Someone (GK Chesterton?) said that Christianity hasn't failed, it just has never been tried. I think of that when I go to teach or lead forums about Christian discipleship. It's one thing to be a church member, to say we believe in the message Jesus brought. But to be a disciple: that's another matter. We can point to a lot of abuses by people who have used the name of Jesus in the service of other things: power, control over people's lives, retaining a sense of order and security, assuring people that they are good people. But when we think of people who have actually practiced Christian discipleship it's another matter: usually they're less interested in doctrine than in practice, more interested in serving those outside the church or institutional structure than on maintaining the institution, or, if they're in the institution, more interested in calling its people to be disciples. Verna Dozier challenged people to "follow Jesus" rather than being content "only to worship him." I've always had a little trouble with that because I think worship is a part of the practice of discipleship -- but it's only a part of it. But the call to discipleship is a call to be open to real change and transformation, both within ourselves and in a world in deep need of healing.
So I've been reflecting on the story in Luke's gospel about the calling of the Fishermen (Luke 5, 1-11)-- especially the experience of Simon Peter. Luke is a great writer -- he really develops the story of the Holy Spirit bursting in on human history, in the first four chapters of this gospel (with the familiar stories of the Annunciation to Mary and the shepherds and the stable), as well as other moments when the poor and marginalized are the first to see that God is coming to transform a broken and oppressed world. Then Jesus turns up in his hometown (in Luke 4) reads the prophetic promise from Isaiah "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to set at liberty the captive, to proclaim the day of the Lord's favor". His hometown neighbors nearly run him off a cliff for claiming that this Scripture is being fulfilled. What I hadn't noticed is that it's right after this run-in with the people of Nazareth that Jesus enters Simon (Peter's) house and heals his mother-in-law. So Simon, in Luke's telling of the story, actually knows Jesus before the "call" story that comes in Chapter 5. What he witnesses here is another, quieter "spirit-inbreaking" moment. Jesus heals Simon's mother-in-law, the fever leaves her, and she serves them (Luke 4:38-39). She is healed, and her response is to serve - a model for discipleship there, too.
In the very next chapter,(5:1-11) Jesus is meeting Simon again -- this time climbing into his boat, asking him to put out from the shore, and teaching the crowds from this boat. A lot in this passage is striking my imagination as I dwell with it a bit:
First, the crowds -- so many people -- a sense of urgency, of people feeling that this man has something they really need to hear, something that will change their lives -- and his eagerness to get somewhere where they can hear him -- evidently it was easier to hear him teaching from a little out into the lake than from the shore. The abundance of people at the opening of this story parallels the abundance of fish at the end of it and Jesus's "henceforth you will be catching people" (5:10 NRSV) ties those two themes together. Great storytelling. I like that about Luke.
Then - Simon's experience; He's rowing, or keeping the boat in place while Jesus is teaching from right there in the boat with him -- so presumably he is taking in everything Jesus says -- and he has just heard him, in Nazareth, preaching, and seen him heal. So he knows what this man has to say, and what he is about -- and he seems to be growing more and more fascinated, and interested in just being around Him. Is this perhaps like many people who keep coming back to church or inquiring about Christianity - because there's something in it that appeals to them and inspires them, and they want to be a part of it? There is a lot to be said for just sitting there in the boat and listening for awhile. But Simon can't stay that way forever.
When he finishes speaking, instead of going back to shore and on his way, Jesus says to Simon, "put out into deeper water and cast down your net." And Simon says, in essence -- "we already tried that, and it didn't work." OR any of us faithful churchgoers or inquirers might say, "Aren't I doing something like what you say I should be doing? I'm already doing the best I can to make sense of all this and to begin living by it." That's the argument. But Jesus says, "Try again. Go deeper." And the nets come up full to overflowing. Frighteningly so.
There's more to the story -- Simon is frightened, moved to contrition, Jesus tells him "don't be afraid, from now on you'll be catching people." Whatever Simon was doing before has been transformed, and he has been shown that abundance will follow. There's more to ponder there.
But what I'm focusing on at the moment is the moment of call in this version of the story -- in the other versions (Mark 1:16-20 and Matthew 4:18-22) , Jesus simply says "follow me." Here he says, "Try again." "Go deeper." "Don't be afraid." And the result of obeying THOSE commands is the decision to follow him. That's where it starts -- over Simon's excuses and protests.
I'm going to continue reflecting on this version of the call to discipleship. In Luke, it is the beginning of a transformed life, and of participation in a mission of healing and restoration.
"Try again. Go deeper. Don't be afraid."
- Kathleen Henderson Staudt
- I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.