Imagine Peter’s surprise when Jesus, who had been teaching the people near the lake of Gennesaret, simply climbed into his boat, and then asked him to push out a bit into the water. After working all night with nothing to show for it, Peter had been washing his nets, pulling out the seaweed, branches, and other debris. The gathering of people kept pushing up against Jesus to hear his words more clearly, and amidst the jostling, he kept getting closer and closer to the water’s edge. The boat was the best available option. I hope this slightly amused Peter rather than annoyed him that this teacher, this rabbi, would have the chutzpah to climb into his boat without asking.
So after Peter pushes the boat out, Jesus continues teaching. And Peter is a captive audience, which might have been Jesus’ intention all along. Peter may have had some work to do on the boat—things to wipe down, ropes to coil—but he would certainly be listening to Jesus’ words.
When he finishes teaching, Jesus tells Peter to head out into the deep water for a catch of fish. I can assure you this caught Peter off guard. I mean he was the professional fisherman, and Jesus was a teacher. He would have likely given the same look the mechanic gives you when you tell him what you think is wrong with your car. But something about Jesus—maybe the teaching, or the way he just clamored into that boat—something caused Peter to look at this teacher and say, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” He then points the boat toward that deeper water and sets out, eventually putting the nets he had just cleaned back into the water.
Luke writes, “When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.” Pandemonium ensues. Fish flopping all over. The boat creaking under the strain and tilting heavily to the one side. Peter signals to his partners still onshore–James and John—and they immediately head out to help. Once they get there and the nets are finally brought up, the fish fill both boats to more than capacity, and they start to sink.
That’s when Peter regains his senses. He’s probably been working in overdrive without really thinking—years of instincts kicking in. But in finally seeing the sinking boats, and the multitude of fish and this teacher still in the boat with him, he puts it all together. Peter’s overwhelmed by it all, and falls down before Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for, I am a sinful man.” Jesus looks down at him with compassion, “Don’t be afraid,” he says, “from now on you’ll be catching people.” Nothing else is said, and they head back in to shore. When they arrive, Peter gets out of the boat and leaves everything behind—the nets, his livelihood, and that unbelievable catch of fish—he leaves it all and follows Jesus. He’s caught.
As a priest, I’ll get asked from time to time to share the story of how I got called into ministry. I tell them about the theme I wrote back in second grade for Mrs. Sears about my dream for growing up, and the summer I spent playing church, giving my parents Ritz crackers and grape juice. Every clergy person has just such a story in her back pocket.
But the same isn’t always true for people who sit out in the pews. If I were to ask you at coffee hour to tell me about how God called you, I suspect that some of you would be caught off guard. You might look at me a little amused wondering what I was up to, just like Peter with Jesus and the boat. Or perhaps you’d feel that you’ve been out all night working hard and have nothing to show for it, and, as one commentator put it, you’re face to face with your limits and ready to give up. And at that point, when we’ve struggled and begun asking the questions if what we’re doing is really worth it, Jesus enters our story and asks us to push out into deeper water. He invites us to lay aside our “penchant for the predictable and the routine” in order to “venture into new ground or new depths.” (Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 1, 334)
It’s always an invitation from Jesus, never a demand. Always a way that can bring us to new places full of life if we just have the faith to trust and push out into deeper water, leaving the supposed safety of the familiar behind.
A church consultant I worked with years ago, often asks the gathering of churches and religious groups he helps if they would be willing to give of their lives for the greater good. “Yes!” is often the resounding response. “Absolutely!” And then many times as a side note someone will say, “but my church never asks me to do this.” People are willing, but they are never invited. They might feel what could be described as a call—or maybe even a desire for a call—but where that leads is not clear.
It’s so easy to understand why Peter wants Jesus to leave, isn’t it? He’s there in the boat with this unbelievable catch of fish, and he recognizes that Jesus is so much more than he first thought. How can you measure up to someone like that? He’s overwhelmed, and scared and sees that he has little to offer. He’s just a fisherman. “Go away, Jesus. I can’t be near you; I’m a sinner.” “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus says. “You might not think you have what it takes, you might be overwhelmed in my presence, but don’t fear. Don’t be overcome by that type of thinking. From now on you’ll fish for people.”
Except he doesn’t say “fish,” does he? He says “catch,” although most translations of Luke you’ll read out there still say “fish.” When you fish you pull out a creature that will likely end up on a dinner plate. But Luke uses the Greek word zogreo, which literally means “catch living ones,” the prefix coming from zoe or “life.” Jesus wants Peter to catch people, but they will be full of life. The call Jesus gives is to bring people in as his followers, so they too can participate in the life-giving work of his kingdom.
Friends, clergy aren’t the only ones whom Jesus calls; he calls us all. Peter didn’t think he had anything to offer, but Jesus found him. Jesus went to his workplace, and called this one without a seminary degree to go out and catch people in God’s love. I think most of us believe that we don’t have much if anything to offer for Jesus’ kingdom, but he simply says, “Don’t be afraid.” And he doesn’t stop there. “From now on you’ll be catching people full of life.” Or, if Peter were a doctor, Jesus would have said, “From now on you’ll be healing the soul.” Or if he were a mechanic, “You’ll be getting people back on the road to life.” From now on, you’ll be about the work of my kingdom. From now on your life will be for a greater good.
I saw an amazing documentary a number of years ago called “Darius Goes West” about a young man named Darius Weems who has Duchene Muscular Dystrophy. Darius is confined to a wheelchair in his early adolescence, and the film documents his first trip away from his home of Athens, Georgia when he’s 15. A group of 11 friends pack up a rented RV, and head out with Darius. With scheduled stops along the way, they hope to raise awareness of muscular dystrophy, and how it is the leading genetic cause of death in young people.
Their first stop is telling. We see Darius using the lift to get out of the RV so he can use the bathroom at a gas station and grab a snack. Except the store isn’t accessible for Darius’ wheelchair. The very first pit stop in his life is a bomb. He has to head back to the camper, and use the tiny bathroom there. Logan, one of his friends, comments that you don’t realize how big an issue handicap accessibility is until you experience it firsthand. “We’re hoping to raise awareness with our trip,” he says, “and the very first stop shows how far we have to go.” Logan recognizes that he wants to help address the disparity for people like Darius. We see him later in the film answering questions from a reporter as Darius explores an underground cave system that is fully accessible to wheelchairs. “If this cave can be accessible, and not just accessible, but giving someone like Darius options down here, why can’t new buildings be accessible?” he asks. Logan and Darius and their friends heard a call. On their trip, people are changed, and these amazing friends have given their lives for the greater good. They answered a call.
What about us? Can we hear that call and give our lives for so much more? Can we take our place alongside those who have been found by Christ in order to change the world with his love? Can we leave everything behind—our fears and insecurities in our skills, our reluctance, our fondness for the status quo—can we leave it all and follow Jesus? “Don’t be afraid,” he says to Peter, he says to us; “From now on you’ll be catching people.” May it be so, and may we be caught.