Sermon - 22nd January 2017
The call of disciples
Scripture - Luke 5:1-11
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Today we hear Luke’s account of Jesus’s first attempt to gather around him some particular followers. At this point in Luke’s story we only hear of three – Simon, James and John. Later, in chapter 6 we hear of Jesus spending a night in prayer on a mountain; then he calls his disciples to him, and out of however many were there, he chooses 12 to be apostles. This event must be some weeks after the miraculous catch of fish at Capernaum, because Luke tells us about two events on two different Sabbaths before the naming of the twelve.
So according to Luke, we have Jesus going around the area of Galilee collecting followers – listeners, pupils, disciples whose main function was to learn by hearing Jesus’s teaching and observing his actions. Three fishermen are singled out for his special commission to ‘fish for people’. And some weeks later, 12 of the disciples, including the three fishermen, are appointed to be apostles.
The Greek word ‘apostollein’ means ‘to be sent’ so there seems to be some kind of outreach or mission role to the task given to the twelve, above and beyond their place as followers and pupils of the Master.
This gives us a slightly different picture to the one we’re used to. Right from those first few weeks of Jesus’s recorded ministry around the shores of Lake Galilee, he was gathering a significant number of followers – perhaps not all making the same commitment, perhaps not all grasping the same message, probably not all leaving everything behind to follow Jesus around the region.
But these were disciples nevertheless, women and men, young and old, poor and rich, eager to hear his words, trying to learn his message, offering support to his ministry. And out of them came the 12 specific characters - the apostles - who will form the inner circle and will play leading roles in the drama Luke is about to describe.
When we look at the encounter between Jesus and the three fishermen described in today’s reading, there may be some background that we don’t immediately notice.
If we read today’s passage in isolation, we might assume that Jesus and Simon were strangers when Jesus climbed into his boat. But an earlier chapter in Luke tells us that when Jesus returned to Galilee after his time alone in the desert, “a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”
Luke also records a healing of a man possessed by a demon in the synagogue at Capernaum ‘and a report about him began to reach every place in the region’.
Then Luke tells us that ‘after leaving the synagogue he entered Simon’s house’ and cured Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever. And still in Capernaum, ‘as the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them.’
If Simon the fisherman, whom Jesus renamed Peter, is the same Simon in whose house Jesus cured his mother-in-law, then clearly they must have known each other before the encounter by the boats at the lakeside.
And even then, it seems reasonable that Simon the fisherman might have seen Jesus, and been noticed or even acknowledged by him, during the many events happening in Capernaum in which Jesus attracted so much attention.
Perhaps we can assume that it was no stranger who took refuge from the crowd in Simon’s boat – and that, even then, Jesus knew and willingly trusted his safety to these honest and hard-working fishermen.
After Jesus had been speaking to the crowd, he suggests that they should sail further out and start fishing again – even though Simon and his co-workers had been trying all night without success and must have been exhausted. But something about what they have seen and heard from this teacher and healer inspires them to try again.
These were exactly the type of folk Jesus needed as his disciples: they had been disciplined by labour and hardship, but they had the loyalty to say, ‘If you give the order, I will do it’. And they were rewarded by a miraculous catch of fish.
At this point Simon needs no more convincing: he knows he is in the presence of someone utterly compelling and awesome – someone uniquely holy. Whereas previously Jesus had been ‘Master’, now Simon addresses him as ‘Lord’ and kneels in front of him, overwhelmed by his feeling of unworthiness.
But Jesus calls Simon, James and John into his service by inviting them to turn their skill for catching fish into a mission for catching people in the net of Jesus’s message.
And as soon as they all reach the shore, the three fishermen leave everything and follow Jesus.
Think about this objectively, and it seems impetuous behaviour to come out of one day’s acquaintance. What happened to the fishing business and the boats? Where did Zebedee, the father of James and John, think his sons had gone? Where did Simon Peter’s wife and family think he had gone? Does the phrase ‘to leave everything and follow Jesus’ signify something as irrational as it seems to?
Go back to the fact that Jesus had spent time in Capernaum before the event in today’s story, and perhaps the relationships between Jesus and the three fishermen had been developing over time. Luke may not bother to tell us, as he is urgently moving his story onwards to other events even more gripping.
But perhaps the call of Jesus to fish with him in other places and in other ways was more reasoned, more measured, and less impulsive than we might think from Luke’s brief account.
One reason I say this is that I don’t think Jesus calls his disciples today to follow him purely on the basis of a sudden impulse or some miraculous demonstration of power. There have to be firm foundations to our discipleship or it will not thrive – it may not even survive. Seeds take time and nourishment to take root, blossom and flourish. In fact, on occasions when his apostles were impulsive or irrational, Jesus rebuked them.
Jesus knew that he was calling ordinary people to be his closest friends and supporters; but they would also be the inheritors of his mission and his message, and from these ordinary people some extraordinary gifts and actions would emerge.
In the words of one commentator: ‘And so it has come to pass that not the jargon of fanatics and brigands, but the speech of fisherfolk and their simple craft has become the language and symbolism of Christianity’. (Ronald Brownrigg: Who’s Who: the New Testament, article on Peter.)
If we look beyond the three fishermen, and beyond the twelve apostles, there were many people who both touched, and were touched by Jesus’s life and ministry. And many of them were women who usually get missed from our stories of discipleship. Of all the gospel writers, Luke takes care to mention them in his narratives, and we should take care to recognise their discipleship, and the discipleship of other groups at the time who were largely voiceless, powerless, and treated as worthless.
Non-Jews, foreigners, people living in poverty, those being unjustly persecuted, the sick, and the marginalised, all inhabited that wider circle of disciples who touched, and were touched by, Jesus the teacher and healer living and preaching among them.
Discipleship never was limited to a chosen twelve: it always encompassed a much wider spectrum of people because Jesus’s message spoke powerfully to a much wider audience.
Jesus consciously and deliberately taught crowds of people. To many of those first disciples we cannot put names, but their lives were changed by his message no less than the apostles who take centre stage in the gospel dramas that have come down to us.
And so it is for us today. We can be called to be disciples without having to take centre stage. Our lives will be changed by the message of Jesus no less than the great figures of the Christian faith. As the ordinary people of our day – people who, like the apostles, can be impulsive, fearful, slow to learn, easily distracted, clumsy and tongue-tied – we are called to become followers and pupils of that message which lives on.
Like Peter, we can sometimes become overwhelmed by our feelings of inadequacy; but we can also hear Jesus’s words, ‘Do not be afraid’.
Like the fishermen we can sometimes work hard and fail to make a catch, and come into Jesus’s presence saying “I’ve done as much as I can and it was pointless. Don’t ask me to go out again.” And yet sometimes we find ourselves saying, “But if that’s what you want, I will do it.”
And for many of us, the call to discipleship is not a sudden encounter with a stranger turning up out of nowhere. There is every chance that we will have brushed up against Jesus a few times, probably through the love and generosity of friends, or by recognising the timeless gospel values being applied to a particular situation, or through someone’s simple healing touch and companionship. All these experiences and countless others can be the start of a call to follow Jesus and to leave behind those bits of our lives which hold us back.
When we look at the three exhausted fishermen, and the twelve apostles from hugely diverse backgrounds, and the variety of women who devotedly cared for Jesus and were first to experience his resurrection, and the thousands who would crowd onto the hillsides and lakesides to hear his message, we realise that none of us is too ordinary, too insignificant, or too powerless to follow Jesus and to hear his call to a life of discipleship.
And responding to that call is not always a conscious decision: because when we respond to the love of a friend freely given; or when we are inspired by the deeply human values of the gospel message; or when we experience a companion calmly taking our hand and walking with us through the hard times in our life; then perhaps our spiritual selves are aware that the call to discipleship has already begun, and has started to take root in our spiritual journey into the mystery of God.