What It Means to Follow Jesus: The Faithful Fishermen’s Perspective
Following Jesus is not a means to some other end: he is the end in and of himself.
While the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret. And he saw two boats by the lake; but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5.1-11)
I was talking to a young Marine the other day about his faith, and his life in the church, and his relationship with Jesus. He told me the story of a miracle that had happened to him; how, after significant prayer and searching, God had reached into his life and acted in a real and unmistakable way. It was a watershed moment for him and his relationship with God, literally shifting the course of his life. He began to reconsider his faith in a fresh way. He began to recognize God at work in the world. And he began going back to church.
Now this young Marine was raised in the church. And prior to this discernable act of God in his life, he definitely had a faith and a relationship with God. But as he described it, it wasn’t exactly a high priority in his life. He pointed to his intermittent church attendance as an example. As he explained it, after working 24 straight hours – from Saturday morning all the way through the graveyard shift Saturday night — he didn’t always feel like going straight to church on Sunday morning.
As he’s telling me this, I’m thinking, “who would?”
I think it’s enough of a struggle to get up for church even after a good night’s sleep, let alone after staying up all night.
When I think back, there were just a few times that I stayed up all night Saturday and went to church on Sunday morning. But I sure wasn’t “working” all night, and it sure wasn’t pleasant in the morning.
I think it would be difficult for anyone to work all night and go to church on Sunday.
It’s kind of crazy to think that the fishermen in today’s gospel did just that.
Imagine being one of these fishermen. You’ve been up all night fishing, and you didn’t even catch a darn thing. The sun comes up. You return to the shore empty-handed. You’re tired, cranky, probably hungry. And as you’re washing your nets and getting ready to go home, this Jesus guy comes by. There’s a whole mess of people crowding around him to hear him speak. He climbs into your boat, and asks you to row him just a bit off shore so the people can hear him speak. What do you do?
There’s no getting around the fact that the responsibilities and challenges of our daily lives are in constant competition with our relationship with Jesus. Work, school, family, friends, kids, relationships, late Saturday nights at Pizza Port, Chargers games, a nice, clean 3 to 4 foot northwest swell; there are an infinite number of reasons for not going to church on Sunday morning. We’ve all experienced them. Yes, even the priests. (Believe it or not, before I went to seminary I was a Saturday night guy; the Sunday-morning-snooze-bar was just too tempting.)
How difficult it can be to make room for Jesus in the midst of our labors – not just on Sunday, but every day!
So here we have these fishermen, who for some reason, get back into their boat. There’s clearly something about Jesus that is compelling enough for them to stick around and listen to him teach.
OK, so they listen to his sermon. It’s Jesus preaching, so no doubt it’s a killer sermon. He probably tells a couple funny jokes. The fishermen maybe space out a for a few minutes and daydream about the Superbowl. Finally, he comes to an end.
So if you are one of these fishermen, now are you ready to go home? I would be. “Thanks so much for the sermon, Jesus. Have a great week. See you next Sunday.”
But Jesus is only just getting started. He turns to you and says, “Why don’t we swing this boat around and sail out to the deep end, and you can let down your nets for a catch.”
Why would anyone do this? It goes against your own personal experience. You’ve already been out on the sea all night… you know there’s nothing out there.
And yet, with an inspiring mixture of faith and obedience, Peter and the others do what Jesus says, even though their own experience goes directly against Jesus’ instruction. Peter says, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.”
And miraculously, a gazillion fish swim right into the net.
Now here’s an interesting question. Did Jesus find the fish? Or did the fish find Jesus?
Sure, Jesus could have known where all the fish were hanging out. But the fish may just as well have been drawn to their maker.
Either way, the greater point is this: the fishermen’s efforts were only fruitful when Jesus was with them in the boat; when they were following his instructions; when they obeyed his Word.
Our Lord tells us in very clear words, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
Indeed, in that long night of toil and labor apart from Jesus, the fishermen were unable to bear any fruit. But despite their fatigue and no doubt skepticism, they followed Jesus’ Word and were met with such abundance that their boat almost sank.
How easy it is to toil for long periods of time before even realizing that all along we have been trying to do our work alone, apart from the free gifts of guidance and counsel and comfort and grace given to us through Our Lord Jesus Christ. Whether it’s relationships or jobs or schoolwork or health or decisions or dilemmas, Jesus’ promise to us is that when we abide in him and he in us, we will bear much fruit.
That promise was made manifest to those fishermen that morning.
I’m not a comedian guy, but some of you may know that I have a real soft-spot for a comedian named Jim Gaffigan. Jim is a Roman Catholic and so he tells lots of jokes about Bible stories. And he does this one bit about today’s fishermen. He says:
“The apostles are always used as an example of people that gave up everything to follow Jesus, they gave up everything. But you know, they were fishermen. It’s not like they were investment bankers. Jesus went up to them, ‘Hey, you know how you’re sitting out here in the blistering heat trying to catch fish in the Dead Sea?’
‘Yeah, it stinks.’
‘You want to follow me. I’m God. By the way, I can turn water into wine.’
‘All right, I’ll go with you.’
‘But there’s one condition: you have to give up everything, and I mean everything.’
‘So I leave the pole here?’”
It’s a funny bit, but Luke’s gospel actually paints a little different picture than Jim’s.
For starters, they are in the Sea of Galilee, not the Dead Sea.
But more significantly, Peter and his friends walked away from far more than just their poles, or even their boats.
Remember what just happened. Their life’s work revolved around the simple aim of trying to catch as many fish as possible. And with Jesus’ help, they had done just that. This load of fish was undoubtedly a record-breaking catch – possibly even the highlight of their careers.
They didn’t just walk away from their poles, or even their boats, but from this enormous payload, this over-abundance, this great success.
St. Luke writes, “when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”
Surely an entrepreneurial temptation ran through someone’s mind: “Hey, if we could only get Jesus to go fishing with us all the time, we’d be set for life!”
How easy would it have been for them to “follow” Jesus as a means to further their own career.
But for those fishermen, following Jesus was not a means to an end. They did not follow him in order to “get this” or “gain that.” That Jesus provided for them in such a miraculous and abundant way was proof enough that he was all they needed.
The same is true for us. Following Jesus is not a means to some other end: he is the end in and of himself. He is the alpha and omega; the beginning and the end.
We do not follow Jesus to “get this” or “gain that.” He is all we need. For he is life itself.
As with the Marine I was talking to earlier in the week, one miracle changed the course of those fishermen’s lives forever; and through them the life of the world.
The church fathers see in this story an image of the very mission of the church. The boat is the Church. The nets are the Word of God, the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ spread throughout the world by the faithful witness and obedience of the apostles. And we, my friends, are the fish.
This miraculous event was merely a foreshadowing of the fulfillment of those words that Jesus spoke to Peter on that day, “Do not be afraid, henceforth you will be catching men.”
Beloved, as those who have been drawn into the boat, the body of Christ: let us heed the obedient examples of St. Peter, St. James, St. John, and the others who were with them on that day.
Let us not grow weary of listening to Jesus, of obeying Jesus, and of following Jesus. Amen.