But at Your Command I Will Lower the Nets – A Homily for the 5th Sunday of the Year

This Sunday’s Gospel describes the call of Simon Peter, one that takes place in several stages. 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 the 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.

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, and availability that God can and wants to use. 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. He wants our help.

The main point in terms of Peter’s progression in the faith is that this initial request (to put out from shore) is a small one; it’s not hard for Peter and helps him to learn the obedience of faith.

This is where the Lord begins with both Peter and us. He trains us in greater obedience through small things. Don’t overlook the small, daily acts of obedience to the Lord. Through them the Lord trains and equips us for greater things. If the Lord can trust us in small matters, He can and will trust us with larger ones.

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 hard is it to let the Lord use your boat for a while? 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 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.

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. I’ll 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. Somehow, we must step out in faith, to get out of our comfort zone and head for deeper waters. Like Peter, we can hesitate, thinking 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 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. 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, even rewarding some amount of rebellion. Further, our flesh tends to bristle at being under authority. Again, there is something freeing about being under authority.

As a Christian, I derive a lot of serenity and courage when I understand 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 often find that it is 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 consider skipping Mass, preferring to sleep in or perhaps finding it difficult somehow. Knowing that it is commanded (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.

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 an immediate way. In other cases, the harvest is not so swift, 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). The Lord is providing an audiovisual 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 more than one 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. The Lord 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, as will others who come after us. 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 this: just do your work. Obey what the Lord commands and know that a harvest is heralded and will be hauled in someday. 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.

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 have been sinful and that had he persisted in not obeying the Lord, he would have blocked his blessings.

Notice that Peter is not described as having a cringing humility but rather a healthy one.

Healthy humility raises us; it does not cast us down. Bowing in healthy humility does not crush us; it heightens our status. 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.

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. Humility and sorrow equip 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 often 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 He 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 Peter 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. He will not go through life without injury, but in the end, he too will be the rock (in Christ) who is ready to roll.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: But at Your Command I Will Lower the Nets

Five Lessons on Faith From Peter’s Time in Jail

On today’s Feast of Saints Peter and Paul it behooves us to look in detail at the first reading from today’s Mass and see in it a kind of roadmap to growing in faith. Peter’s story and experience were not just for him; they were for us as well. Let’s see what we can learn as we focus on five facts of faith from the story of St. Peter in today’s first reading.

I. The Persecution of Faith Persecution is the normal state of affairs for a Christian. Not every Christian suffers equally, but Jesus spoke often about the need to be willing to endure persecution for His sake. He said, A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (Jn 15:20). He added, If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (Jn 15:19). He said elsewhere, In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33). He also warned, Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Lk 6:26).

Therefore, persecution should be expected. If it is wholly absent, we may have some soul-searching to do as to whether we are witnessing to the Faith authentically.

We should not be surprised to see how the early Church was persecuted. This passage describes the persecution, driven by Herod, that breaks out in Jerusalem. During this persecution, James (of “Peter, James, and John” fame) is killed. Peter is also rounded up and slated for death. Sitting in prison, he awaits his fate.

Note the strange excessiveness of the persecution. Peter is secured with double chains and is forced to sleep between two soldiers. Outside there are even more guards keeping watch. Wow! Here’s a persecution that is strangely excessive and obviously rooted in fear!

As we look at persecution today, we notice something similar. There seems to be a very special hatred reserved for Christians, especially Catholics. In the public school system, it is permissible to speak about almost anything: homosexuality, how to use condoms, and even certain religions such as Islam. But if the name of Jesus is mentioned, or Scripture is even obliquely referenced, lawsuits are threatened, and television cameras appear! What drives this strange fear and hatred for Christ? Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and even Methodists and Episcopalians do not face such hostility!

While this animosity is somewhat mysterious, it does speak to us of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and particularly of the Church He founded the Catholic Church. Satan surely inspires special hatred for Jesus and His Church. In a certain sense, we can take it as a compliment. Perhaps it is driven by the fact that, deep down, they know that what Jesus and His Church teaches is the truth.

The prince of this world hates Jesus and has always inspired his followers to do so as well, whether they follow him consciously or unconsciously. Yes, persecution is a natural, expected ordeal for a Christian.

II. The Prayer of Faith In the midst of this, we note that the Church is described as praying fervently to God. The Greek word translated here as fervent is ἐκτενῶς (ektenos), which means “fully stretched.” The word evokes the image of a taught rope. Here is prayer that is stretched out, that is costly, that involves more than a brief moment. Here is praying that is persevering. This sort of prayer involves more than an honorable mention in the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass. Here is the sort of prayer that involves long hours. Time and effort are invested. This is the sort of prayer that nags God until the solution is at hand.

There is an expression in the African-American community, “by and by.” It refers to the need to be patient and persevering in prayer while waiting for God to answer in His own time. It is up to us to keep praying, to pray without ceasing, to resist discouragement and just keep on praying.

III. The Prescription of Faith In the midst of this fervent prayer of the Church, a hidden process begins. An angel is dispatched from Heaven, enters the jail, and comes to Peter. His instructions to Peter amount to a kind a prescription for a life of faith. We note it in five stages:

Rise! The angel says, “Get up”. Here is a call to rise from death, to rise from despairing and doubt, to stand up! Every Christian must die to sin and rise to new life, must die to slavery and despair and rise as a free and active agent, ready to walk with God.

Restrain The angel then tells him to put on his cincture (belt). The belt is traditionally a sign of chastity and of continence (restraint). The Christian life cannot be riddled with unchasteness or with other excesses of this world such as greed and gluttony. These hinder the journey; they weigh us down.

Ready Peter is also told to put on his sandals. This symbolizes readiness to make a journey. When I was young, my mother would often signal me by saying, “Put on your shoes and get ready to go.” Christians must be ready to make the journey, with their feet shod with the gospel of peace, with their shoes on. They must be ready to set out on the great pilgrimage with Jesus to Heaven: up over the hill of Calvary and into glory. Put your shoes on and get ready to go!

Righteous Peter is then told to put on his cloak. In Scripture, the cloak or robe often symbolizes righteousness. For example, the Book of Revelation says that it was given to the bride to be clothed in fine linen. The text goes on to say that the linen robe is the righteousness of the saints (Rev 19:8). There is also the parable of the wedding guests, one of whom was not properly clothed and was therefore thrown out (Mat 22:11). At a baptism, the priest points to the white garment worn by the infant and tells everyone to see in this white garment the outward sign of the baby’s Christian dignity. He says that the infant is to bring this garment unstained to the great judgment seat of Christ. Thus, the instruction of the angel reminds us that every Christian is to be clothed in righteousness and is to be careful to keep this robe, given by God, unsoiled by the things of this world.

Run! – Finally, there is the command of the angel, “Follow me.” In other words, run the race of faith. Toward the end of his life, St. Paul said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). Jesus told His disciples, simply, “Follow me.”

IV. The Procession of Faith Following this there comes a series of instructions from the angel to Peter (and also to us). These instructions amount to a type of direction to make the procession of faith. We see three things:

Not easy The text says that they passed the first guard, then a second, and finally came to an iron gate. Similarly, in our journey there are obstacles and dangers. We must recall that we live in paradise lost. Life is not easy; there are hurdles and perils. We are not called to avoid them; we are called the face them with courage. God allows these in our life in order to test us, to see if we will follow Peter’s example and move past the one guard, then the second, and then the apparently locked gate (which God opens for us). Life is not easy, but God’s grace conquers the challenge, if we only trust Him.

Narrow The text describes a narrow alley through which Peter and the angel pass. Jesus spoke of the way that leads to salvation as a narrow way (e.g., Mat 7:14). Why is this so? Because the narrow way is the cross! Most are not interested in this difficult path, the path that is steep and narrow. Most look for the broad highway through the valley, the easy way. The world still insists that we live in paradise (which Adam rejected) and that life should be easy. It is a lie; the path now is over the hill of Calvary. It is a narrow and steep path, but it is the only true way to glory. Avoid preachers who never mention sin, who never speak of repentance, who never talk about struggles and difficulties. Avoid them. The tuning fork, the A440 of the gospel is the cross. There are glories and joys in this life to be sure, but the fundamental path to Heaven and glory is through the cross. It cannot be avoided. Walk the narrow way, the way of the cross. Do not listen to the “prosperity preachers” who exaggerate one truth and exclude all others.

Need an angel As soon as Peter emerges from the prison into the openness of freedom, the angel disappears, but until this point, he needed an angel! So do we. Though demons are roaming and patrolling this earth, so are God’s angels. We all have an angel assigned to us and many other angels are along the way to help us. Never forget this. We do not journey alone. For every demon, there are two angels (Rev 9:15). Stop fearing demons and call on God’s angels, trusting in His grace.

V. The Product of Faith There comes finally the product of faith through which Peter is able to confidently assert, Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me (Acts 12:11).

Do you know this? Or is it only true because others have said so? Do you experience God’s saving glory? Have you experienced Him rescue you? How? Do you have a testimony? The normal Christian life is to know and experience that our God can and does rescue us from this hell-bound, sin-soaked world. We have a God who can make a way out of no way, and can, as St. Paul says, Rescue us from this present evil age (Gal 1:4). Do you know this? Have you experienced this? Then tell someone! It is the product of faith!