“The Holy Habit of Making More Disciples”
Rev’d. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
16 May, 2021
Ascension Day
Luke 5:1-11

My name is Marta.  I grew up with James and John, the sons of Zebedee—yes, the same ones you’ve no doubt heard about, who were so eager to get plum positions in Jesus’ kingdom: one at his left hand and the other at his right, is what I heard.  It didn’t surprise me a bit.  Since we were little, those two had always tried so hard to impress their parents and the world.  They were partners with Simon Peter in one of the most successful fishing businesses around.

I sometimes wished they didn’t feel like they needed try so hard—usually, because it made me wonder whether they felt like I wasn’t trying hard enough.  Does your mind ever play similar games with you, telling you stories about how you don’t measure up, or trying to get you to believe that other people think wretched things about you?  And maybe worse, have you ever entertained a fearful thought that, what other people think might somehow influence God our Creator’s opinion of you?  It’s so stressful and spiritually draining isn’t it?  But listen: as I’ve grown in my faith and friendship with Jesus, I’ve come to understand it’s stressful and draining precisely because these anxious ways of thinking and being in the world are the opposite of what God wants for us.

Anyways, it was James and John who introduced me to Jesus.  In fact, if it weren’t for the ways I’d observed them changing, becoming more patient and kind, more forgiving and gentle, less stressed (and stressful) and more joyful, I probably wouldn’t have been interested.  I’m not really big on celebrity, and it seemed like Jesus might be the latest celebrity, given the growing crowds he was attracting.  But I’m telling you, the brothers did change.  The more they hung out with Jesus, the more humble, yet solid, they became.  Less envious of others’ success.  Less anxious about not doing, or having, or being enough in the world.  More content with what they had—and so much more generous, less afraid of experiencing want some day down the road.  It was amazing—inspiring—to see how truly delighted, joyful, they were as they shared … they wanted everyone to have whatever good things they had!  But it wasn’t only those things that made me take notice.  James and John, these two anxious guys I’d known my whole life, I noticed them developing a sort of peace and groundedness, a quiet sense about them that was so similar to Jesus’ own.

At the end of the day, I knew I wanted whatever it was that they were getting from Jesus.  So, I went with them to meet the Good Teacher.  And it changed my life in every possible way for the better.

Luke (he was another follower of Jesus’ who became our friend—he wrote a book about his and the other disciples’ experiences with Jesus; two books, in fact, one that bears his name, and another about the Acts of the Apostles), Luke likes to tell the story about how Jesus was being followed by a crowd one day.  That Jesus was a bit of a growing star—he really was a compelling teacher.  Told great stories.  And had wisdom way beyond his 30-odd years of age.  So, on this particular day, Jesus was having a hard time communicating to the crowd the way he wanted to.  So, he borrowed Peter’s boat and put out from the shore a little bit.  I guess the acoustics in the hull of the boat helped to project his voice, and he didn’t have to shout in quite the same way as standing on the shoreline.

Anyways, after he finished teaching, he told Simon Peter and James and John—these successful fishermen and business partners—to go out a little deeper and let down their nets to catch some fish.  I mean, can you imagine—here comes this carpenter-turned-peripatetic-teacher from Nazareth telling these seasoned fishermen how to do their job!  I remember James and John and Peter all laughing about it later; they couldn’t believe the guy’s chutzpah in that moment.  But, they said, they’d just been inspired by his teachings about trust and faith in God.  They could tell that he was much more closely attuned to the Almighty than they were, and maybe he knew something they didn’t…  Whatever the case, Peter said, “Well, Teacher, we’ve just worked through the night and caught nothing.  But if you think this is what we need to do…”  And, despite how foolish it sounded to them, they went out like Jesus told them to, and put down their nets.  And would you believe, they had to call in reserves because the fish were so plentiful!  The nets were bursting because of so many fish.

Peter freaked out a little bit.  The other guys told me he fell on his knees in front of Jesus and begged him to go away, because he knew he was a sinful man.  Clearly, Peter knew he was in God’s own presence just then, and he was having some of those same fearful thoughts that you and I occasionally do: that God won’t accept us, or would have no use for us if God knew our story.  That we don’t deserve to be in the presence of anyone or anything holy if we’ve not gotten our own act together.  That God’s going to be angry if we mess things up, or get things wrong, or stumble into any of the countless ways we can disappoint other people and ourselves; surely God’s greatness will only be that much more disappointed in us.  It’s painful enough to be judged and rejected by fellow human beings—but to risk rejection from God?  Peter was afraid of how much more painful that would be.

But rejection, or dismissal was not how it played out.  It was the first of many occasions when Jesus showed us all what God’s love actually looks like, how it actually responds, through the life of a human being.  Jesus never rejected anyone, even when they let him down.  With Jesus, it was always about belonging.  He made everyone understand that they belonged, even when they’d messed up, or let him down, or bungled things terribly.  His love was amazing—so resilient, so strong, so forgiving!  And the more he shared it, the more it seemed to multiply, because other people seemed to grow more courageous in their own loving and forgiving and welcoming.  That’s what I’m telling you happened to James and John.  And the way they changed and seemed to want to share it with me and everyone else they met, made me want some of it for myself.  And now I want for you to have it too, so that you can know the joy of it and share it with still others yourself—so that we can have another sort of net-bursting experience!

The brothers said that when Peter told Jesus he was afraid of him—when he asked him to go away because he, Peter, was a sinful man—Jesus responded, “Don’t be afraid.  From now on you’re going to be catching people.”  Don’t be afraid, Jesus said—these were words I heard him say a lot.  Turns out, we’re very fearful creatures, aren’t we?  Don’t be afraid, because even though you have trouble believing or trusting, even though you think you ought to be in charge, if you just follow Jesus’ instructions and live after his example—even if you don’t and you make a royal mess of things—you’re still going to belong to him, in his circle!

The guys all said it was a weird thing to hear at the time—fishing for people.  But they started to understand very quickly, because Jesus had caught them up in his love and his ways of life.  They left their fishing trade and started following him—copying his ways of reading Scriptures, praying and worshiping, welcoming strangers and outsiders, sharing everything generously, eating together and demonstrating forgiveness, and inviting others, like me, to come along, too.  To learn from the Master, and to feel our life change, deepen, and feel so much more connected to the rest of life, so much more fulfilling—like a life that finally came alive.

The bumper crop of fish that day became a metaphor for what life was like when we started regularly following Jesus’ instructions.  At the time, when Jesus told them to set out into the deep water, it didn’t make sense to the guys to drop their nets again.  Jesus’ teachings don’t always make sense to the world.  But his concern for people, his desire for every person to thrive in the ways God intends for us to do, is compelling.

As we kept doing our best to live according to his teachings, especially after he was no longer with us, we grew stronger and more firmly rooted.  As we practiced the Holy Habits he taught us about, we discovered the way, the truth, and the life of God in our own lives.  And you will, too—I just know you will!  But you’ve got to be willing to spend time learning his stories, practicing his teachings.  Really paying attention to what he said, and how it’s different from what we hear and learn from so many other sources in life.  And by practicing, I mean being willing to stick with it even when you’ve messed up, or been disappointed, or when someone else has made a mistake.  Jesus made it clear that even when his friends and followers got things wrong, they still belonged as members of the Beloved Community.  They were still welcome, even if it meant some challenging or awkward conversations needed to happen.  Astonishingly, God’s grace is even more abundant than our human capacity to make a mess of things!

Today, you know, churches around the world are commemorating Ascension Day. Today, churches remember and celebrate that Jesus was exalted by God to the highest levels of heaven.  My friend Luke wrote about the Ascension at the end of his gospel and in his Acts of the Apostles: a sacred mystery, full of spiritual meaning.  Our friend Matthew also wrote something in his account of Jesus’ life.  He remembered Jesus saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, I’m telling you: go and make disciples of all nations—teach them everything I’ve taught you!  And,” he said, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of time.” (Matthew 28:18-20, adapted)

Friends, that’s what we’ve done.  We’ve made more disciples.  Just as dear, bold Jesus did when he got into Peter’s boat that day, and on all the other days he lived his life on this good earth.  As he showed us, told us, taught us with hislife about what life as God intended it actually looks like, Jesus made disciples.  James and John, and Peter and Luke, Mary Magdalene and Salome, and Bartholomew and Matthew, Lazarus, Martha, Mary, myself—and so many more!  We couldn’t help but follow him, to be his disciples, because he clearly possessed the secret to the life we longed for!  His fearlessness, his love, his compassion, his joy, his hope—he shared it all with us, and wanted us to share it with you, and you to share it with others.  After all, that’s how good news spreads, isn’t it?  When there’s something so good, so compelling, so life-enhancing, you want to share it with others, right?

Oh, I know it’s not always easy.  There are days when we get it wrong, or when others get it wrong—when we live in ways that are completely at odds with what we actually believe.  But that’s when we recall that God is the eternal giver of grace and yet-another chances, and we set the past behind us and we start again.  Belonging to the Beloved Community of Jesus Christ means never giving up—on yourself, or on other people, because God never does.

Friends, think for a moment: what is it that’s drawn you here?  What have you experienced in the Beloved Community, as part of this circle of Jesus’ friends, that’s different from what the world is peddling?  For me, it’s the understanding that there’s enough joy and peace, hope and love to transform the world if we’ll let ourselves experience it, and when we go ahead and share it.  It’s a holy, life-giving habit, making more disciples.  And I know of nothing more meaningful or satisfying.  Amen.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC