waters, lightning, and drowned humanity, and thundered inside with elephants, lions and bears trying to see why they were locked up in this wooden cage.
I guess all of us have been, at one time or another, in a boat. Do you remember your first time, especially that small craft that rocked and trembled when your foot tentatively found a spot on its pitching deck to put half your weight? You dropped into a seat, splayed your hands out to steady yourself, and experienced what all have wondered at: water was not just under you, but around you. The miracle of boats is that a concave hull takes your weight down into water, displaces some of it, and brings the air beneath sea level. Air is lighter, water heavier, so the balance of buoyancy is struck and you are suspended between two fluids within a mere leaf, like a bug afloat, on a Huckleberry Finn adventure downstream. Our senses reel when we launch a boat. Add propulsion, the trust of oars or the magic of sails, and the miracle is complete. We fly, we glide, we move through two worlds in which humans were not made to travel: water and air—by the wonder of a boat.
Now it should be obvious that you are either in a boat or you are out of a boat. Aristotle would argue for that conclusion. You might paddle alongside, hold the rail in your hand, but if your feet and body aren’t in the boat, you’re just wet and the boat isn’t having its purpose for you.
An old philosopher once took a boat trip across a great lake. His servant, a simple villager, was fearful to the point of distraction. He kept shouting and shaking so that no one could do anything with him. When asked why, he just said he was frightened of boats. “I can’t swim!” His master ordered the boatmen to throw his servant overboard. “But he says he can’t swim,” they said. Over their objections, he prevailed and the terrified man was sent screaming over the side. After thrashing and spouting for a few moments, the master ordered him brought back aboard. It astonished them all to see the man now quiet, even happy, to be in the boat, and the old man’s wisdom proved true.
Boats are frequently mentioned in the travels of Jesus. In Galilee, not just fishermen were masters of sea-craft, but everyone seems to have traveled more by boat than by land. Even as the son of a carpenter, our Lord knew that body of water well and chose boatmen as his companions. More than once he preached from boats, their hulls slapping in the shallows, to crowds who lined the lakeshore. This natural amphitheater was also a stage, and an image of trust, an example that you have to be in the boat to be with Jesus. You are either in the boat or out of the boat. These sailors, Peter, James, John and Andrew, were familiar enough with the Sea of Galilee that they knew the fishes’ habits and hideouts. They also knew the dangers of storms on that great lake, and stories of many who had died out on that treacherous expanse of blue. Jesus invited them into His boat, these brave sailors, and in His boat He scared the daylights out of them.
On one of His frequent boat rides they were overtaken by a storm and all these professional seamen feared they were going down. Water poured over the rails and they bailed like crazy, yet their boat kept shipping water. Jesus merely slept in the stern, exhausted from ministry, but also trusting His Father completely. When they woke Him, He simply commanded the winds and raging waters, and the lake was flat and calm. On another day, Jesus showed them He didn’t need a boat at all. “Peace be to you! It’s me, don’t fear!” He shouted to them over that storm, as Peter likewise put his feet on water…
On that first day, Jesus chose Peter’s boat for preaching. People lived all around the lake: why choose any other structure to speak from? Peter, worn out from a night’s fruitless fishing, still felt honored that the Master chose his boat, telling parables of farms and lost sheep and buried treasure. Peter nearly slid into a happy slumber, sitting at the tiller, when Jesus nudged him with a foot and suggested they go fishing. “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets. Let’s go fishing.” Peter, knowing Jesus’ trade was carpentry, quietly but confidently said that, though he had fished all night and he knew nothing was out there, he would still obey. “You’ll see it’s useless,” might have been Peter’s warning under his breath. He hoisted sail and caught a breeze to take them out onto the dark blue of deep water.
Jesus helped him to drop the great nets over the side, and just as they slipped out of sight, a tug on the ropes told Peter they had gotten lucky. More than lucky, it was a gigantic school of very lively fish. They both pulled hard to bring them up and fish poured in, dozens and dozens of flapping silver bodies began to fill the boat. The weight of this catch lowered the rails nearly to the lake’s surface and it began to let in water. Peter shouted to shore, urging James and John to bring the other boat. They quickly did so, and almost swamped that one too, taking in this huge catch.
Then it was that Peter realized something. This was not his boat anymore. He had been the proud master of the fishing trade. He claimed his boat one of the best in the business. He knew wind and wave, ropes and knots, sandbars and rocky bottoms—all one needs to know as a fisherman.
Suddenly Peter knew nothing. He didn’t know where to fish, or when, or why. The man standing at the other end of this boat knew everything. Realization hit Peter’s chest like a fist. He lost his breath. The force of recognition, just beneath his consciousness, made him nearly black out. He fell to his knees and tried to get as low as he could before the Man with him in the boat. Peter felt this was not his boat—there was nothing familiar about it. Never did miracles happen on his boat. The preacher owned this craft, and what’s more, He intended to own Peter, too.
The big fisherman knew in detail all the vileness in his soul: the lust, the anger, the crude jokes, the bad blood, even violence. More than that: knew this Man’s holiness was beyond supernatural. God was in the boat with him, and Peter needed to hide. Face down in fishy water, Peter objected: “Go away from me, Master. I am a sinful man. I am not worthy of your attention. I don’t merit your love.” Rising from their toil, John and James likewise knew the power in this Man was not of this world, and began crying for lack of adequate words.
Jesus saw them through and through, knew them completely, His eyes surveying the glorious moment—a lustrous sea reflecting His own creation of azure sky and gentle hills and billowing clouds and valiant trees and pitiful people sobbing in two boats overloaded with fish, flashing in the Galilean midday sun. Jesus looked down on Peter in his humiliation, and spoke, “Don’t fear, Simon. From this day on, you will catch people. With me, you’ll be fishers of men.”
The fishing now over, these three, plus Peter’s brother Andrew, who was already convinced Jesus was Messiah, left the boats, the nets, the sails, the oars, the ropes, and hundreds of fish on the shore and followed Jesus. They were in His boat now. And what a ride!
Three years later, the stories they could tell! Miracles of healing, breaking bread for thousands, a man filled with lightning on a mountaintop, raising the dead, and then Christ’s own Resurrection, one morning they found themselves again at this lake. The thought struck Peter: Why don’t we go fishing again? That was where his life had changed. The memory made his heart happy and, to be truthful, sad as well—for much had happened and his life wouldn’t ever be the same. But nothing doing—the fish weren’t coming to Peter anymore. The man on the shore, however, advised them to try the other side of the boat. Just to humor Him, they did. The same tug, the same impossible catch, fish foundering their little craft and John this time was the first to cry out, “It’s the Lord!” Peter, struck by his own stupidity, his slowness to recognize the most important Person in his life, threw himself into the water and swam for dear life to the shore, in order to be the first to greet Jesus, who was calmly frying fish of His own.
You are either in the boat or out of it. We all have boats, boats of our own. It’s been said that a private boat is “nothing but a hole in the water, surrounded by wood, into which you throw money.” Think of the life you lead as your boat—a hole in the water surrounded by wood into which you throw money. That’s the boat we all start in. We launch out the day we enter this life, suspended between sky and deep blue, upon a firmament of tentative life between the waters above and the waters below. This life is but a flash, a moment of terror, afloat on our own oceans of outraged fantasies. Our dreams have betrayed us. Our minds led us over Niagara Falls. Our passions were storms that filled our little shell with foul water. Some boatmen we are!
Jesus now offers you His boat, to come on deck and set sail with Him. The cost is enormous, of course. You will lose your life to this Man. Having no boat of your own anymore, you’ll become his crew.
But you can’t go with Him and remain onshore, nor on your own rotting little capsized boat. Both your feet need to find their way into His ship, and you must sense the water around you, like Israelites walking dry footed between walls of Red Sea water, held out now by this ship’s buoyancy, this Ark bearing you now through life’s great flood.
It’s time to get in the boat. In or out. Then launch out into the deep waters, the azure abyss yawning far below us, under the waters, offering either fish or death—which will it be? If the winds rage, look at the Master: is He sleeping? Know that He is unconcerned. He is master of wind and wave, your soul and body are in His keeping.
This is trust. The lake looks like an ocean, with storms threatening, clouds gathering. The decision must be made. You are either in the boat or out. What will it be?
Peter, the ex-fisherman, lends us his own experience to help us make our choice. Years after the events described, he writes: “The eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers… who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good? But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled; but sanctify the Lord God in your hearts.”