Dying for the cool of deeper water

Gospel: Luke 5:1-11

Once 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 have 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 signalled to 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 their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Dying for the cool of deeper water

I'm out of touch with the flow of Luke. My head has been in another space in that yearly moment in January where, sometimes, Australian clergy get a little downtime from their congregation. I've spent three weeks writing a paper, interspersed with building a couple of websites and carrying on with my other job in IT maintenance. It's all been done in the shadow of death: Our little congregation is involved in one last strategy for survival; one of my younger cousins is dying; a much younger friend is seriously ill. And it's been the hottest January on record, in Australia.

In fact, the paper has been about facing the challenge of death; underlying it has been the existential dilemma that life is a place where we have arrived without asking, and have begun to find there is no way out, which leads to the challenge that to really live, means to die. In the paper, I quoted an earlier post from this site:

I am not quite able to put into words what has been happening to me, but I find that to stand "naked and trembling before what is," seems not to be standing before death, after all. Not in the way I expected.

I find instead, that I stand naked and trembling before life. I am finding that what frightens me most of all in my journey is not the dying, but the lack of dying. I want oblivion, but I can no longer imagine death as oblivion. Oblivion would be at least be a relief from the burden of living, and the cost of love, but it seems to have been taken off the table.  One Man's Web: Love and Death: Consumed, burned, or possessed?

The heat was appalling. There were days in a row where to step outside felt like entering a hot oven.  How did those who have no air conditioning cope here in Adelaide, not to mention those who witness the fish die in their thousands along the Darling? This weather is our future.  I cannot see a life for our species which does not include massive disruption that will puncture even the insulating privilege of the very rich. Social media was alive with photos of ridiculous thermometer readings, and seemed to reflect a deep anxiety— a new realisation, indeed— about our future.

And after all this... I came back to Luke, last night, to find a quaint story of Jesus teaching on the side of the lake, and to find a miracle story which, to modern ears, sounds ridiculous. How can I preach this story which is so alien to the place and situation of my congregation and me, next Sunday? What is its relevance to a congregation which is dying, and embarking upon one last strategy for survival?

It's clearly a version of the story in John 21. That's a hint. This is a story of symbols rather than the simple relating of a happening. That is, what ever happened to give rise to the story, it is being told in the gospels to point to something deeper about the nature of Jesus of his calling of us.

At first glance, reading the symbols of the story as told, rather than reading with the blinkers of western rationalism, I see this:

There are two boats. There is a choice being placed before us. Jesus chooses the boat belonging to Simon!  It is here that Luke says of Jesus: καθίσας. This Greek word is pronounced something like kath-is-as, and we can hear the same root that is in the cath-edral; the authoritative seat of the bishop. NRSV translates the word as having sat down. It implies that Jesus' authoritative teaching— the rabbis sat to teach— comes from Simon's boat.

In this reading, the boat with authority is the boat of Simon. The church with authority is the church which sits in the tradition of Simon; listen to that tradition.  This says something to me about staying with the church of the ages; don't be seduced by the gatherings of the easy fix— the theologies which let us go on living the same as we always did, but now with some kind of divine approval. In my country, this would especially include the apostasy of prosperity theology which seeks (contra the New Testament Jesus) to give divine approval to the gathering of riches. Luke suggests to me that we ignore other boats, and go with Simon out over deep water.

But it's not quite this simple. One of the interesting word plays in the text is that in verse seven, the other boat still refers to partners. Mark Davis points out that these partners, sharing in the catch, become companions. And the Greek word used there, by Luke, is the one we have brought into English as koinonia, or communion. Is this just a happenstance of the words Luke used at the time, or is there something deeper being said to us?

 Well, Luke has an interesting approach to the making of disciples, and to the conversion of Peter. In my last reflection on this text, I called Mark the ‘gospel in a hurry,’ and contrasted it to the slower, gentler discipling of Simon that we see in Luke. At the time I was struck by John Petty's comments:

In Luke's gospel, Simon is mentioned for the first time in 4:38--"After leaving the synagogue he (Jesus) entered Simon’s house."  Jesus initiates the action, as you might expect, but note the kind of action.  The first mention of Simon in Luke's gospel is that Jesus enters his house.

The house, psychologically speaking, is a symbol of the ego or the self.  When we stop and think about it, this makes a certain obvious sense.  As it always has, the house represents class, wealth, taste, status, even, in many cases, a person's psychology, and presents it to the world.  To say "he entered Simon's house" is to say, at a psychological level, that Jesus entered into the complete reality of the person of Simon.

The next time Simon is mentioned is 5:4:  Jesus gets into a boat, "the one belonging to Simon."  Again, Jesus initiates the action.  This time, he does not enter into Simon's personal space, but rather into his "economic space."  He enters Simon's boat, and, in so doing, he enters into Simon's occupation, his means of livelihood, his way of participation in the economic system.

Next, Jesus tells Simon "to launch out a little from the land."  Then, Jesus teaches.  After that, Jesus tells [Simon] to "launch out into the deep."  In sum thus far, Jesus has entered into Simon's personal, public, private, and economic life.  He has told Simon to go out a little bit.  He has taught in the presence of Simon.  Now, Jesus tells Simon to go "into the deep."  Go in completely and utterly.  It is, in effect, a call to lose himself in every way--especially as he is defined by his own ego, under the current economic arrangements. (John Petty, quoted here.)

I can't remember what I felt back in 2010, when I quoted this, but now it seems a very good description of my own ongoing meeting with Jesus; a slow entry to that point where, finally, I am being called out over very deep water, the place of chaos and danger; the place, indeed, of death.

And oddly, having gone out there, having been on a fragile boat, "naked and trembling before what is," (cf  John 21:7) I find that those on the other boat, those with whom I have barely been partner in all the upheaval in my denomination, are those with whom I am in communion. In the struggle to win at Synod, how interesting that Luke tells us there is more than enough fish for all.

Perhaps the real message of this story is Jesus' command to put out into deep water. Jesus teaches from the lake, over the place of chaos; he is in control.  And he calls us there, and even father in. Put out into deep water. Go into the place of chaos, the place of utter fear. Here there will be such a harvest that the nets break. And the person we catch— catch sight of most of all— will be our selves. It is only then, I think, that I can go farther into leaving everything. And the meaning of that will only become clear as I follow across deep water where all that is beneath me is the boat Christ and the communion of the saints.

Andrew Prior (2019)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
Luke 5:1-11 - Peter Saw (2010)



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