But at Your Command I will Lower the Nets: A Meditation on the Gospel for the 5th Sunday of the Year
In today’s Gospel, we see the Call of Simon Peter. It is a call that takes place in several stages. And while it is presented in a compact time frame for Simon, for most of us it takes place over a longer period as the Lord works to deepen our faith and heighten our call. The upshot of today’s Gospel is that Peter’s faith is strengthened by his Obedience to the Lord’s command.
Lets see how the Lord grows Peter’s faith.
I. The Help that isn’t Hard – The text says, While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
It may astonish us, but God seeks our help. What did Peter have? He had a boat at the ready and, as we shall see, a tender heart. What do you have? That will vary. But all of us have talents, gifts, access, availability, special aspects to our personality and so forth that God can use and wants to use. And the way the Lord has set things up, he “needs” our help. God who made us without our help, will not save us without our help. Call, this what you will, cooperative grace, collaborative grace, or my personal favorite, responsible grace, but God seeks to engage us in our own salvation and the salvation of others. God wants our help.
But the main point here in terms of Peter’s progression in the faith is that this initial request of Peter is just a small thing. It’s not a hard thing for Peter to do. It is a small way to learn the obedience of faith.
And here is where the Lord begins, with Peter and with us. He trains us in greater obedience by means of smaller things. Don’t overlook the small, daily obedience to the Lord, for by them the Lord trains and equips us for great things. If the Lord can trust us in small matters, he can and will trust us with greater things.
But soon enough as we shall see the Lord with deepen Peter’s faith and heighten his call.
II. The Hesitation that must be Healed – The text says, After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.“
Peter is willing to do something routine for the Lord. After all, what does it take to let the Lord use your boat for a little while? But now the Lord invites Peter to go a little deeper, to “put out into deep water.” And for a moment Peter hesitates. He is tired and, frankly, discouraged. So much work, and so little to show for it. There was probably a hint of sarcasm in his voice too, and doubt in his heart, since he later repents and calls himself a sinful man. Yes, here is a hesitation that must be healed if Peter is ever to see his blessings, and reach his destiny.
And so too for some of us. Perhaps we heard the Lord call us to some task and we hesitated because we were tired or discouraged. Its one thing to come to Church a say a few prayers. But please Lord nothing more.
Perhaps we were fearful. Deep waters bring greater threats. The water gets deeper and the stakes get higher. And somehow we just have to step out in faith, get out of our comfort zone, and head for deeper waters. Yes, we, like Peter can hesitate and think of all sorts of reasons why what the Lord asks is not a good a idea.
How is the hesitation healed for Peter? In a very interesting and counter-cultural way, and in a way that is really the central point of this Gospel, he is healed by the obedience of faith.
Yes, Peter’s healing is caught up in his acknowledgement that the Lord commands it. He says, But, at your command I will lower the nets. It is an intriguing fact that Peter finds strength and consolation in the Lord’s command. And yet there can be something paradoxically freeing about being under authority.
We live in a culture that tends to regard authority merely with cynicism and even rewards some degree of rebellion. Further our flesh tends to bristle at being under authority. Yet, again it should be stated that there is something paradoxically freeing about being under authority.
As a Christian I want to say that I derive a lot of serenity and courage when it is clear to me that the Lord commands something of me. While the world may balk and the demands of the moral life and find much of it too difficult or demanding, I find it is often enough for me to know that the Lord both teaches and commands it. This gives both serenity and confidence. Even if some aspect of my flesh may hesitate, know that my Lord and lawful and his lawful representatives, my Bishop and the Magisterium, command something, frees me and gives me the courage to know that I am doing God’s will. Whatever natural hesitancy I might encounter is often quickly dispatched by being commanded by the Lord.
Thus a person on a given Sunday morning may hesitate to go to Mass, preferring to sleep in or finding the matter somehow difficult. And yet knowing it is commanded in the Third Commandment helps his to dismiss his hesitancy. And the same is true for the rest of the moral Law and also certain vocational matters and actions required of the Christian not under a general Command but under a specific call that is experienced from the Lord.
And in this way of obedience the Lord draws Peter to deeper waters, and so too us if we let him. The hesitation that Peter had, must be healed if he is to see his faith deepen and his call heighten.
III. The Harvest that is Hauled – The text says, When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that the boats were in danger of sinking.
In this matter the Lord grants Peter a great grace to enjoy the fruits of obedience in a very immediate way. In other cases the harvest is immediate but this much is always true: it is promised, it will come, whether today of years from now, but it will come!
The Lord says elsewhere, using a more landed image, The harvest is plentiful… (Mat 9:37). And what the Lord is doing here is given Peter (and us) and audio visual aid. For obviously the harvest which the Lord heralded was not about fish, it is about Human beings. Indeed the harvest is plentiful! Consider all the people the Lord has touched after these humble beginnings in a backwater of Israel. Not only are there the 1.2 Billion Catholics on the planet today, there are countless numbers who have lived before and a number, know only to God of those who will come after us. Yes, a bountiful harvest.
It is true, some days and times are better for fishing or harvesting than others, as Peter knows, and we do too. St. Paul speaks of the Gospel as being “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2). But even in those times that the Lord designates for pruning, or for the field to lie fallow for a time, He is only preparing for future growth. For he says, “the harvest in plenty” and his Word prevails.
Hence, even if now in the West the seasons have turned against us, we must remember that even in winter the farmer must stay busy preparing the soil, removing the rocks, laying fertilizers and so forth.
Yes, the Lord is heralding a harvest and we must work, no matter the season. And even if we do not seek the full harvest, the Lord does as do others. For Jesus says elsewhere: Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (John 4:37)
Bottom line, just do your work, obey what the Lord commands and know that a harvest is heralded and it will be hauled in, in nets that are strained and boats that are heavily weighted. The harvest will come and it will come with abundance. Just keep working and obeying what he commands.
IV. The Humility that Heightens. The text says, When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.
In falling to his knees, Peter is about to raised higher by the Lord. Peter realizes that his hesitation and doubt had been sinful, and that, had he persisted and not obeyed the Lord, he would have blocked his blessings.
Notice too, what is described here of Peter is not a cringing and a devastated humility, but rather, a healthy humility.
Healthy humility raises us, it does not cast us down. Bowing in healthy humility heightens our status, it does not crush us. And thus the Lord, having led Peter to a healthy obedience and humility says to Peter, in effect, “Come up higher,” your concern now will not be over fish, but rather the care of human souls who are precious to me. You will be my co-worker in a far more important enterprise. Yes, healthy humility raises us.
And thus Peter’s humility is a productive one. It is the “Godly sorrow” of Which St. Paul writes:
Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while— yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. (2 Cor 7:8-11)
Peter’s humility is a productive one because it is Godly. It is a humility and sorrow that equips him for greater duties no longer related fish, but now human souls.
How different this is from mere shame (which Paul calls worldly sorrow). For shame usually locks us into an unhealthy self-loathing that is paralyzing. But Godly sorrow increases our zeal to do God’s will and thereby equips, empowers and enables Peter and us when God shall call.
And the Lord does call, and Peter, through obedience and humility is now ready to leave everything and follow Jesus. And the Lord has led him here in stages. It began with a request for help that wasn’t hard, a small obedience. But then the called him deeper, and to a more difficult obedience, and Peter needed to have his hesitation healed. Experiencing this healing he hauled in a harvest that illustrated what his lack of faith and obedience might have cost him. And humbled him, but also heightened him. Having his faith deepened in Jesus he is now ready to follow the Lord. It is always better to walk in humility and obedience rather than pride!
I all of this, don’t miss the key, the golden chord: At your command, I will lower the nets. Faith is rooted in obedience and humility and this is the key to our growth as disciples.
St. Peter is still a rookie, but his first season holds great promise. We will see that he will not go without his injuries, but in the end he too will be the rock (in Christ) who is ready to roll.
A little Appalachian Gospel on the Call of Simon Peter: