Luke 5:1-11 (NRSV)
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
Simon Peter fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Then Jesus said to him, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
In C.S. Lewis’ novel The Great Divorce—which describes a traveler’s visit to Hell—a guide attempts to explain why it is that so many souls wind up there:
‘Milton was right,’ said my Teacher. ‘The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy—that is, to reality. Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends. Ye call it the Sulks. But in adult life it has a hundred fine names—Achilles’ wrath and Coriolanus’ grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self-Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride … But the time comes on when, though the pleasure becomes less and less and the craving fiercer and fiercer, and though he knows that joy can never come that way, yet he prefers to joy the mere fondling of unappeasable lust and would not have it taken from him. He’d fight to the death to keep it. He’d like well to be able to scratch: but even when he can scratch no more he’d rather itch than not.’ 1
Lewis’s revolutionary idea in the The Great Divorce is that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside.
What does that mean? I think it means that it’s possible to become so identified with a particular thing that it holds you hostage. Then you must decide whether you wish to escape. You must take the risk of giving up the thing—whatever it is—or you will never, ever be free.
A career can be like that. It becomes your passion, your joy, the thing that defines you. However, since it has become your obsession, it has also become your curse. Eating into your leisure time. Alienating your friends. Poisoning your marriage. In short, ruining your life. Still, the thought of surrendering the thing that has become so central to your existence is painful in the extreme. The very prospect of such a surrender is terrifying.
And yet, you realize that your salvation has something to do with that awful word “surrender”. It means giving up the illusion that you are actually in control of your destiny. Deep down, you know that you must relinquish control over your life, because that is the only way things will change for the better. But, trusting enough to make that leap … therein lies the challenge.
In our gospel reading, Simon Peter gets a glimpse of the kind of power and grace that was embodied in Jesus and falls down on his knees before him in a profound recognition of his own sinfulness.
Let’s back up a bit. To understand the significance of this story of the miraculous catch of fish and the call of the first disciples, we need to remember that Jesus was not a fisherman. He was a carpenter from the Nazareth hills. What could he possibly know about fishing?
Peter, on the other hand, likely came from a long line of fishermen. He had probably grown up on the shores of Lake Galilee. He knew his occupation—and he knew that body of water. When a wandering backcountry rabbi suggested a new fishing strategy to him, it must have seemed a bit like a junior league goalie giving tips to Jacob Markström. Peter is the master fisherman here. Jesus is nothing but a rank amateur.
Here, Luke is carefully setting the stage for a plot twist. He has Peter patiently humoring Jesus to show the rabbi from Nazareth that—while he might know something about preaching and teaching and storytelling—he knows absolutely nothing about catching fish.
Of course, the miraculous happens; and Peter is so awestruck by the huge catch of fish that he becomes terrified to the point of contrition.
The question is: what was it about Jesus or about this experience that so overwhelmed Peter and his companions? While Luke is quite comfortable telling miracle stories about Jesus, we know that he also had a healthy skepticism about the place of miracles in the generation of faith (see Luke 11:19 and Acts 8:9-11). A miraculous catch of fish would have impressed anyone, including Peter and his friends. But Luke’s Jesus is not primarily a wonder worker. He doesn’t try to force people’s convictions and affections by shocking them with enormous marvels. Rather, he is a teacher, a healer and a storyteller who came to tell people that God loved them with an absolutely infinite love.
Peter surely knew that the sea was a mysterious place and that fish were miraculous creatures. He understood that the skills of a fisherman were the result of divinely inspired insight and understanding. As a God-fearing, first-century Jewish fisherman, Peter would have believed that everything in the world was a revelation of God’s power; that dazzling events happen; that help often arrives when people most need it.
It was not, in other words, the power that Jesus possessed that had such a deep impression upon him. No. It was the love revealed in Jesus’ relationship with him. When Jesus spoke to him and said, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people,” Peter came face-to-face with the creative power of God at work in his own life. This beauty, power and majesty he already knew in the miracle of creation was now reaching out to him. More than that, it was calling him.
“From now on you will be catching people.” Mark this: the word translated as “catching”2 meant “to take alive” in the sense of rescuing from death. I think we can safely assume that Peter got the point. In Jesus, he had found someone who would never abandon him and never let him go. And in that moment, kneeling on the malodorous deck of a fishing boat, he was okay with being taken alive.
There are times when “being taken alive” is a bad and dangerous idea. And not just on a literal battlefield. It is self-destructive and ultimately selfish when we surrender to the immediate gratification of an affair that could fatally wound our marriage, to that drink that would set off another cycle of addiction or to that desire for revenge that would indulge our worst instincts.
Similarly, there are people who want us to surrender to them, to bow to their power over us simply so that they can gain control over us. “Going with the flow” can carry us over the waterfall. There are people and things out there that are intent on doing us harm when we surrender to cowardice and despair and helplessness and fear.
But there is another kind of surrender that is not only good for us; it is the way out of hell. I am talking about the kind of surrender we allow ourselves to experience when we learn to trust a love greater than our fears.
The variety of surrender exemplified here by Simon Peter is the kind of trust that occurs when we encounter a love far greater than ourselves. Then, being “taken alive” is sheer ecstasy and joy. Because we know that it is a love that seeks what’s best for us, we are not afraid of surrendering to it. Finally, we are not only free to be ourselves but … we have no choice but to be ourselves. We have been taken alive.
And that is why Peter and his fellows, when they had brought their boats ashore, left everything and followed Jesus.
May it be so, also, for each one of us.
1 C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce: A Dream (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1945), p. 66.
2 zōgrōn (ζωγρῶν)