This is the first in a sermon series The Genius of Jesus
Scripture Reading: Luke 5.1-11
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Let me take you, in your imagination, to Lake Gennesaret- another name for the Sea of Galilee, the inland lake in the north of Israel which makes up part of the Jordan river valley. We walk down from the fertile farming country of Galilee to the lake, which lies in a depression in the landscape. It is almost 700 feet below sea level (but because the River Jordan runs through it, it’s not salty like the Dead Sea to the south). Because the lake is so low, and surrounded by high mountains, the lake is prone to sudden, violent storms. But there are a number of large towns on the lakeside, for the Lake Galilee is famous for its fishing (salted fish are exported around the Roman Empire).
Today we are going to one of these towns, Capernaum. We have been hearing reports about a new rabbi- a teacher, who also heals- called Jesus, the son of Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, some 15 miles from the lake. Apparently he had preached in his home town, but received a frosty reception. But he’s had a more enthusiastic reception when he preached at Capernaum. And we are hearing stories of many healings in Capernaum, including one at the home of one Simon the fisherman, at whose house Jesus has been staying Jesus staying- apparently Jesus cured Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever. It seems Jesus was almost mobbed by the people of Capernaum, and has sometimes taken himself off into the hills to find some quiet.
But today, it seems, he’s back in public, and we are going to the lakeside with our friends and neighbours to see what all the fuss about. We get to the beach, where the fishing boats are hauled up on the sand, and there is a crowd- we can’t see Jesus in the crowd. But one boat- the boat of Simon, the one whose mother-in-law was cured- is pushed off the beach a bit- and there he is- we spot him, sitting on a stool on the deck. We crowd closer, and with the wee bit of distance and the extra height, he is able to make himself heard as he teaches the people. And what teaching it is!
What is it that makes Jesus apparently so popular? He got off to such a bad start in Nazareth, after all, where they nearly threw him out of the synagogue. And we wonder about him preaching outdoors like this now. Is it that the numbers are just too large for the synagogue? Or is there something else going on. Does this man have a message which, in a way, is too big for the synagogues? Does he feel that it’s time to take his message beyond the walls of the religious buildings, and take it straight to the people? Might it be that the religious establishment are a barrier, a hindrance, to the message he wants to bring. Is he heading for conflict with the respectable religious folks?
It is an age of religious turmoil. Israel is now under foreign rule- the rule of the Roman Empire. As the Romans have conquered the known world, they have absorbed other people’s gods, but their own religion makes gods of the emperors. So although they are often tolerant, there have been times when Roman attitudes have clashed with Jewish sensibilities. The Romans seem happy with different nations having different gods, but they do want everyone to respect their Emperor, who is also the High Priest of the Roman religions. But Jews believe that their God is the only true God, the God who made heaven and earth.
The religious and political leaders of Israel have responded to Roman domination in different ways. Part of the ancestral land of Israel is ruled directly by a Roman governor, based in Jerusalem. Other regions are ruled by puppet kings, such as the Herod family. But alongside the collaborators there is a resistance. The Roman taxes are a burden for the people, so that even in Galilee, with its farming and fishing, people resent Roman rule. The Zealots, for example, are all for guerrilla warfare against the Romans.
And the religious situation mirrors, to some extent, the political. The Pharisees, for example, call on the people to a much stricter interpretation of their religion, with rules and regulations which they have elaborated out of the Law of Moses. Perhaps if people stick more closely to God’s rules (as they understand the rules), God will set Israel free.
Other religious leaders have made an accommodation with the Romans, so that the Temple of Jerusalem continues to function. Animal sacrifices to Israel’s God continue (along with the scandal of people selling animals for sacrifice to worshippers, even within the Temple complex).
There are those, however, who think that it all means that the end is nigh. Down near the Dead Sea, there is a very exclusive sect which preserves the old texts- and makes up new stories about the end times. It’s all written up in scrolls that they hide away in caves. They also have complicated rituals involving washing in big basins. Perhaps John was one of those? John, the strange prophet, dressed in animal skins, who recently appeared at the River Jordan, calling on the people to repent, and to be washed in the river as a sign that they were cleaned of sin. But unlike the Dead Sea sectarians, John has not turned completely from the world. His is a very public ministry of preaching- just like Jesus, he has taken his message to the people, and called on them to respond. And we hear that, a few weeks ago, Jesus himself was washed- baptized- by John in the River Jordan.
What might we hear Jesus say as he sits on that boat, teaching the people? It is early days, and yet we can guess that his is a way which is unlike anyone else’s. He does not avoid those whom the Pharisees might describe as unclean, for he brings healing to those who come to him, whoever they are. And he is not up there in Jerusalem, making deals with the powerful people in church and state. There he is, sitting in the boat of an ordinary fisherman. His message seems to be so radical, the local synagogues aren’t always comfortable with it.
This Jesus seems like a man of the people, someone who wants to speak to God to ordinary folk, not just the religious elite or the spiritually superhuman. He will tell stories which paint a picture of God’s kingdom by pointing to the lilies of the field, or telling stories about a woman losing a coin, or a shepherd separating his sheep from his goats. Here is a teacher whom everyone can understand, talking about God’s kingdom as something which is to come, but which is yet also already among us, in the here and now. This man is not a Pharisee nor a Sadducee, not a Zealot nor a collaborator- it’s hard to categorise him. He’s rooted in the Hebrew Bible and the tradition of Jewish prophets- yet he will challenge the old interpretations of the Law and the Prophets, putting love for neighbour over everything, putting God before theology.
When he’s finished, we drift away with the rest of the crowds. But a few days later we hear a strange story. It seems that after he’d finished teaching, he told Simon to launch his boat and go fishing again. But Simon had his friends had been at it all night- they’d fished and caught nothing. What could a carpenter from Nazareth tell someone like Simon, the fisherman of Capernaum, about his trade? But Simon allowed himself to be persuaded, and was about to learn something new about fishing.
It is said that they cast their nets, and caught such a haul of fish that they needed another boat to come and help them. Simon’s boat, and that of his partners, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, almost sunk under the weight. And Simon realised that, with Jesus, he was in the presence of something, someone, quite beyond his experience. It’s said that Simon fell on his knees, called Jesus ‘Lord’ and begged that he might go away from him. For Simon openly admitted that he was a sinful man, and it’s not safe for sinners to be around the divine.
Yet we hear that Simon, and James and John, despite the record catch, have given up the fishing trade. Simon might be a sinner, but Jesus, it seems, wants him to be around. Simon might be a doubter, who answers back to Rabbi Jesus, tries to tell him what he can and can’t do, but Jesus, we hear, is calling Simon his ‘rock’ (Peter in Greek). Jesus has seen the potential in these rough fishermen. They’ve beached their boats, left their nets, their beloved Lake Galilee, even their families, and are following him. Jesus has started gathering disciples, beginning with these three fishermen, and he’s taken them on the road. They are walking from town to town, village to village, healing and telling people that God’s kingdom is not only on its way, but that it’s started to appear among them. And they are looking for more people to come with them. They have left their fishing nets, and say that they are now out fishing for people.
Sometimes, in churches or in art, we see Christ portrayed as a king, with a crown, rich robes and a sceptre. And he is, for people of faith, a king of sorts. Yet that is not how meet Jesus in the Gospels. In the Gospels, he is the carpenter of Nazareth, and man of the people. Indeed, he seems most comfortable with ordinary folks, like the fishermen of Galilee who were his first disciples. With priest, and law-makers, theologians and Pharisees, it’s often a more fraught encounter- controversial, defensive. Yet to us all he lays down a challenge- will you follow me? Will you join me in fishing for men and women?
It’s a challenge, but it’s also an affirmation. Simon Peter argued with him- ‘we can’t go fishing now’. Later on it was, ‘We can’t go to Jerusalem now’. And later Peter would deny even knowing him. Yet even after that there came another lakeside meeting, Peter and Jesus shared a kipper for breakfast and Jesus told Peter to look after his sheep. The fisherman from Galilee was to become the rock on which Christ would build his church.
Somehow, Jesus saw potential in Simon Peter, the fisherman, and encouraged it. And he would continue to see potential where others saw none, even in those people treated as outcasts- like Matthew or Zacchaeus, the tax collectors. Or in people whom others saw as second-class citizens. He was prepared to enter into dialogue with women, which many rabbis would have refused to do. He also showed that God’s grace and compassion was not limited to his own people, as, for example, he cured the daughter of a Roman captain. Famously, he blessed children, and said that if we wanted to enter the kingdom we had to learn to be like them.
We belong to a church which, we claim, Jesus the carpenter of Nazareth built on the foundation of Simon Peter, the fisherman of Capernaum. If that’s the case, if the church is really to be a church based on the Gospel, then we always need to recall that Jesus could see potential in every person. When he calls us to follow him, and to help him catch men and women, he call us to be like him- to be alongside all kinds of people, and to see God’s kingdom grow in what will sometimes seem unlikely places.
A long time ago, Jesus thought that there were more fish in the Sea of Galilee. Simon thought he knew better (after all, he was the professional). Yet Jesus persuaded him to try again- and to his surprise, Simon ended up with dangerously bulging nets. If Jesus calls us, we, too, might be cautious. We might disagree that there is potential in casting the nets again. But may we not let him persuade us otherwise? For where would we be if Simon hadn’t taken his boat out?
Still, the Lord comes to the lakeside, to be with us in our work, in the place where we live, among our friends. He is neither searching for the rich nor the wise, desiring only that we should follow.
Let us pray.
O Lord, with your eyes set upon me,
gently smiling, you have spoken my name.
All I longed for, I have found by the water,
at your side, I will seek other shores. Amen.
Lord, you have come to the seashore (CH4 532)
Cesáreo Gabaráin (1936-1991) tr. Robert Trupia
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo