I like swimming … let me rephrase that … I like splashing around, floating on my back, chatting to other people in the sea or swimming pool, etc. I don’t like being out of my depth. As long as I can keep at least one foot on the floor I’m o.k. Julia swims like a fish … I am more like a stork or flamingo, spending most of my time in the pool or sea standing on one leg.
I think my fear of getting out of my depth stems from my childhood when family friends took us to Ruislip Lido and one of them decided that the best way to teach me to swim was to bodily throw me into a deep part of the Lido and see what happened. There was a somewhat popular theory at that time that this was the best way to teach children to swim (‘sink or swim’ was the sound bite of the day). The result was that I nearly drowned and the chap who threw me in had to dive in and save me. This fear was compounded over the years, firstly when I nearly drowned once again whilst swimming in the Thames at Hampton Court when I was a teenager, and then again when I was in my late twenties and persuaded by friends (on a youth group holiday by the sea) to attempt to swim back across the small bay after a walk around the said bay. They soon left me well behind struggling to stay afloat out of my depth. I have never been so grateful for a small rock halfway across to cling to whilst I recovered my breath.
In his Gospel, Luke recounts the story of Jesus calling his first disciples (Luke 5:1-11). The story revolves around a moment (after Jesus had finished teaching the crowds) which had a profound effect on Simon Peter and his business partners James and John. Conscious that they had been out fishing all night and caught nothing Jesus encourages them (despite their failure to catch any fish previously) to ‘Launch out into deep water and let down your nets again’ (v. 4). Against his better judgment (after all this Jesus was a carpenter for goodness sake … what on earth did he know about fishing) Peter humours him and launches out into deep water and lets down his nets. The result is amazing! Luke tells us here that Simon Peter ‘caught so many fish that the nets were threatening to break’ (v. 6) so much so that he had to ‘signal their partners in the other boat to come and help’ (v. 7) land the catch and even then the catch of fish was so large that it almost sank both boats.
However sceptical Simon Peter’s views about Jesus were previously they are changed in a moment. Luke tells us that ‘When Simon Peter saw this astonishing miracle, he knelt at Jesus’ feet and begged him, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”’ (v. 8). Jesus does not go away, however, but calls Simon Peter (and his friends) to follow him as his first disciples, subtly transforming their God-given skill set in the process: ‘Don’t be afraid – from now on your purpose in life will be catching people not fish’ (v. 10).
There is so much in this story that we could reflect on profitably both as individuals and as a church but the thing I would like us to concentrate on for now is simply this whole idea of launching out into the deep. I shared something of this with Transform Reading (formerly Reading Christian Network) last Wednesday morning because I believe it to be prophetic – God’s ‘now’ word for his Church in these weird days in which God is seemingly forcing us to transition from the old normal to the (as yet unknown) new normal. It was C H Spurgeon, the great Victorian Baptist preacher, who suggested that (both as individuals and as local churches), ‘We spend too much time in the shallows … we need to launch out into the deep!’ The problem is that many of us – like me with swimming – don’t like to venture out of our depth. So why take the risk?
Firstly, because we have been fishing in the shallows for too long. Peter and companions were experienced fishermen. They couldn’t be faulted for not working hard – they had ‘worked hard all night long’ (v. 7). But for all their experience and hard work they had ‘caught nothing’ (v. 7). The implication here is that they had been fishing in the shallow water near to the shore rather than the deep water further out. There were good reasons for this. The Sea of Galilee was notorious for dangerous storms suddenly coming out of seemingly nowhere so the fishing boats liked to stay within sight of land, within their comfort zone, where things were reasonably ‘safe’. I have heard too many ‘safe’ sermons over the years (and probably preached too many myself) where the people have been comforted rather than challenged, encouraged to feel good about themselves rather than exhorted to step out in faith for God and for good! I have been to too many leadership meetings and church meetings over the years where the discussion has overwhelmingly been about ‘safe’ issues – the minutiae of keeping a church going, marking time, treading water – rather than ‘expect great things from God, attempt great things for God’ (William Carey). The result has been steady numerical and spiritual decline – we have ‘caught nothing’. It was John Wimber who suggested that ‘Faith is spelled R.I.S.K.’.
Secondly, because the deep water is where Jesus wants us to be. Simon Peter and his companions were exhausted after a frustrating, wearisome night of unsuccessful fishing. Simon Peter didn’t even argue when Jesus asked to use one of the boats as a ‘floating pulpit’. He didn’t even argue the toss with Jesus when Jesus asked him to do something that went right against the grain for a seasoned fisherman – get the fishing nets out again (they were already in the process of packing them away), relaunch the boat, row out into risky water away from the safe shallows, cast the nets over the side. But this was just where Jesus wanted Simon Peter to be – looking to Jesus, not relying on Peter’s own ideas and opinions. Jesus knew that this was where there was a huge shoal of fish waiting to be caught. By the way, I would suggest there was nothing particularly supernatural about this – Jesus didn’t ‘magic up’ a shoal of fish out of nowhere – he simply saw (because he had a better viewpoint from where he was standing) where the fish were. If only we too would learn that God knows better than we do what’s best for us? As God himself tells us: ‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts, says the Lord. And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.’ (Isaiah 55:8,9. When Simon Peter launched out into deep water and let down his nets he caught a huge amount of fish. In the shallows he caught nothing, in the deep water he caught probably more fish than he had ever caught before, more fish than he had ever dreamed possible – ‘they filled both boats so that they began to sink’ (v. 7).
Despite all the negatives that the current pandemic and subsequent lockdown has inflicted upon us – both individually and as a church – I believe (to quote the old advert) ‘The future is bright!’ Whilst God is not the author of the current chaos (as with Creation) he will use it to ultimately bring good out of that which was meant for evil. I don’t know what opportunities/challenges God is setting before you as an individual (that is between you and God) but I do believe that God is already setting before us as a church numerous opportunities/challenges – transitioning into an international, intercultural church and prayer centre, for example – which will necessitate us moving away from the shallows and launching out into the deep! As Mary Bowley Peters (1813-56) wrote many years ago:
We expect a bright tomorrow,
all will be well.
Faith can sing through days of sorrow,
‘All, all is well.’
On our Father’s love relying,
Jesus every need supplying,
in our living, in our dying,
all must be well.