5th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Do Not be Afraid – I will make you fishers of men
Some years ago I led a group of my parishioners on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and one day we were taken across the Sea of Galilee on a fairly large boat. I remember that the water was a bit rough that day, and it reminded me of the Gospel account where Jesus was with His apostles on that same sea, in a much smaller boat, when suddenly the waters got very ugly. Nonetheless, Jesus slept calmly in the bow, until the apostles became terribly frightened and awakened Him. Jesus then calmed the sea, and with that their fears. He then rebuked them for their lack of faith. That was my meditation that day, and it calmed me to know that Jesus was also with us as he promised.
Now, on the day recorded in today’s Gospel, the sea was quite calm, and Jesus, who had travelled that sea many times to and from places where he would teach the crowds, was on that lake on this particular day for quite another reason.
This event evidently took place early on in His public life, for it was to be the day on which he would teach them a very important lesson about the very special vocation that he was calling them to embrace. And we see that they obviously understood his meaning and accepted His call, for, as we are told, it was on that very day that, “they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.” How amazing, is it not, how they immediately abandoned everything, their homes, their jobs, and this beautiful, almost idyllic place and way of life, to take up the new vocation that He had described to them poetically- to become fishers of men.
The dramatic scene or backdrop for this special calling to become fishers of men is most wonderfully set forth in St. Luke’s account. Jesus is first shown preaching to the crowds from a boat, and not just any boat, but, as St. Luke carefully notes, from Peter’s boat. This is the first of many references to the unique relationship between the Lord and Peter, and they are not without great significance. For instance, it is later noted that Peter pays the Temple tax for himself and Jesus with the same coin. It is also significant that Jesus chooses to stay at Peter’s house. Moreover, just before the Passion, at the Last Supper, Luke recalls that Jesus promised Peter that His faith will never again fail, after he has recovered from His great betrayal, and that Peter is told that he must in turn strengthen the faith of the other eleven, and through them the whole Church. And the Gospels recall that it was first to Peter that the Lord gave the Keys of the kingdom outside of Caesarea Philippi.
Likewise on this special day, it is very significant that Jesus chooses to preach from Peter’s boat, leaving His Church a most powerful image that will become symbolic of the Petrine authority and ministry. And to confirm the importance of this general call to the Apostles and Peter’s special place in that mission and in His Church, Jesus chooses to work a great confirming miracle from Peter’s own boat.
The miracle of the miraculous catch takes place after he has preached the Gospel to the crowd for some time. Jesus suddenly tells Peter to set out into the deep water and lower his nets. It’s a strange command, for it was daylight, and even to this day most fishing on that lake is done at night since the catches are not very good in the daytime hours. Moreover, Jesus has told them to lower the nets in the deep water, whereas their nets are normally employed in shallow waters where they can scrape the bottom and trap the fish.
Peter, therefore had a double reason to doubt the wisdom of this command, and he expresses his own confusion. But what matters here is that Peter obeys the Lord. “If you say so, I will lower their nets.” In those words we can find the very definition of faith, “because you say so, Lord, I will act.” Faith is not just intellectual assent to the Word of God; it 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 already a man of faith; he is about to become a true fisher of men.
Then there follows this act of faith a miraculous catch of fish, simply due to the command of the Lord. Thus we see that Christ’s dominion extends to the depths of nature, to the deep sea, as well as to the depths of the human heart. This miracle provides not only a marvelous compensation for their previous night’s poor catch, but it also presents a marvelous parable meant to teach the Apostles about the vocation they are called to by Jesus.
From now on they are to be His own Apostles, sent by Him to catch men, just as he sent them that day into the deep waters of Lake Galilee to catch fish. Moreover, their success will depend upon their faith and absolute fidelity to His Word, to His command, for He alone knows what is deep in the hearts of men, that is, in the depths of the hearts of those whom they are sent to catch for His Kingdom. Their power is found only in their faith in Him and in their complete submission to His commands, with total confidence in His power over the deep waters of human nature. He alone has the capacity to bring “the catch” to them, and when and where He chooses, just like the fish that day that he gathered for their nets from the Sea of Galilee.
Finally, we should note Peter’s reaction to the miracle, which is also carefully recorded by Luke, for that reaction too is part of the instruction on apostleship that Jesus presented that day. We see that Peter, recognizing the divine power acting in Jesus, draws back instinctively because he now recognizes, perhaps as never previously in His life, what a sinful man he is, at least in comparison to the one who sits in His boat. Peter reacts like Isaiah in today’s first reading who cries out: “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips;
yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Peter echoes this reaction of Isaiah when he says to Jesus, “Depart from me Lord, I am a sinful man.” In other words, Peter, seeing the miracle, knows instinctively that he is totally unworthy to be in Jesus’ presence. And then we see how wonderful Jesus’ response is to this humble acknowledgement by Peter: “Do not be afraid,” says Jesus. In spite of Peter’s unworthiness, He, Jesus will make him a “fisher of men.” In other words, lest Peter should think that because he is so unworthy, he is incapable of this vocation, Jesus reassures him. Peter and the others will be true fishers of men, but Jesus will cause the catch. Indeed, He will not only provide the catch, but He also will make them the kind of men necessary to be His instruments and bear fruit for His Church.
Recalling here the first reading again, like the Seraphim who purified the unclean lips of Isaiah with a burning coal so that Isaiah could be the Prophet of the Lord, so Jesus would purify the whole being of Peter and the other Apostles as he indicated at the Last Supper. Recall how Peter, at first hesitant to allow Jesus to wash his feet, ends up asking that That Jesus purify his whole being, not just his lips, as in Isaiah, but his lips, his heart, his whole soul and body. Indeed, Jesus would enable Peter to be washed wholly clean in the baptismal bath of regeneration, and Jesus would seal that purity in the cauldron of suffering for His name, which would be Peter’s lot along with all with are called to serve Him. But with Jesus’ assurance, because of His words, “be not afraid,” these humble men of Galilee left everything, and became his followers.
We have all been called by Jesus to serve Him in the Church in various vocations, and today, as in the past, he commands us all to set out into the deep waters of this troubled world, and lower our nets. To us, living at the beginning of the Twenty-first century, with all it’s rebellion against God and His Church, this command may seem as crazy today as it seemed to Peter when the Lord told him raise the anchor and set out into the deep waters of Galilee for a catch that day.
Jesus speaks this command today to us who are like Isaiah, men of unclean lips, and like Peter, sinful human beings, and we too might honestly fear just how unsuited we are to carry out this task for the Lord. But he also says to us – to each of us in our particular state of life in the Church, to priests and religious and to laity, married and single – “Do not be afraid.” It is not our strength or weakness that matters, but His. What is most important for us is simply our faith. If we believe in His word, and act upon it, then He, Jesus, will bring about the necessary purification in us and the marvelous catch we may think impossible in a world filled with skepticism, relativism and even contempt for religion and for God. But, he says again today to us, “do not be afraid.” Just Follow me.
So the real question is simply this. Do we then have faith sufficient “to leave everything” and follow Him, just as Peter and the others he called then put everything aside and followed Him. That is, do we have faith sufficient to put all that we have and all that we are at His disposal, into His service, and follow him, according to the state of life to which He has called us to serve Him. Certainly, what that requires concretely from a lay disciple will be different in kind from that of a religious or priest who have no family, no dependents. But, nevertheless, it must not be different in degree – it must mean surrendering everything, if one is to follow Him, if one is to a fruitful laborer in His vineyard, in our families and the world around us.
By our Baptism, each of us is given sufficient faith to make that choice to follow Him, in whatever vocation He calls us to, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. If we respond with faith and generosity, like Peter and the eleven, but also like Martha and Mary and countless lay disciples as well through the ages, then His gift of faith and our generosity will result in a marvelous and surprising catch for the Lord, today as much as in any age. On the other hand, if we draw back out of fear or lack of generosity, then we will be left behind, and someone else will be given the joy of the great catch that could have been ours, had we only responded with the faith that He Himself has given us. The choice is ours. The Church and world await our response.