27 January 2008

They Left Their Nets

“And immediately they left their nets and followed him”. This is a very familiar story, and a very familiar image, too. We still talk of following Jesus today, although most of us are called to do so within the context of our families and our jobs. I rather think that by the time the Gospels were written down, most people who were called to follow Jesus were doing so within the context of their own lives, too.

All the Gospel writers tell us this story, though, so it must have been an important one. St Luke goes into a bit more detail than either Matthew or Mark, whose account is more-or-less identical to Matthew’s. In Luke’s version of events, Peter - only he was still Simon, in those days - had been out in the boat fishing all night, with no sign of a fish anywhere. One of those days when you reckon there simply aren't any fish in the lake, even though you know quite well there must be. But the fish were hiding. And so Simon and his colleagues decide to call it a night, and they pull up their boats on the beach and start to wash the nets.

And along comes Jesus, with a whole crowd of people following him. "Can I borrow your boat a minute, mate?" he asks. And Simon rows him out just a tiny way offshore, so that he can speak to the crowds from there.
We aren't told what he told them, but we know that Jesus' message tended to be that the Kingdom of God was now here, and was well worth seeking for. And I expect he told them, too, a bit about the sort of people God wanted in the Kingdom - people who go out of their way to help others, even people they've nothing in common with, even people who they can't stand; people who don't bear grudges, who don't use other people in any way, or get angry with them in a destructive way; people who, basically, treat other people with the greatest possible respect for who they are, and who go out of their way for them. For anybody, just as God himself does.
Anyway, when Jesus had finished his teaching, he grins at Simon and goes, "Ta very much, Mate. Tell you what, why don't you take that boat out into deep water, just over there [points] and see what you don't catch?"

Simon's sceptical, but - well, why not. So they row out and throw their nets over one last time.... and the amount of fish in there, the nets couldn't cope and, eventually, nor could the boats.

And Simon's reaction is to throw himself at Jesus' feet - I assume Jesus was still in the boat with them - and say "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!" And Jesus reassures him: “From now on, you will be catching people.” And not only Simon Peter, but Andrew, James and John all leave their nets to follow Jesus.
John’s gospel is different again, as it so often is. In his version of events, Andrew, Simon’s brother, is a disciple of John the Baptist, and after he hears Jesus speak, he goes and spends the day with him at his home. And then comes to find Simon Peter, and tells him that they have found the Messiah – and Simon believes them and leaves everything to follow Jesus.

Incidentally, I hadn’t quite noticed, had you, the first part of our Gospel reading today, where Matthew explains that Jesus left Nazareth after John the Baptist had been put in prison, and settled in Capernaum? One doesn’t really think of his having a home of his own – we’re so used to the “Foxes have nests” image. Not quite that, it’s “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” But at this very early stage, this isn’t quite true. Jesus has taken a house – or at least rooms – in Capernaum. And people could go and visit him there, and eat with him. The wandering came later on in Jesus’ ministry.

All the gospels agree that this is a very early stage in Jesus’ ministry. They place it almost immediately after he returns from being tempted in the desert, where he’s wrestled with the temptations to misuse his divine powers, and has become a lot clearer about who he is, and what he’s been called to do. I’m not sure how much he actually knows, at this stage, of what lies ahead, but he does know that he is to preach that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and, like all the preachers and teachers of his day, he is gathering disciples to help him with this task, perhaps helping with their physical needs – Judas, you may remember, kept the communal purse – and learning from him all that they needed to know in order to spread his message. Although, as we know, it wasn’t until after the Holy Spirit came, at Pentecost, that they were truly able to understand and to spread the good news of the Kingdom.

But that came later. For now, they left their nets and followed Jesus.

And that’s the important thing. They followed Jesus. Sadly, it wasn’t very long before that stopped being the case. Factionalism arose in the early church. St Paul picks up on this in his letter to the Corinthians. He has heard, from people who lived in Chloe’s household, that there are an awful lot of squabbles and factions in the local church, with some people saying they follow Apollos, some saying they follow Peter and some saying they follow Paul... I wonder whether some also said they followed Jesus, or whether that was Paul being sarky, we don’t know. I also don’t know who Chloe was; we don’t hear of her again, so we have to assume that she was basically one of the believers in Corinth, and perhaps gave house-room to one of the churches there. Peter, of course, is Simon Peter, and Apollos, too, is well-known. He was a Jew from Alexandria who met up with Paul and his friends Prisca and Aquila in Ephesus, and was converted there – he was already a believer in Jesus, but hadn’t got further than John’s baptism. Prisca and Aquila bring him up-to-date, and then he goes off to Achaia to preach the gospel there, and is, apparently, a very effective evangelist. Certainly Paul often refers to him, and sends affectionate messages to him in his letters. Achaia, by the way, is a prefecture – the local equivalent of a county or other administrative area – in Greece, bang next door to the prefecture of Corinthia, whose capital is, of course, Corinth. So it’s not too surprising that the Corinthians knew Apollos, and some of them were claiming to follow him.

But, of course, it is Jesus that they needed to follow, as St Paul makes quite clear, spelling it out to them in words of one syllable. It’s nothing to do, he says, with who baptised you. He, Paul, hardly ever baptises anybody, leaving that to the local church. It’s the message that matters, not the person who preaches it. “Christ did not send me to baptise,” one modern translation puts it. “He sent me to tell the good news without using big words that would make the cross of Christ lose its power.”

The “not using big words” was particularly difficult for Greek people, as their tradition was very much one of philosophy and of debate. They had trouble visualising a God who was actually involved with human life, a God who cared, a God who cared to the point of becoming a messy, emotional human being. A God who cared to the point of dying on a cross.

So for them, all too often, Christianity was a matter of intellectual assent, of rules and regulations, of doing things in a certain way. And the person who taught you about this became almost as important as the message itself.
I think we’re awfully prone to doing that today. It’s a lot easier to give intellectual assent to one’s faith than to live it. It’s a lot easier to live by rules and regulations than to live by faith in Jesus. It’s a lot easier to belong to a denomination than it is to be a Christian!

Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing the matter with denominations as such! It’s denominationalism that is the problem – where we think that because we are Methodists, we are in some way better than Anglicans or Baptists or Free Church people. We aren’t. We may have some quite profound theological differences – especially with the Baptists and others who believe in a limited atonement – but we are all following Jesus as best we know how, and we are all sinners in need of redemption.

And that, for St Paul, was what mattered. The message of the Cross. The message that we can all be saved.
Simon, Andrew, James and John left their nets to follow Jesus. We aren’t all called to leave where we are and what we are doing – in fact, few of us are. But we are all called to follow Jesus! Not all of us are called to be evangelists, but we are all witnesses to Jesus. That, by the way, is a function of being Jesus’ person; he told us that when the Spirit came we would be his witnesses – not that we would have to be, or that we ought to be, but that it would happen as part of receiving the Spirit. If we are truly following Jesus, if we are truly his person, then we are witnesses to him, even if we never mention our faith out loud. His Spirit shines through us.

Of course, none of us is perfect. The Bible is full of examples of when Simon Peter got it wrong – most notably when he panicked when Jesus was arrested and tried, and pretended he’d never met him. But he was forgiven, and restored, and he went on to become one of the greatest leaders the Church has ever had. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, even then – he had his quarrels with St Paul about how far people who weren’t Jewish should be allowed into the Church, and under what conditions – but “the big fisherman” was definitely a great leader. He became the person God had created him to be, and fulfilled the role God called him to fill, even though he was far from perfect.

We are not all called to be leaders, but we can still become all that we were created to be, because we can all be forgiven and restored and enabled.

They left their nets to follow Jesus. It’s not what we leave, if we leave anything, that’s important – it’s that we follow Jesus. Amen.

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