5th Sunday of the year
Some years ago on a pilgrimage with a group of parishioners to the Holy Land, we were on a tourist boat that sailed the Lake of Galilee when the water got a bit rough for land lovers. That little turbulence on the sea made me think about the time Jesus was asleep in the boat and a storm came up and Jesus calmed the storm and rebuked his disciples for their lack of faith. The rebuke kept me from praying for a calming of the waters, and I simply prayed that Jesus would keep us safe till we got back to land. But I continued reflecting on the fact that Jesus was in a boat on this sea a number of times with his disciples, most often in calm waters traveling to preach the Gospel to the various little communities on the shores of that beautiful sea. I thought, I recall, about that day recorded in today’s Gospel when Jesus went out on Peter’s boat for quite another reason. This event took place early in His public life, and it was to be the day on which he manifests to his chosen apostles what their vocation was to be, why they were be called to leave everything and follow Him, even to the point of sacrificing their very lives. They were being called to leave this beautiful, almost idyllic place, where in one way or another most of them were involved in the fishing trade and had a simple but beautiful way of life; now they would become his Apostles and itinerant fishers of men.
The setting of this calling of the Apostles to become fishers of men is most wonderfully set forth in St. Luke’s account. Jesus is first shown preaching to the crowds, and not from just any boat, but Luke notes that he spoke from Peter’s boat. These frequent indications of the unique relationship the Lord established between Peter and Himself are not without significance: Jesus stays at Peters house; Jesus has Peter pay the Temple tax for Peter and Himself with the one same coin; Jesus promises Peter that His faith will never again fail after he has recovered from His betrayal, and on this day Jesus preaches from Peter’s boat and will work the great miracle about to take place from Peter’s boat. Finally, it is to Peter that the Lord will give the Keys of the kingdom in a special way outside of Caesarea Philippi.
In today’s Gospel, after preaching to the crowd for some time, Jesus unexpectedly tells Peter to set out into the deep water and lower his nets. It’s a strange command to Peter, for it was daylight, and even to this day most fishing on that lake is done at night, when the catches are generally better. Moreover, Jesus has told them to lower the nets in the deep water, whereas nets are normally used in shallow waters where they can scrape the bottom and trap the fish. Peter, therefore, as an experienced fisherman, had a double reason to doubt the wisdom of this command, and he does in fact express his own hesitation. But what ultimately matters here is that Peter obeys the Lord. “If you say so,” Lord “I will lower their nets.”
There we witness the very definition of faith, “because you say so, Lord, I will act.” Faith is not just assent to the Word of God, but involves acting on that assent, “because you say so, it must be true, and because you say so, I will act on that truth, I will live by that truth.” Peter is a man of faith already, though not perfect faith just yet; because of his faith he is about to become a fisher of men.
The miraculous catch of fish is a miracle performed by the Lord whose dominion extends to the depths of nature as well as the depths of the human heart. The miracle is performed as a kind of marvelous parable meant to teach the Apostles about the vocation they are called to by Jesus. From now on they are to be His Apostles, sent by Him to catch men, just as he sent them that day to fish the deep waters of Lake Galilee. Moreover, this miracle teaches them, and us, that their success will depend upon their absolute fidelity to His word, to His command, for he alone knows what is in the hearts, yes, in the depths of the hearts of those to whom they are sent so He can catch draw them into His net, into His Kingdom. Their power is always dependent on their faith in Him and their complete submission to His commands, their total confidence in His power over the deep waters of human nature, His capacity to bring the catch to them when and where He chooses.
Finally, Peter’s reaction to the miracle is also part of the instruction on apostleship that Jesus presents through these events. Peter, recognizing the divine power in Jesus, naturally draws back from the Master, from his presence and power, because he now recognizes, perhaps as never previously in His life, what a sinful man he truly is in comparison to the Master who sits in his boat. “Depart from me Lord, I am a sinful man.” In other words, Peter confesses that he is not worthy to be your companion, let alone your fisher of men, for now I know how sinful man I myself am. The response of Jesus is wonderful and simple: “Do not be afraid.” I will not only produce the catch I am sending you to gather, but I will make you what you have to be in order to serve me in my work. Like the Seraphim who purified the unclean lips of Isaiah with a burning coal so he could be the Prophet of the Lord, so Jesus would purify Peter’s whole being, not just his feet – recall the Last Supper – but his lips and his heart and his souls and his body. Jesus would wash Peter clean in the bath of regeneration, and would seal his purity in the cauldron of suffering for His name that would be Peter’s lot along with all whom Jesus calls to serve Him. With that assurance, these men of Galilee left everything, and became his permanent followers.
We have all been called by Jesus to serve Him in the Church, in various ways He chooses, and today, as in the past, he tells us to set out into the deep waters of this world, and lower our nets, and not be afraid, as John Paul II repeated so often. To us who live in the beginning of the twenty first century, in a society in such rebellion against God, God’s law, and God’s Church, this may seem as hopeless as it seemed to Peter to set out into the deep waters of Galilee for a catch that day. To us who are, like Isaiah, men of unclean lips, and are like Peter, and everyone else, sinful human beings, we may honestly ask how well suited we are to carry out this task for the Lord. But he says to us too, each in our own state of life in the Church, to priests and to religious and to laity married and single, “Do not be afraid.” It is not your weaknesses that count, but your faith. If you believe in my word, and act upon it, I will bring about your purification and I will bring about the marvelous catch you may think impossible in your circumstances. “Do not be afraid. Just Follow me.”
The only question that remains is do we have sufficient faith to leave everything and follow Him, that is, to put everything we have and are into His service, and follow him, first within our souls, and then in the outward apostolate which is ours according to the state of life in which He has called us to serve Him. If so, our faith will result in a marvelous and surprising catch for the Lord. If not, we will be left behind, and someone else will be given the joy of the catch that could have been ours, had we only had the required faith to set out into the deep. May we imitate Peter and do what the lord asks of us, today and forever, Amen.