Sunday, September 27, 2015

Boats, Fish, and Some Orthodox Evangelism

I got word of the invitation to preach at the downtown cathedral church when I got home last evening at dusk.  I read through the gospel passage for today's liturgy before going for a clear-my-mind run, and what came through was Jesus' unmistakeable call to follow him.  Moreover, even more dramatically was the response of Peter, his brother Andrew, and his business partners James and John - they left all and followed him.  Since I try to preach expository sermons, and since an expository sermon allows the text to determine the message, I decided to allow the text to do the preaching.  This can be challenging in a congregation as diverse as ours, and which likely has not heard an overtly evangelistic message in, say, well let's just say a long time.

Because of the liturgical and sacramental nature of Orthodoxy as it is practiced across the globe, the assumption is easily made that everyone who is there is somewhere on the way of salvation.  However, we forget that everybody had to start at some point  Even Peter, Andrew, James and John.  So this sermon is about Jesus calling them, calling us to take that first step with him, if we haven't.  In my past as an uber serious Calvinist, I always focused on Peter's response, 'Depart from me, Master, for I'm a sinful man', as being what happens when Jesus comes into our picture - he highlights our need for a savior.  But I now think that's reading a bit much reformation theology into the story.  In fact, the moment related, with this boat loaded three feet deep in flopping fish, and Jesus sitting there in the front watching it all happen as the four men are frantically scooping up even more (they just can't stop!  It must be a fisherman thing), is pretty funny.

Anyway, here's my attempt at following the text where it goes, which is to say, my attempt at some Orthodox evangelism from the pulpit of Sts. Cosmas and Damien Orthodox Cathedral in Nairobi.  I would love to be acquainted with other efforts at evangelism in Orthodox contexts.  I'm sure it's done - I just haven't come across any yet.

Lake of Gennesaret  (all lake pictures below are of Lake Gennesaret/The Sea of Galilee)

Luke 5:1-11
1Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2He saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.  3He 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.  4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’  5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but caught nothing.  Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’  6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.  7So 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.  8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and 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.’  11When they had brought back their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.

Let’s talk about boats.  How many of you have ever been in a boat?  How many have ever gone fishing in a boat?  Boats are a big deal in the New Testament.  Boats are mentioned in the gospels more than 50 times.  Jesus traveled by boat across the lake of Gennesaret a number of times.  At least four of his disciples had boats and were fishermen. 

Dug up from the mud in 1986: first century fishing boat

Did you know that the remains of a fishing boat were discovered along the shores of the Lake of Gennesaret in 1986 during a time of drought when the water was low?  They were able to extract it from the mud and preserve it.  It turns out this boat dates from the first half of the first century AD.  You can see it in a special museum they built for it.  It was likely being used when Peter and Andrew and James and John were making a living in their boats as fishermen.  It could have been one of the boats on the lake when Jesus was there.  Anyway, it’s about 27 feet long and 7.5 feet wide and about 4.5 feet deep, with a flat bottom so they could fish close to shore.  But it also has a place for a mast, so the owners could sail across the lake if they wanted to.

Replica of first century boat found in the mud.

Now that you have an idea of the kind of space that we’re dealing with, I want you to think about fish.  Lots of fish.  Jesus just asked Simon to go out a bit into the deep water and let down his nets for a catch.  And Simon very politely (because he is a fisherman and knows what he is doing) explained that there aren’t any fish here right now because they just spent the whole night doing just that.  But he humors Jesus and puts his net down anyway.  And all hell breaks loose.

'Peter's Catch of Fish' by Eric de Saussure, 1968

The net is full.  Fish are spilling into the boat.  More and more fish flopping out of the net, filling the floor with fish.  Simon yells to James and John and they row their boat out to help.  And now fish are flopping out of nets filling both boats.  More and more fish.  Simon and Andrew are up to their knees in fish and the boat is riding low with fish and about to take on water.

So there is Jesus, sitting in the front of the boat, surrounded by fish.  And Simon looks at Jesus and it suddenly connects what’s going on.  He realizes that there is way more to Jesus than he can comprehend.  ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’

You see, this isn’t the first time they encountered Jesus.  Jesus moved to Capernaum from Nazareth not so long ago, and he has been teaching and preaching in all the local synagogues.  He’s been doing miraculous healings and casting out demons.  Simon, Andrew, James and John have all likely heard Jesus; they have likely witnessed healings and exorcisms.  And now they are in their boats with Jesus and with more fish than they have ever brought to shore.  And Jesus says to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is more explicit:  ‘Come follow me, and I will make you catch people instead.’ (Mark 1:17)

And Luke says, ‘When they brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Him.’ (Luke 5:11)

So I’ve said something about boats.  And I’ve said something about fish.  I want to end by saying something about following Jesus, about discipleship.  First I want to say what discipleship is not.  Discipleship is not about being a church member.  Discipleship is not about growing up in a Christian family.  Discipleship is not about belonging to a particular ethnic group.  Discipleship isn’t about attending services, or even being a choir member or a chanter or serving at the altar.  Discipleship isn’t knowing a lot about Christianity, or Orthodoxy, or Jesus.  Now understand, I’m not saying that these things are not important.  I am saying that none of these things is what being a follower of Jesus is about.

We understand what being a disciple is all about by observing the first disciples.  Jesus called them.  They responded.  They left their fishing business, their boats, their homes, their extended families.  And they followed Jesus as he went from there through Galilee and Samaria and Judea and eventually to Jerusalem.  There they saw their Lord crucified and buried.  There they met Him risen from the dead.  There they saw him ascended to heaven.  There they were filled with the Spirit and began proclaiming the good news of the risen Lord.  And now that good news has come to us, right here, this morning.

Church of the Incarnation

Jesus’ presence changes everything.  And Jesus’ call to you will mean your life will never be the same.  And we can either pay no attention and continue to live our lives the way we have always lived them as if nothing has happened, as if nothing is different, as if nothing has changed, as if Jesus is not who He says He is.

Or we can hear His call, and respond, and leave our old life behind, and choose instead to follow him.  Something astonishing has to happen in a person’s heart to be willing to do this.  We have to become like Simon Peter up to our knees in fish – we have to see Jesus for who He is.  And once we see Jesus for who He is, we understand, and we too are willing to leave everything to follow Him.
Jesus calls us to a relationship with Him.  But he also calls us to surrender our lives and our agenda and everything we have and are over to him.  We now understand that who we are, what we do, what we have and what time is ours now belongs to Jesus for Him to use as He desires.  As the Apostle Paul says, ‘He died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for Him who died and was raised for them.’ (2 Corinthians 5:15)

So who are you this morning?  Are you someone with the name of Christian only, or have you responded to Jesus’ call to you that you come and follow him, that you become his disciple?  Are you a Christian because your family is a Christian, or do you know the Lord Jesus as your Savior and your Lord? Are you growing in your relationship with Him?  If you have never responded to Jesus’ call, you can do so right here and right now.  I don’t know what the equivalent of a boat-full of fish is for you.  But Jesus’ hand is extended to you.  ‘Come follow me,’ he says.  ‘All the things you have built your life on are based on empty promises that will never satisfy and will take you further and further away from the only one who can satisfy and save and change and transform you heart and your life.‘ We don’t to altar calls here, at least like they do next door.  But that shouldn’t stop me or any one of us from saying, ‘Yes, Jesus, I want to know you.  I want to follow you.  Please forgive me for my selfish life.  Please make me your disciple.  Please change my heart.  Make me like you.’  The Christian life is a relationship, a journey, and a process.  But just like with Simon and Andrew, just like with James and John, it has to start someplace.  When they got to shore, they took the first step.  Do you remember when you took your first step?  And if you haven’t yet, what is keeping you from doing so now?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.e saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen

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