Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
5 Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (NRSV)
I remember—decades ago—watching my father-in-law train a horse. The more-than-two-year process began, of course, with the birth of a foal. Like her mother, she was a warm chestnut-brown. She had stockings on her forelegs and a thin, lightning-bolt snip on her muzzle. The first day of Gypsy’s life, my father-in-law, whom everyone in Screven County, GA knew as Bully, was there to watch her try to stand on her long, rubbery legs. They jerked about as if controlled by separate committees, each with its own agenda.
A delighted Bully watched and encouraged his minutes-old horse. “Aay, Gypsy Rosa Lee! Let me see you stand up! Atta girl!”
As the days passed, Bully would ease closer and closer to Gypsy. Soon enough, she’d hear his voice and come running on her own. Bully would reach out and stroke his filly’s neck. He’d lean into her, drape an arm over her back, and eventually rub under her belly where the girth strap would go.
As the trust grew—and all the while with her mother, Ginger, nearby—Bully slipped a halter around Gypsy’s face. A little later, he clipped a lead rope onto the halter and guided her around the sandy lot, the hot Georgia sun on their backs. When she no longer fought the rope, Bully would tie Gypsy to a post and brush her.
Over the months, Gypsy got frequent chances to smell a saddle. Toward her second birthday, she learned the feel of a bridle, and a bit between her teeth.
Next, Bully laid thick blanket on Gypsy’s back and set an English saddle over it. He buckled it around Gypsy’s belly, and let her get used to that strange accessory.
In time, Bully would stand for a few moments in the left stirrup, then step back down. Then up and down again. When Gypsy tolerated that, Bully swung his right leg over her back and sat still in the saddle and spoke calmly to her.
When Gypsy seemed comfortable with someone on her back, Bully tugged on the reins, and let the skittish filly walk him around the 3-acre rye patch behind the small pole barn.
Then, one day, at long last, Bully shut Ginger in a stall, opened the main gate, saddled up Gypsy, and rode her out to explore the farm. As they rode away, mother and daughter whinnied excitedly to each other as the distance between them grew further and as the relationship between horse and rider grew closer.
For a horse, having some demanding biped tie you up in leather, climb on your back and lead you out beyond the fence that has defined your world since the day you were born—that’s some pretty deep water.
Simon, says Jesus, is this your boat? Will you take me out in it? Just offshore so I can talk to these people. You know how well sound travels over water.
Thanks, Simon. That worked well. Hey, would you push out a little deeper?
Maybe even further? That’s great. Now, throw out your nets. Catch some fish.
Really? All night and nothing? Well, would you try anyway? For me?
When Simon returns to dry land, that’s when he goes outside the main gate. That’s when he enters the deepest water he’s ever experienced—the waters of discipleship.
Jesus’ call to disciples consistently comes as something both unexpected and unmerited. There’s nothing exceptional about Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Just think about Bully watching his new foal struggling to stand. How could he be confident that she would eventually carry him on her back? Well, it’s pretty simple: She was a horse. So, too, the fishermen meet Jesus’ criteria for discipleship—they’re human beings. Jesus will make them disciples.
The story of Bully training his horse and that of Jesus calling and equipping disciples mirror each other. Neither process happens overnight. They take time, patience, understanding, forgiveness. Most of all, they take trust and love.
While Jesus loves us into discipleship, his call may unsettle us. It changes things within us and around us. At first it may seem like a terrible burden is climbing onto our backs and spurring us out beyond familiar and comfortable boundaries. For Simon it begins with an abrupt but sharp awareness of the extraordinary. He doesn’t know who Jesus is when those fish nearly sink his boat, but he does recognize the presence of holiness. And it terrifies him.
The metaphor of training a horse is falling apart down now. Discipleship doesn’t “break” us. It doesn’t reduce us to beasts of burden. Indeed, as we open ourselves to the Christ, we become more fully human. As we love God by sharing ourselves with others, our lives become both simplified and magnified. We experience an unburdening. Selfish millstones such as greed and pride begin to fall away. Discipleship also emancipates us from legalistic religion and turns us out onto the deep waters of Christ-centered, servant-hearted spirituality.
Now, we may choose to follow Jesus, but we don’t necessarily choose where to go. One way to discern whether a direction is of holy origin is to check the water. If it feels shallow and safe, chances are good that we aren’t yet where Jesus wants us to be. He tends to lead his disciples toward deep water where we have to trust him more than we trust our boat. Deep water is the place where our faith is challenged and stretched like Simon’s nets—stretched to their limits, but not broken, just overflowing with unforeseen possibility and hope.
David Wilcox is an Asheville singer-songwriter who’s been around for many years. He’s not a Christian artist, but he has Christian roots that shape many of his lyrics. In one of his earliest songs, entitled “Hold It Up to the Light,” he sings about facing a big decision having to do with his vocation as a musician. Like Jacob at the Jabbok, he wrestles with all the possibilities before finally committing himself, at which point he sings these lines:
I said God, will you bless this decision?
I’m scared; is my life at stake?
But I see if you gave me a vision,
Would I never have reason to use my faith?1
The “vision” to which Wilcox refers is not a vision of how a plan might unfold. He means a mystical experience that would “prove” all doubt away. It’s the singer’s way of accepting that he must act on pure trust.
Think about it: When Jesus calls the fishermen, he does so in a boat. And we’re not talking a ship. We’re talking a very small craft. Have you ever stood up in a canoe? How’d that work out? In that tippy little boat, the men lack solid footing. They have to trust that Jesus will provide everything they’ll need as they learn to follow him into and through even deeper waters. And there they’ll learn to love him by loving and serving humankind.
It’s a frustrating paradox, but it’s the lack of certainty that often makes Christ’s call authentic.
As we gather at Christ’s table, I invite us to listen for his voice calling us to lay down old and shallow ways of living in and relating to the Creation. Hear him calling us to follow him into the deeper waters of faith, hope, and love. For there, as disciples, we become partners with Christ in revealing the unimagined abundance and grace of God which is always as present, just below the surface, as Christ himself is always present in bread, and wine, and neighbor.
1David Wilcox, “Hold It Up to the Light,” from Big Horizon, A&M Records, 1994.