A Transformational Encounter
Here’s something for you to chew on for a minute – not so much ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ as ‘a tale of two different expectations of what an encounter with God might be like’.
Expectation number one: I’m feeling hungry and empty and looking for some peace and tranquillity in my stress-filled modern life. So I decide to book a few quiet days at a monastery and have some silence and prayer. Off I go; the monks give me a room and feed me regularly, and I have hours each day to walk or think or sit in the chapel and get close to God. Gradually a sense of peace begins to come over me. One day I’m sitting in the chapel and I find myself suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of the love of God. God seems really close, and all my stress seems to vanish away. I feel a deep peace, and I know I can go back into my normal life now, with God’s joy and love deep inside me.
Expectation number two: Isaiah goes to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. There he has an overwhelming vision of the majesty of God. He sees God, but God is beyond describing, so Isaiah doesn’t even try to write down what God looks like. He sees magnificent angels flying around God’s throne, singing and praising God. He’s so disturbed by what he sees that he falls down before the throne and cries out ‘Woe is me – my lips are unclean, and I’ve seen God face to face! I’m going to die!’ An angel takes a pair of tongs, picks up a live coal from the altar and touches his lips with it – not exactly a gentle therapeutic gesture! “This has touched your lips”, the angel says, “And you’ve been made clean”.
Slightly different atmosphere to our first scenario, wouldn’t you say? In our modern world we seem to assume that an encounter with God would take away our stress, bring us peace and serenity and fresh resources to face the challenges of our daily life. But in the Bible it’s always assumed that an encounter with God would itself be a challenge: Isaiah gets his lips burned by a coal, and Paul gets knocked off his donkey and temporarily blinded by the light of Christ. The presence of God is overwhelming, and it’s a miracle to the biblical writers that anyone can survive the encounter!
Our gospel reading for today is a case in point. Picture the scene, if you will. Simon and his companions have been out fishing all night on the lake of Galilee – or Gennesaret, as Luke calls it – in the northern part of Israel. During the day, the nets they use are visible to the fish in the clear water of the lake, so it’s their habit to go out at night instead. But last night was a bad one; they worked all night long and caught nothing. Now they’ve brought their two boats to the shore and they’re sitting beside them, washing their nets.
Apparently the coastline on this part of the lake of Gennesaret has an interesting feature to it. I’ve never been there myself, but I’m told that there’s a series of steep inlets, a sort of zigzagging shoreline, with each inlet forming a natural amphitheatre. If you get into a boat and push out a bit from the shore you can talk in quite a natural voice and anyone sitting on the slopes of the inlet can hear you quite clearly – more clearly, in fact, than if you were standing on the shore.
In our story Jesus takes advantage of this natural feature of the coastline. A crowd is following along, pressing in on him to hear the things he has to say; no doubt they’ve been attracted by all the healings and miracles he’s been doing. The crowd comes to the place where Simon and his companions are washing their nets. Jesus sees the boat and decides at once what he’s going to do. He steps into the boat and asks Simon to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sits down and begins to teach, and the people listen to what he has to say.
What does Simon think about this? This is not the first time he’s met Jesus. In the previous chapter, Luke tells us that on a Sabbath day Jesus was preaching at the synagogue in Simon’s hometown of Capernaum. After the service he went back to Simon’s house for lunch; Simon’s mother in law was ill in bed with a fever, and Jesus healed her so thoroughly that she got up and prepared a meal for them right away! The word got out, and that evening all the sick people in Capernaum converged on the house, and Jesus laid his hands on them and healed them, as well as driving out many evil spirits from people. Simon saw all this, and so he had every reason to believe in the power of Jesus.
There’s also a story in John’s gospel that probably took place even before this. Apparently Simon’s brother Andrew had been a follower of John the Baptist. John pointed Andrew to Jesus, and Andrew spent a day with him, watching what he did and listening to what he said. He must have been very impressed, because the first thing he did was to find his brother Simon and say, “We’ve found the Messiah!” He took Simon to meet Jesus, and Jesus acted as if he knew him through and through; “You’re Simon son of John”, he said, “but you will be called ‘Peter’” (which means ‘rock’).
So when today’s story takes place, Simon has already met Jesus and seen what he can do. This makes it perhaps a little easier to understand what happens next. I’m not much of a fisherman, but I know enough about them to know that if you’re not a fisherman yourself, they don’t take kindly to being told what to do by a non-expert! But when Jesus has finished his teaching he says to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch”. Simon replies, “Lord, we were out all night and we caught nothing – but because you say so, I’ll let down the nets”. I suspect that in his mind, the professional fisherman in him is protesting: “Who does this carpenter think he is? Doesn’t he know that if we couldn’t catch any fish during the night, when they couldn’t see the nets, we sure won’t catch any in the day, when they can!” But on the other hand, he remembers his mother in law being healed from the fever, and all the other people he saw at his house that night, healed from all their diseases. So he does as Jesus says.
The result is stupendous: such a large catch of fish that the nets begin to break. Simon quickly calls for his partners, James and John, to bring the other boat, but even then there are so many fish that the boats begin to sink! In Simon’s mind, there’s no doubt what has happened: this is impossible unless God is at work here. But this isn’t a reassuring thought to Simon; he knows that God is a holy and powerful God, and he knows that he himself is a sinner. It’s dangerous for sinful people to be that close to a holy God. The only thing he can do is to fall down at the feet of Jesus, right there in the boat, and cry out, “Lord, go away from me, because I’m a sinner!” But Jesus reassures him: “Don’t be afraid; from now on you’ll be catching people, not fish!” So they bring the boats to shore, and then they leave it all behind and begin to follow Jesus.
What can we learn from this encounter with God? Let’s notice, first of all, that this wasn’t what we might call a mystical experience. Throughout the ages mystics have told stories about their spiritual encounters with God – or, at least, they’ve tried to tell stories, but have then run out of words to describe what they experienced. I understand Isaiah’s experience in our first reading to be that sort of thing. It seems most likely that he was in the temple praying, and suddenly he had a vision; the natural world seemed to fade away, and he saw right into spiritual reality. He saw God, and the angels of God, and he heard God speak in an audible voice.
Simon didn’t have this sort of experience. Simon didn’t spend hours quieting his soul; he didn’t use controlled breathing or the Jesus prayer or any of the other techniques that people have discovered through the ages to help them travel inward and find God in the depths of their souls. Simon went fishing at the command of Jesus, and God did something miraculous in the context of the ordinary, natural world Simon lived in.
This is how you know the presence of God in the Bible: God does things! Not that those things are necessarily completely unambiguous. The angels of God didn’t appear to Simon and drop a stick of dynamite into the lake so that everyone could see that God was the one who had caused this miraculous catch; it just happened, and Simon drew his own conclusions from it. But if you’d been an agnostic or an atheist watching Simon and his partners that day, you might have said, “It’s all coincidence” – and of course Simon would not have been able to prove that you were wrong.
Last week I was having lunch with a young man who leads the music at a local evangelical church. I asked him how he came to be a Christian, and he told me a story of an encounter with God. He had not been raised in a Christian family, and God had been sort of peripheral in his life, although he had given the issue some thought. But one day he was riding his motorcycle and he was involved in a serious accident; he bears the scars from it to this day. That got his attention. He said, ‘From that day on, God and prayer moved into the centre of my life’. Did God cause the motorcycle accident? I’d hesitate to say that. Did God work through it? My friend certainly seems to think so. Is it open to a different interpretation? Obviously!
Bible people don’t tend to seek these encounters with God; God is the one who takes the initiative, and their lives are transformed as a result. Today’s story is no exception. Simon wasn’t expecting anything miraculous to happen that day; he was cleaning his nets, the preacher was preaching, they were going out on the lake on a fool’s errand that probably wouldn’t work, and that was the end of it. But Jesus had other ideas. God met Simon out on the lake that day, and his life was changed forever.
There is one interesting detail here, though; Simon had this encounter with God because he obeyed a command of Jesus. Jesus hadn’t made any promises to that effect; he didn’t say, “Let down your nets and you’ll see what God can do”. He just gave the command, and it was up to Simon to obey or not. To the trained fisherman the command made no sense, just as some of Jesus’ commands to us today seem to make no sense as well. Sell your possessions and give to the poor? Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you? Give, and it will be given to you? What planet is Jesus from, anyway?
Yes, it’s challenging – but there’s no getting away from it. Simon Peter chose to obey Jesus, and the unexpected result was that he came face to face with the power of God in a way he had never imagined possible. And his life would never be the same again.
Simon was well aware of his own shortcomings: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”. Jesus was well aware of them too, but he reassured Simon: “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people”. And so it was; Simon and his friends took the boats to shore, then they left everything and became followers of Jesus. And a couple of years later, Simon Peter stood up before a huge crowd on the day of Pentecost and let down his nets for another huge catch. He preached the gospel of Jesus, and three thousand people decided that they wanted to become Christians.
You and I may never stand up before a crowd of people and preach such a powerful sermon, but make no mistake about it: training to fish for people is part of Jesus’ agenda for us, right at the beginning of our life as his followers. We might think otherwise; we might think “I’ll follow him for a few years and learn to know the Bible really well, so that I can answer all the awkward questions people might ask me”. But Jesus knows that the longer we leave it, the less likely it is that we’ll ever get around to telling other people about him. So he calls us to fish for people from day one. We’re learning to follow him, we’re learning to put his teaching into practice in our daily lives, we’re learning to live simple lives, uncluttered by lots of possessions; we’re learning to care for the poor and love our enemies and so on – and we’re also learning to share the good news with others. It’s part of the package.
Let me close with two final words of application.
First – you may never have had the sort of powerful encounter with God that Simon Peter had in this story. You might wish for it, although Bible people tended not to wish for it, because they knew how challenging it is to come face to face with the living and holy God. But if you do wish for it, the one thing you should not do is to try to make it happen yourself. You shouldn’t try to psych yourself up for some sort of mystical encounter with God, or try to will yourself into an experience of the Holy Spirit. That doesn’t work. What you should do, rather, is to ask yourself, “Is there some command of Jesus that I know I should be putting into practice? Maybe something that doesn’t make sense to me, something that I’ve been avoiding because I find it too challenging?” If there is, go and work on that, and leave the question of an encounter with God in God’s hands. He’ll decide when the time is right.
Second, if you believe that you have had that sort of an encounter with God, remember what happened next: ‘When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him’ (v.11). This is the test of a true encounter with God – it changes our lives. There are things we need to leave behind – false gods that we worship instead of the one true God, and sinful habits that bind us and prevent us from being the people God wants us to be. And there’s a new way of life to learn as followers of Jesus, following his example and obeying his commands and sharing his good news with others so that they too can become his followers. Our experience of God is meant to be gas in the tank to help us live for God’s kingdom. If it’s been sitting unused in your tank for a while, it’s probably time to turn on the ignition and fire up the motor.