Sermon - In the Boat (facing Jesus)

Questioning Church
Deepening Spirituality
Image of boat and fishing nets
John Schofield

John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme. In this reflection he imagines how it would have been to encounter and experience Jesus in person.


I can still recall the day as though it were yesterday.

Actually, it was just another ordinary day, though it had been a bad night. We’d been out from dusk to dawn and hadn’t caught a thing. It was like that sometimes. However much we knew those waters, thought we knew where the fish were, we could be defeated.

Well, that night we’d caught nothing. So we came back to shore, pulled the boats up the beach, and started washing and checking the nets. We mightn’t have caught any fish, but you’d be surprised what else could get caught up in the nets. And besides, we had to check for holes. Couldn’t have anything slipping away, could we?

After a time we were aware of something going on behind us. Lots of voices. Lots of excitement. Well, you don’t get that on the shores of Gennesaret so I turned round to see what was happening.

People everywhere. Crowds and crowds of them. And a voice. That voice. The voice – the same one that had cured my mother-in-law. Did I ever tell you about that? After synagogue, after that amazing claim that Isaiah’s prophecy was being fulfilled there and then, he came to our house. He was hungry, but the mother-in-law was in bed, sick. So he just went and saw her, told the fever to go away, and up she got and fed him. I can tell you, we were pretty lost for words. Well what would you have said?

And then he went. Well, we just didn’t know what to make of him, did we? It’s so easy to be wise after the event, to say – yes, of course that’s what was happening. What else would you expect? But at the time? Well, at the time you just don’t know what to think. And by the time you get round to asking, he’s gone.

So, we thanked God for bringing the mother-in-law back to health, and just carried on as before.

And then the voice was back. Right behind me. On the shore. By my boat. And hundreds with him. And then he comes up to me. Oh he remembered me all right. But not a word about the mother-in-law. Just ‘Can I use your boat?’ No word of explanation. So I say ‘What for?’ ‘I can talk to them better if I’m facing them from the prow of your boat.’

So, back into the water she goes. And there he is, in my boat, just like he’d been in my house, talking, talking, talking. And the crowd lapping it up. Tell you the truth, I don’t much remember what he said. But there was something about him. A power. An authority. A certainty. A way of making sense of things that helped you see the Lord (blessed be his name) in a new way. We were mesmerised. Wouldn’t you have been?

After a while, it was clear that he had finished what he wanted to say. The crowd started to drift away. It’s always like that, isn’t it. Great stuff, exciting, stimulating. But you don’t quite know what to do about it, so you drift away and let life drift on again.

Of course it was exciting to have him in the boat, just as it had been when he was in the house. Of course, I was pretty proud that he’d chosen my boat. But now that he’d finished, I wanted him out. There was still work to do.

And then he just looked at me. And he spoke to me. I shall never forget it. ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Don’t you hate it when people try to tell you how to do your job? What did he know? I was the fisherman. And I said as much. ‘Master we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.’ 

But, you know, there was something about him. He had a presence that was even more compelling than that voice and those wonderful words. He might only have been a carpenter from Nazareth, but – well, I didn’t know what, I didn’t know why – but I found myself saying: ‘If you say so, I will let down the nets.’

And of course, it happened. Fish everywhere. You don’t get fish everywhere in the daytime. But we did. More that we could cope with. We had to get James and John to come and help us with their boat. And even then we were both nearly sinking.

What was going on? All those fish! ‘Who is this Jesus?’ I found myself thinking. Authority. Power. So many more fish than we wanted or needed. I found myself on my knees in the boat. Well, I can tell you that’s something else. What was I thinking about? We were about to sink. And yet here I was, on my knees. Well, what would you have done? 

I was frightened. I was dumbstruck. Well, not quite. But inside I was. And I’ll never forget the words that came out. I said ‘Go away’. I don’t think I really meant it. But faced with this extraordinary man, what else do you say? ‘Go away. Go away from me. Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’

Where did that come from?

And what would you have said? 

That’s the thing about Jesus. He just shows up what you’re missing. That, actually, all’s not quite right here in your heart. And that’s threatening, but it also sort of sets you free. You know yourself for who you are when you’re face to face with Jesus. I didn’t want him to go away, really. I wanted to crawl away. But he couldn’t, and I couldn’t. We were in the same boat together. But I had to say something to show how I felt. ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’

And do you know what he said next? ‘Don’t be afraid’. It was as though he could see right inside me. He knew I was confused and amazed; so were the others. He knew I felt very little in his presence. So did the others. Well, what would you feel? But he didn’t use that to show me up. He just said ‘Don’t be afraid’.

And then: ‘From now on you will be catching people.’ What? Catching people? How?’

But he just carried on looking at me, and looking at the water and the boats and the nets and the fish. As if to say, ‘If you can do it with this lot, you can do it with people.’ And it was him who had made that catch possible.

And then we did the daftest thing. We got back to land. He started to go away. Well we couldn’t let him do that. I might have told him to go away, but when he started to, I didn’t want him to. Nor did the others. We just abandoned everything, and followed him.

Well, what would you have done?

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