Going Deeper (A sermon from Luke 5:1-11)

The story I read earlier from Luke 5, which is today’s sermon text, is Luke’s account of the call of Peter to be a disciple of Jesus. It’s different than the other two versions in the Gospels. In Mark’s account, which is followed by Matthew, Peter and his brother, Andrew, are by the seaside, apparently attending to their nets, when Jesus calls them to follow him. They immediately leave their nets and follow Jesus. That’s one version of the call of Simon Peter given by Mark and Matthew. In John’s account, Jesus calls Andrew first, who was not at the seaside fishing or attending nets at all, but with John the Baptist at the time. In John’s version Andrew is a follower of John the Baptist. He heeds the call, then goes out and finds his brother, Peter, and brings him to Jesus. Now, the reason I call attention to this is to remind you that we are not reading historical reports. There are echoes of memories in these stories, but these stories function more like parables crafted for the purpose of teaching spiritual truth.

In Luke’s version of the story Simon Peter had apparently been fishing all night in shallow water, expecting the fish to be there, but hadn’t caught any. Jesus tells him he needs to push out in deeper water. Go out deeper, says Jesus, and cast your nets there. The result is so many fish in the net he needs help getting to the bank. I think the primary meaning is this. If we aspire to be faithful to the call of Jesus to be his disciples, there is a good possibility that we may just need to cast our nets out in deeper water. I doubt if there is a single one of us here today who does not need to go deeper.

For one thing, we might need to go deeper in our capacity to love. In last week’s story Jesus confronted us with the question of who we are going to love and serve. He employed his own Jewish scriptures to make the point to his fellows Jews that God’s grace and love is not limited or restricted to Jews, and therefore they were not at liberty to choose who they were going to love and serve. The same can be said to Christians. God’s love and grace is not limited to people of Christian faith.

To paraphrase Paul in his letter to the Galatians he says, “Since a new era has dawned in Christ Jesus, and in Christ God has decisively made known God’s love, the only thing that counts is not beliefs and rituals, but faith working through love” (5:6). If one’s faith doesn’t make one more inclusive, more generous, more gracious, more forgiving, more welcoming, more hospitable, more compassionate and empathetic, then what good is it? This is the only test that’s worth applying to any religious faith.

Author Philip Gulley tells about the time a man showed up at his church with a bag of rocks. Gulley happened to be out of town on that particular Sunday. Almost everyone in his congregation was aware of this man’s animosity toward Gulley, so many were not a little bit nervous when, at the end of the service, he got up and walked to the front of the meeting room, carrying his bag of rocks. A few people even ducked out, fearing the worst. But they had nothing to fear, because this man laid his rocks on the altar and said, “Forgive me. I won’t be throwing rocks at your pastor anymore.”  Gulley says that the two of them still don’t agree on many things, but they both agree that Jesus commanded them to love one another. Gulley writes, “Though he remains unconvinced of the power of grace to save all, he demonstrated how grace had changed him.” Then Gulley says, “His grace also changed me, for what he didn’t know is that I’d been throwing rocks as well. When he dropped his, I was able to drop mine.” In order to go deeper some of us may have to drop the bag of rocks we’ve been carrying around.

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul says, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and slander, along with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Paul says, “Be imitators of God . . . and live in love, as Christ loved us . . .” Some of us may need to go deeper in how we express our love toward others.  

We also may need to go deeper in our commitment to service and God’s cause in the world. How deep we need to go and what we need to do is something we need to work out with God. I had lunch with Lonnie and Fran Turner the other day. Lonnie and Fran are deeply committed to the poor people in Zambia, getting them clean water, opening up educational opportunities, improving their health care and overall quality of life. They love those people and are committed to those people. The only thing they retired from when they retired as missionaries with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was from being on CBF’s payroll and having to do things there way. Now, through their own organization, Partners in Development, they are investing all they can in helping to lift the poor people of Zambia out of their poverty. I tell Fran and Lonnie that they are my heroes. Lonnie is 71 and I guess they will be doing what they do until they simply can’t do it any longer because of health and age. You know this already, but I will say it anyway: I am never going to go that deep in my commitment to serve others. I will not go as deep as Lonnie and Fran. However, and this is big however, I can go deeper than where I am right now, and you can too. We have our limits. But we can go deeper.

Some folks think that the more they focus on their own dreams and plans, their own interests and ambition, the happier they will be. But that’s not how it works. Psychologist Dr. Scott Peck, who wrote the bestselling book, “The Road Less Traveled,” tells about a woman he was trying to help who was lonely and depressed and after many months and several kinds of therapy they had made no progress. He was ready to recommend that she see someone else. Then one afternoon she arrived with a smile, her depression apparently lifted. Of course he wanted to know what happened. She explained that earlier in the day she went out to start her car and it wouldn’t start and so she called her pastor and asked if he could take her to her counseling appointment. He said he would as long as she didn’t mind stopping at the hospital while he made a visit. When they stopped at the hospital, her pastor suggested that while he made his visit she might visit with some patients, sharing with them a comforting passage of Scripture or saying a prayer for them. So she did and received such affirmation from her visits that it lifted her right out of her depression. Dr. Scott Peck said to her, “That’s great. Now you know what you can do to break free from your depression.” Her response was, “You don’t expect me to do that all the time do you.”

Service to others can move us beyond our own private concerns and redirect our energies away from our feelings of sadness and loneliness toward the needs and hurts of others, which in turn, opens us up to the fullness and joy of Christ.

How might the Spirit of Christ be leading you to go deeper in service to others? Albert Schweitzer was a brilliant man with earned doctoral degrees in theology, philosophy, music, and tropical medicine. He was a theological scholar, a concert pianist, and a medical doctor. He wrote a book titled, The Quest for the Historical Jesus that launched a whole new era in biblical and theological scholarship. In the midst of a brilliant theological career he decided to resign as a professor of theology and devote the second half of his life to medical mission work in Africa, doing what he called “something small in the spirit of Jesus.” The “something small” that the Lord led Dr. Schweitzer to do and Lonnie and Fran to do, may be significantly larger than “the something small” the Spirit leads us to do, but I suspect that all of us could go a little deeper.

One final area where many of us may need to go deeper is in our thinking about God and God’s relationship to the world. There might be a few of us who could stand to think less and do more. My wife sometimes suggests that I might be one of those. But I suspect, most of us need to do far more thinking than we do. Now, I’m sure many of you have heard me say numerous times that what we do for God and others is more important than what we think about God or believe about God. However, let me clarify. I hope I have not left the impression that what we believe or think about God is unimportant. It is actually very important, but not for the reason that some Christians think. Some Christians think that getting our beliefs about God correct is necessary and part of the requirement of being accepted before God (or being saved, or being blessed by God), as if God has a check list and we have to get so many things right about God before God let’s us in. That’s just crazy theology. If God is primarily concerned about how we love each other, then that theology makes no sense.

The reason what we believe or think about God is important is because we really do tend to live up or down to our beliefs. What we actually believe about God impacts how we relate to God and how we relate and respond to others. (And by the way, what we actually believe or think about God may not be what we profess we believe or think. We can profess we believe something, even convince ourselves we believe it, but not really believe it at all. That’s another sermon)

What I mean is this: If you think God is a vengeful God, if you believe that God has to have God’s pound of flesh, that God’s justice is more about retribution than restoration, that God makes people pay for their sins, if you believe that about God then you will probably have no reservations at all in pursuing vengeance on your enemies. If that’s how God is, if God is vengeful, why then should we not be vengeful too? You don’t have to look very far to see how many religious leaders use God to endorse and justify all sorts of vindictive and destructive attitudes and actions today.

We even see this in our own scriptures. There are a number of places in our scriptures, our holy Bible, our sacred texts, where God is used by the biblical writer to justify negative and even destructive attitudes and behavior. As Richard Rohr likes to say the biblical text reflects both the growth and the resistance of the human soul. The most obvious and most tragic form of resistance are in those places in the Bible where God is used to justify aggressive violence, even genocide. Now, when we get to the life of Jesus in the Gospels our human resistance is fully exposed. Would the God of Jesus, whom Jesus says loves all people, ever issue a command to completely destroy a civilization, men, women, children, even the animals? The God we read about in the Gospels, the God of Jesus, could never do that sort of thing, but evidently there were at least a couple of biblical writers that thought so or at least claimed so to justify their own evil.

If you believe in a punitive and vengeful God, if that is your operative image of God, then you will be punitive and vengeful too. But what we are actually doing is projecting onto God our own negativity and sin. The bottom line is this: What we think about God and believe about God matters because it impacts how we live and how we react and relate to others. What we believe about God actually tells us what is uppermost in our own hearts. If I believe in a vengeful God it’s because I have vengeance in my heart. The operative image you have of God will have a shaping or forming power in your life for good or for evil.  

So, these are some ways we can all go deeper. We can go deeper in our capacity to love. We can go deeper in our commitment to serve others and God’s cause in the world. And we can go deeper in how we think about and imagine God. When Simon went deeper, that’s when he had his revelatory encounter with Christ. His willingness to go deeper led to an ephiphany. He then realized his shortcomings- “I am a sinful man,” he said. In his experience of enlightenment he became aware of the changes he needed to make in his life. As we go deeper we will see more clearly the changes we need to make in our lives in order to be faithful disciples of Jesus and more loving and compassionate persons.    

Our gracious Lord, may we not be satisfied with mediocrity in the way we relate to you and others. May we give attention to your Spirit within us inviting the Spirit to work in and through our lives, growing and enlarging our capacity to love and serve one another. Help us go deeper in our thinking, our loving, and our doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. We cannot expect to become more aware, more enlightened, more loving, more full of your Spirit unless that is what we want. O God, may we each want that more today and in the days to come than we did yesterday and the days before that. As we now join together in eating the bread and drinking the juice, may we realize that just as you poured out your love and passion into the life of Jesus of Nazareth, so you desire to pour out your love and passion into our hearts and lives as well. May we want that too, and may we be willing to go a little deeper so that it may be so. In the name of Christ, I pray. Amen.

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