In this passage we see Jesus, as ever harangued by the crowds, getting into a boat and asking a fisherman to push it out into the lake a little. Along the edge of the lake were small alcoves where, if you were out in the water, there would be an amphitheatre effect for those on the shores. He teaches the people who have come to hear him speak, and when he is finished his attention is turned to the fisherman: Simon.
We can ask ourselves why he turned to Simon. What was it about him? Had Simon been listening intently? Had he questions to ask? Or was it simply because Simon had been obedient when Jesus climbed into his boat? Actually, he had been at Simon’s house previously, as can be seen in Chapter 4. As Jesus began his public ministry of healing and teaching, news about him had spread and, at invitation from the family, he went to their house and healed Simon’s mother-in-law. Simon had already witnessed the incredible power of God, before he came to have Jesus in his boat.
Jesus the carpenter tells Simon, the experienced fisherman, to let his nets down for a catch. Simon, no doubt raising an eyebrow, explains that they’ve been busy doing exactly that all night… and yet, he agrees to do as Jesus asks. With much astonishment, Simon’s nets begin to fill at an alarming rate… at such a rate that their nets begin to break. Quickly they call for the other boat to come and help and yet even then the catch of fish is so great that the boats themselves begin to sink.
Simon, awestruck by what he has witnessed has only one response: to fall on his knees, fully aware of his sin, fully aware of Jesus’ holiness. Jesus, in his kindness, looks at him and utters the words: “Don’t be afraid, from now on you will fish for people.” Jesus’ reaction to Simon’s declared unworthiness is to speak a word of cleansing. Whatever had troubled his heart is let go as Jesus calls him to a new path and empowers him for a new work in the Kingdom. And so, he (and his fellow fishermen) leave everything, family, possessions, nets and all, and follow Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared: “When Christ calls a person, he tells them to come and die.” In our church history lectures we have learned about Julian of Norwich and the Anchorite life. Our lecturer told us of how many Anchorites and Anchoresses had the Office of the Dead prayed over them as the they entered their cell, in order to signify their death to the world and rebirth to a spiritual life of solitary communion with God. And here, in this passage we have Simon’s action of leaving all behind in order to follow Christ; an act of freewill made in faith and obedience to Jesus.
So why did I choose this simple passage to speak from today? Well, it was Sunday’s Gospel reading, and I was leading Sunday School, so I missed the sermon in my placement parish. What an opportunity, I thought, to use what I’d gleaned from my time with the children this weekend, as they are often so wise. However, when I began to look closer at the text, I realised that a group of ordinands probably already know that Jesus calls us all to partner with him in spreading the Gospel and being fishers of men. Instead, then, I thought I would share four ways this reading speaks into our lives as ordinands.
1) Stop with the imposter syndrome…
Simon declares his sinfulness, and Jesus calls him anyway. We can find all the reasons why we might not be a good fit for ordination in the Church of England… but Jesus call us anyway. Simon doesn’t question Jesus, he just obeys.
It is hard. I am the ultimate questioner, long term sufferer of imposter syndrome, especially when it comes to my vocation in the Church of England. “Really, God? Me?” is often how many of my prayers began until fairly recently. His reply, always, “Yes. You. Really.”
2) We’re not in this alone…
Jesus calls us, and we go WITH him. I hope that is obvious to us all, as ordinands and future church leaders. Simon went WITH Jesus. And as we are called, we go WITH Jesus.
But, just like Simon, we also go with others we can lean on and learn from. Hard as it may be for those who have met me to believe, I suffer from social anxiety, specifically surrounding going to new places alone where I don’t know anyone. Starting at a new college, where I knew there would be people there who did know each other (staff and returning students) and that I did not know anyone, and knowing I would have to sit on the train for 2 hours alone, and then walk into Liverpool Cathedral alone was almost enough to put me off.
I prayed so hard about this particular anxiety as September approached and my prayer was answered in an unexpected way. Not that my anxiety disappeared, not at all. But in the provision of a lovely friend, Anna, who was also new, starting that term and also getting the train from the same station as me. I didn’t have to be afraid of walking in alone, because I had someone to walk with and talk with.
We go with God, and we go with each other.
3) We need to put our nets out into the deep…
We may have walked with Christ for many years, but now is the time, I believe, more than ever, for us to trust Him and put our nets out into the deep. Because, when we do go deep with Him, He equips us and empowers us. He emboldens us to follow Him. When talking about the story with children yesterday, what they were awed by was how faithful Simon Peter was. They asked, did he follow him forever? Yes, until Jesus died… and then Simon followed him until his own death. “Wow! Simon must have really liked Jesus.”
Jesus called, equipped and emboldened Simon then and he does the same for us today. But we need to meet him in the deep. We need to step out in faith, as Simon let his nets down in faith, and know that God will astonish us with things we could never have dreamed of.
4) We need to leave ourselves behind…
Finally, as we go into this new life with Jesus, we need to leave ourselves behind. Steven Furtick, pastor of a mega church in the US, has written about how “It’s less about me than I think.” And that poses some questions.
If it is less about me than I think then why am I trying so hard?
Why do I feel so responsible for success?
Why do I feel so responsible for failure?
If it’s less about me than I think, I can take my time. I can breathe. I can live in the moment. I can allow life to happen around me without trying to control every activity and every outcome. If it’s less about us than we think, leaving ourselves behind is a natural outcome, and we get to go deeply into who God calls us to be.
And yet, at the same time, it is about us, because God has called us: me, and you, specifically. He has called all of us to be trained for ordination as deacons and priests in his church. He has called us with our experiences, our passions and our skills, our wildly different personalities and our similarly messy lives. We just don’t know how he will use them to further his Kingdom, just as Simon doesn’t know what awaits him as he leaves everything and follows Jesus.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton speaks a truth which is raw, as he reflects on the necessary humility that should lie at the core of how we approach a sense of vocation, which I’d like to use to close. Perhaps you might use it to consider how God is calling you today, just as Jesus called Simon then.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this,
you will lead me by the right road
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always,
though I may seem to be lost (and in the shadow of death).
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my struggles alone.