Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on October 4 2009.
Luke 5:1-11; Colossians 4:2-6; Romans 12:2
The way I figure it, Jesus must be incredibly frustrated by our unwillingness to live out his vision for our lives. Two thousand years ago, Jesus spent three years before his crucifixion casting the grandest vision of all time for his disciples to follow. They were to be transformed by him and in him not for their own edification, but to literally transform the world. They were to go into all the world to make disciples for him, ministering to people in mind, body, and soul, teaching them to follow Jesus in all their ways throughout all their days. And they were to do it as though the stakes were eternal…because they were.
Two thousand years have come and gone, and the track record of the church when it comes to living out this vision is mixed at best. We could brag that over a billion Christians live in the world today. We could point out the many hospitals, schools, children’s homes, retirement homes, and social ministries started through the efforts of Christ-followers. But for the sake of integrity, we’d also have to admit that many Christians and Christian churches seem to be majoring on the minors, frittering their lives away on small fry concerns. Just doing life takes so much time and energy. And before we know it, Jesus’ mandate to reach and change the world seems like a nice platitude that graces our mission statements, but otherwise is forgotten.
The past few weeks, we’ve been intent on reviving the vision of Jesus in this church. Much of the month of August, we reviewed the call of Jesus to be spiritually transformed by the renewal of our hearts and minds so that we’d be able and willing to accomplish his vision for ourselves and church. Most of the month of September we reviewed part of that vision we’re sorely tempted to overlook—reaching people with the powerful gospel of Jesus Christ—in a church-wide campaign called “Just Walk Across the Room.”
I believe our church, and perhaps most churches would honestly rather overlook the part of Jesus’ vision that speaks to evangelism. It’s sooo much more comfortable to stay in our cushy sanctuaries and play church with one another than risk reaching others outside these walls. Without thinking about it we fall into our familiar routines and rhythms and convince one another that we are doing the Lord’s will even when fulfilling Christ’s vision never crosses our minds.
Then, when we least expect it, Jesus interrupts those familiar rhythms, and at least makes us rethink the trajectory of our lives. Like he did on the day he reinserted himself smack dab in the middle of the lives of Peter, James, and John according to Luke 5.
Jesus had already met Peter, if not James and John, by this time. We learn in Luke 4 that Jesus had recently healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a potentially fatal illness. That miracle of healing had to make quite an impression. Still, it was far too early in the game for Peter and friends to draw any hard and fast conclusions about the ultimate significance of Jesus.
But Jesus wasn’t finished with Peter, James, and John…far from it. One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God.
That’s what happens, by the way, when the presence of Jesus is palpable in a place. People always have been, and always will be drawn to Jesus. Even now, when people’s interest in church seems to be waning, interest in spiritual things in general, and in Jesus in particular is at an all-time high.
(Jesus) saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by 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 (Jesus) sat down and taught the people from the boat.
When you think about it, Jesus had a lot of nerve. Simon Peter and his buddies had pulled an all-nighter fishing, and all they got for their troubles were nets full of seaweed and slime. You can imagine how fun it was to be washing the nets when you were worn out with nothing to show for it.
Peter and the boys were simply minding their shaky business when Jesus showed up and interrupted everything. Already Jesus had gotten in Peter’s head when he healed his mother-in-law. Now he was getting into Simon Peter’s boat.
That’s how Jesus often works. We are people and churches, paying our bills, raising our kids, running our programs and doing our best to keep our heads above water. Then along comes Jesus messing with our individual and corporate lives and acting like he wants to make waves.
By the way, notice we never get an explanation about why Jesus picks Peter, James, and John. You certainly can’t say these three were selected on the basis of their qualifications! They weren’t doing terribly well with their own occupation, much less with evangelism. But Jesus picked them anyway because he had an uncanny ability to see people as they could be, not as they were.
Some of you are thinking you’re not qualified to reach people for Christ. If that’s your way of getting yourself off the hook, I refer you to Peter, James, and John! Early on they did nothing to win Jesus’ confidence. They did do one thing right. They allowed themselves to be reeled in by Jesus, and the rest is history.
Peter probably doesn’t mind taking a break from the thankless task of net-cleaning to provide Jesus with a floating pulpit out in the water. But it’s what Jesus does after he finishes teaching that catches Peter off guard. When Jesus finished speaking, he said, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
Now Peter is clearly rankled that Jesus wants him to take his freshly cleaned nets and push out into deep water to catch fish that clearly aren’t there, or at least weren’t there last night. Jesus may be good at the faith-healing business, but he should leave fishing to fisherman. As it turns out, of course, Jesus is quite the fisherman.
What I’ve noticed about Jesus in my life is that when I seem to be coming up empty, he inevitably invites me to move into deeper water. I notice that I like being in the shallow end to do my life. The part of me that prefers safety wants shallow relationships and shallow commitments and shallow spirituality. But the shallow end is not where Jesus’ vision for me or you or us can be lived out. So when our personal and professional and spiritual and church lives stop working, Jesus says “Put out into deep water.” And he doesn’t seem to care that the water out there is way over our heads!
“Master,” answered Simon, “we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” Simon Peter didn’t believe there were any fish out there. But he obeyed this seemingly ridiculous command because of who gave it. Good ole Peter. He reminds us that precisely when our hope is at low tide, we need to trust and obey the one who commands the sea and everything in it.
When they (let down the nets), 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.
An amazing thing happens when we agree to partner with Jesus. Fish that were nowhere to be seen before appear out of nowhere, and are lured into the net of the Kingdom by the irrepressible love of Jesus. “Apart from me,” Jesus said, “you can do nothing.” Looks like he meant it. Apart from Jesus, we may net a few minnows as we cast about in the shallow end. With Jesus out in the deep end, the nets of evangelism suddenly brim over with a new catch.
The Apostle Paul was no fisherman. But he himself was a big catch the day he met Christ on the Damascus Road, and he went on to cast the net of evangelism around the Mediterranean world.
Paul knew a thing or to about making Jesus your fishing partner when it comes to catching people for the Kingdom. Listen to his instructions to his fishing buddies in Colossae—“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it as clearly as I should.”
Paul doesn’t make a big deal about prayer to sound pious. He knows the only way to succeed in this business of reaching people for Christ is for the Holy Spirit of God to go before you, opening doors and softening hearts. And, he prays that when he does get the opportunity to speak God will sharpen his message so that it will not be clever, or entertaining, but clear as a bell.
Friends at FBC, we won’t be serious about evangelism until we make prayer the center of everything we do in this congregation. If we try to live the vision of Jesus apart from the Spirit of Jesus, we won’t have a prayer.
Simon Peter is humbled, and mortified, and terrified in the face of this miraculous catch of fish. That’s what happens when you get in the same boat as Jesus. You realize your soul is far too puny and putrefied to produce such miraculous results. By the way, that’s why we steer clear of Jesus in church. We like to stay in control, and he’s clearly beyond our control.
But as usual, Jesus isn’t terribly interested in catering to our wishes. He envisions far greater things for us than we envision for ourselves. We see this in his climactic interaction with Simon Peter: “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”
Just that quickly, Peter’s life changes, and so do his priorities. His number one priority is no longer fish, or the income he raises from his fish. No, his number one priority in life is people.
It’s been interesting listening to you respond to the book, Just Walk Across the Room, written by Bill Hybels. Many of you have been energized by this book, but some of you may think it lacks “gravitas”. Bill talks a lot about sailing on Lake Michigan, and you don’t sail. You’re not a tan, smooth-talking mega-church pastor, and you never will be. And the book just hasn’t done it for you.
Well, I don’t know that it’s the best book on the Christian life I’ve ever read either. But let me tell you where this book hooks me. Bill Hybels does maybe the best job I’ve ever seen explaining that God’s priority in this world is people. And not just people like us. We’re talking about all kinds of people. In fact, as Bill says, the only thing not temporary about our lives is people and their souls.
Hybels also challenges me and everyone us to really think through our theology of the afterlife. I’ve challenged Bill at the point of making disciples in and for this world, and making this world a better place. But he challenges me at the point of heaven and hell. Do I, do you really believe in heaven and hell? Do we believe that our relationship with Jesus and not our good works is the final determinant of our ultimate destiny? And do we believe we ought to act with more urgency, not just to win more people to our church but to win more people to heaven?
I know thinking Baptists have reasonable questions in this area. I know we wonder about Jesus being the only way, and wonder if God will really send non-believers into an eternity of hell. I’ve agonized over all these questions, and don’t pretend to have all the answers.
What I do have is confidence that God is God and I am not. And what I do have is the belief that you and I are supposed to be about living the vision God has assigned us on this earth. That’s not going to mean all of us will need to quit our jobs and go into full-time Christian ministry. It is going to mean that at the end of the day our ultimate priority should be people – reaching people far from God with a clear and winsome explanation and demonstration of God’s love.
I don’t know what kind of strategy we will ultimately adopt when it comes to evangelism at FBC. That’s for us to develop together, not for me to announce from the pulpit. But I know this. If we ignore this part of God’s vision, we will ignore an important reason each of us was planted in this world. We will suffer. Our friends far from God will suffer. And so will our church.
But if we have enough faith to put out into deep water and let down our nets with Jesus at our side, God only knows what kind of haul we can catch for him!