Today’s gospel describes 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 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.
Let’s 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? All of us have talents, gifts, access, availability, special aspects to our personality, and so forth that God can 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 in the salvation of others. God wants our help.
The main point here in terms of Peter’s progression in the faith is that this initial request (to put out from shore) is just a small thing; it’s not hard for Peter to do. It is a small way for him to learn the obedience of faith.
This is where the Lord begins, with both Peter and us. He trains us in greater obedience by means of smaller things. Don’t overlook the small, daily acts obedience to the Lord. Through 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 deepens Peter’s faith and heightens the 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, how much 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.” For a moment Peter hesitates. He is tired and, frankly, discouraged. So much work and so little to show for it. There was probably some doubt in Peter’s heart and a hint of sarcasm in his voice, because later he 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’ve heard the Lord calling us to some task, but hesitated because we were tired or discouraged. It’s one thing to come to Church and say a few prayers. But please, Lord, don’t ask anything more of me.
Perhaps we are fearful. Deep waters bring greater threats. As the water gets deeper the stakes get higher. But somehow we have to step out in faith, get out of our comfort zone, and head for deeper waters. Like Peter, we can hesitate and think of all sorts of reasons why what the Lord asks of us is not a good idea.
How is Peter healed of his hesitation? In a very interesting and countercultural way, Peter is healed by the obedience of faith; that is the central point of today’s gospel.
Yes, Peter’s healing is caught up in his acknowledgement that the Lord commands it. Peter says, But, at your command I will lower the nets. It is intriguing that Peter finds strength and consolation in the Lord’s command. Paradoxically, there is something freeing about being under authority.
We live in a culture that tends to regard authority with cynicism and even rewards some degree of rebellion. Further, our flesh tends to bristle at being under authority. But again, there is something freeing about being under authority.
As a Christian, I derive a lot of serenity and courage when it becomes clear to me that the Lord commands something of me. While the world may balk at the demands of the moral life and find much of it too difficult or demanding, I find that it is often enough for me to know that the Lord both teaches and commands it. This gives me both serenity and confidence. Even if some aspect of my flesh may hesitate, knowing that my Lord and His lawful representatives (my Bishop and the Magisterium) command something, frees me and gives me the courage to understand that I am doing God’s will. Any natural hesitancy I might have is often quickly dispatched when I realize that I am being commanded by the Lord.
On a given Sunday morning, a person might hesitate to go to Mass, preferring to sleep in, or perhaps finding it difficult somehow. But knowing that it is commanded in the Third Commandment helps him to overcome his hesitancy. 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 from the Lord.
In this way of obedience the Lord draws Peter to deeper waters. Peter’s hesitation 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: enjoying the fruits of obedience in a very immediate way. In other cases the harvest is not so immediate but this much is always true: it is promised and it will come, whether today or years from now!
The Lord says elsewhere, using a more terrestrial image: the harvest is plentiful (Mat 9:37). What the Lord is doing here is giving Peter (and us) an audio-visual aid. Obviously the harvest that the Lord heralded was not about fish; it was about human beings. Indeed, the harvest is plentiful! Consider all the people whom the Lord has touched after these humble beginnings in a backwater of Israel. Not only are there the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world today, but there are countless others who lived before us, and many (only God knows how many) who will come after us. Yes, it is a bountiful harvest.
Some days and times are better for fishing or harvesting than others. 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, He is only preparing for future growth. For He says, “the harvest is plentiful” and His Word prevails.
In the West it seems that the seasons have turned against us. But we must remember that even in winter the farmer must stay busy preparing the soil, removing the rocks, and laying down fertilizer.
Yes, the Lord is heralding a harvest and we must work, no matter the season. Even if we do not see the full harvest, the Lord will, and so will others. 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).
The bottom line is, just do your work. Obey what the Lord commands and know that a harvest is heralded and will be hauled in. The nets will be strained and the boats heavily weighed down. 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 has been sinful, and that had he persisted and not obeyed the Lord, he would have blocked his blessings.
Notice that Peter is not described as having a cringing and 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. The Lord, having led Peter to a healthy obedience and humility, in effect tells him, “Come up higher. Your concern now will not be 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 productive because it is godly. It is a humility and sorrow that equips him for greater duties, duties no longer related fish but to human souls.
How different this is from mere shame (which Paul calls worldly sorrow)! Shame usually locks us into unhealthy, paralyzing self-loathing. Godly sorrow increases our zeal to do God’s will and thereby equips, empowers, and enables us when God calls.
And the Lord does call. Peter, through obedience and humility, is now ready to leave everything and follow Jesus. The Lord has led him to this point in stages. It began with a request for help that wasn’t hard, a small obedience. But then the Lord called him deeper, to a more difficult obedience. 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. It humbled him but also heightened him. Having his faith deepened in Jesus, Peter is now ready to follow the Lord. It is always better to walk in humility and obedience than in pride!
In 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. That 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.