The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, St. Matthew’s Church, McMinnville

“Jesus said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch’” (Lk. 5:4).

Some stories a priest hears only after being called. When I arrived at a new parish as rector some years ago, a friend on the search committee told me that when they were doing their work and had received a list of names from the bishop, the bishop had written by my name, “Fr. Bauerschmidt may not have enough experience for the job. It may be a stretch for him.” Well, I was glad I was included on the list, and that the bishop used the subjunctive “may not have enough experience,” but after some time had passed in that parish I began to suspect that the bishop was right! Maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew; maybe I had dived into the deep end of the pool without really knowing how to swim. I think this has been my signature tune in ministry. It took a few years for me to take it all in stride, but in the end I was glad that I answered the call.

Answering the call features in our readings today, from the prophet Isaiah and from our Gospel. In the first reading we have the call of Isaiah, coming to him in a vision in the Temple. God reveals his glory in the Temple and commissions Isaiah for work, for mission and ministry. Isaiah sees the glory of the Lord and says “yes” to the call. It’s an ancient pattern that is repeated over and over again in the ministry of the prophets. Isaiah was uncertain; he was aware of his faults and his limitations and of the exceeding difficulty of responding to the call, but in spite of all this he said “yes.”

We don’t know what the head prophet wrote by Isaiah’s name when he was being sized up for the call, but we do get a glimpse of the same phenomenon in our Gospel reading. It too is a story of call: in this case, Jesus’ call of the disciples to follow him. Peter, James, and John are fishermen, practicing their craft, when Jesus encounters them. They have been working all night and they have caught nothing. Jesus gets into Peter’s boat and tells him to head out into the deep water because it’s there that they will catch the fish.

That’s precisely what happens, of course; and it soon becomes clear that this is not just another fishing story. It’s a story about the ministry that Jesus is calling them to: a Gospel ministry in which they will not be catching fish but instead will be catching people. They will be amazed at the results of their ministry just as they are amazed at the day’s catch. If only they will head into the deep water; if only they will put out into the risky place of their own inexperience where they will have to stretch themselves, and even, if they are fortunate, break into a sweat at the tremendous results.

Our Gospel ends with the laconic, When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him” (Lk. 5:11). I suspect there’s a lot packed into those few words, and not a little concealed: joys and sorrows, hopes and disappointments too many to enumerate. We know Jesus’ own trajectory, as he turned his face to Jerusalem and his own astonishing death and resurrection. Gospel ministry is risky stuff; the Good News has explosive power. We can trace its course from the Empty tomb through the lives of Jesus’ followers even to this present day.

Notice how Peter echoes Isaiah’s words when he says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Lk. 5:8). He knows he is not up to the mark; not ready (perhaps) to stretch himself in ways that may cause him to snap into pieces. But the key piece is that last phrase, “they… followed him” (Lk. 5:11). They said “yes,” and began to follow Jesus in the course that he had set. They became “followers,” “disciples” who had set out on the same path with the Master. They knew it was the way of life, not only for them but for others.

St. Matthew’s Church, and the Diocese of Tennessee, have headed out into the deep waters where the fish are, in response to Jesus’ call. I don’t know about you, but in the ministry that I do, I experience over and over again the feeling that my bishop back then expressed so wisely: maybe I don’t have the gifts that are needed. “I am a man of unclean lips” (Is. 6:5), as the prophet says. Maybe you experience the same feeling as you seek to respond to the call. Yet still we get moving, headed out on the path, sailing into the deep waters where ministry is done and the mission is accomplished.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee