They cast their nets all night and failed to catch a single fish. For men whose livelihoods depended on a decent catch, the lack of one could be financially devastating. To come ashore with nothing must have been have been a discouraging experience for men used to harvesting the normally abundant waters. How would they pay their taxes? What would they tell their families?
Empty nets happen from time to time, but sometimes it seems as if the nets turn up empty more often than full. That can be particularly true of churches that can’t seen to grow, though they try with all they know how. They cast their nets with membership drives, evangelization efforts, media and literature programs, but for reasons it seems that God only knows, the fish simply will not come.
After their particularly unsuccessful fishing trip, Jesus approached Simon. He stepped into Simon’s boat. “Put out a little from shore,” he said. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
The gospel writer does not tell us what Jesus taught on that particular occasion, but whatever it was, he turned to Simon afterwards and told him to “put out into the deep water and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon did, and he hauled in more fish than his boat could hold. He called for another boat to help, and there were so many fish that both boats began to sink for abundance.
I know there are some mega-churches experiencing more growth than they can handle, but most are not, and those that are growing will rarely share their catch with other boats, for numbers seem to be their scorecard. But on this matter of growing from empty nets to overflowing ones, the difference is Jesus in the middle.
First he taught them from the Word of God. Then he told them to go out and fish again, this time with radically different results. We don’t know what Jesus taught in Luke 5, but we do know what he taught on another occasion just prior to sending his disciples, not on a fishin’ trip, but on a mission trip: “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give” (Matt 10:7-18 NIV).
On another occasion he declared the center of his message by a quote from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." (Luke 4:18-19 NIV)
In its most basic form, the mission was to share the gospel, of course, but also to live it through a life of service, healing, and comfort. Such instructions have the salubrious effect of getting one’s mind off oneself and focusing it on others. When people get excited about something bigger than themselves, they start looking beyond what they want and toward what others need. That’s exactly what is needed if a church is to be welcoming to new people.
I don’t know what Jesus taught that day as he preached from the boat. Maybe it was about something totally unrelated to preaching the gospel, healing the sick, letting the captives go free, and freely giving what we have freely received. But somehow I think that this is exactly what he taught on the day that the nets were filled with fish.