There are two narratives about the miraculous catch of fish (not counting the miraculous loaves and fishes to feed the crowds). Both of the fish catches are stories about Simon Peter. In the Gospel of John, this catch occurs with the risen Jesus. In Luke it occurs as part of the calling of the Twelve. The end and the beginning, or rather for Peter in John, a new calling, a new beginning, not as the bumbling Everyman, but as the Rock on which the Church was planted. The passing of the shepherd’s crook to the world. (see John 21). But today we read in Luke that the crowd was pressing in on Jesus to hear God’s word. Jesus commandeered a boat which was moored by the lake of Gennesaret (another name for the Sea of Galilee). The boat was owned by Simon, and a second family boat, the Zebedee’s, stood alongside. The fishermen were tending to their nets. Jesus asks Simon to put out in deep water. The men were tired. Done for the day. And the catch had been more than poor. And here was this rabbi, and Simon acknowledges that (Master, epistat ēs), who is telling a bunch of pros how to fish. But he begrudgingly agrees. I’m sure there was some grumbling as he rounded up the crews of both boats, including James and John, sons of Zebedee, and they go out, and, of course, bring in so many fish that they fill both boats until they almost sink. When they bring the haul back, Simon (soon Peter) cries out, falling at Jesus’ feet, “Lord (kyrios)” The rest of the quote is a traditional formula of humility before divinity, and Jesus’ response, “Do not be afraid,” is the divine response to the human fear in the presence of God. In some subtle way, Peter recognizes Jesus’ divinity from the beginning.
We forget to watch Peter. How many times have we preached, written, taught, and heard about bumbling Peter? But Peter is Everyman. He is us. Every foible, every blind spot, every dumb question. He is us. Perhaps the greatest miracle is that the four Gospels (plus Luke, Volume II, aka Acts) lay out lesson after lesson about Peter. We are given the guidebook to discernment, growth, sin, repentance, and forgiveness, all bound up in Peter. Bumbling, stupid Peter. “Feed my sheep.” Of course, we look to Jesus, our Saviour, the one whom we work so hard to pattern our lives on, and so we miss Peter.
Peter’s response, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” may be formulaic, and explained away by the fishermen’s astonishment, but there is more. Luke was a storyteller. He enriches us by the intimacy of the intrusion of God by the Angel Messenger Gabriel, first to Zechariah, and then to Mary (Lk 1). When Zechariah, a righteous man and priest in the line of Aaron, is in the inner sanctum, Gabriel appears, scares Zechariah half to death, uses the holy formula, “Be not afraid,” to comfort him, and reels off the entire prophesy of Zechariah’s yet unconceived son, John. Zechariah blurts out, “How can this be. I’m old and so is my wife.” And he is punished with nine months of silence. And yet he does do as he is told, and impregnates his wife Elizabeth. And he isn’t released to speak until he acknowledges this son by the name which he was commanded to give him. The NRSV Gospel translation says that Mary was “perplexed” by and “pondered” on her visitation by Gabriel. Probably scared out of her wits would be more accurate. Again, “Be not afraid,” the divine calling card. The messenger of God then tells her what is wanted, and she also, in essence, talks back. She protests her purity, a major issue in her culture. I think she gets what she is being asked. Get pregnant out of wedlock, a stoning offence. When she finally agrees, there is no punishment for her reluctance, her hesitation.
And now we have Peter, in the presence of the Messiah, and his first reaction was, “Go out again? You have got to be kidding.” And what was his punishment? He and his family are given the bounty of God, enough fish to pay off all their debts, marry off all their unmarried daughters, and, yes, the invitation to Peter (Andrew is missing here), John, and James to quit fishing and catch people, trawling in a catch for the Messiah. And by the time the Gospels were compiled from the personal lists of remembered saying of Jesus, the fish was already an acronym for Jesus (ichthys, ἰχθύς), Son of God, Saviour). And before any of them were baptized by water or the Holy Spirit, these men are always in the water. They are told now they will catch people. Is it reading in too much to suggest that Zechariah, as priest, should have known better? That Mary, being barely a teenager, and terrified of breaking the purity laws of her society, is given a break. Maybe Mary’s fear is forgiven, while in Zachariah’s heart there is not hope, joy, trust, but arrogance, even an accusation that the angel must be lying. Peter might be excused because of his ever quickness to turn, to repent, to see his mistakes, even if he makes them over and over. As do we.
In Luke 9, Peter is reluctant to go down the mountain back to the world after the Transfiguration. Let’s stay here. Build a booth. Hide from the ugliness below. The uncertainty. The change. In Luke 18, Peter protests that he has given up everything Will he be saved? In Luke 22, Peter claims that he would never betray Jesus. And we know how that turned out. But not only in Luke, but throughout the Gospels, Peter is the deaf stubborn disciple, unwilling to embrace this cosmic change that he has been thrust into. In Matthew 16:16, it is Peter who confesses Jesus to be the Messiah. Yet, but Matthew 16:23 that same Simon, son of Jonah, refuses to accept the prophecy of Jesus’ death. For which Jesus rebukes him. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Perhaps the best teaching example is the narrative in Matthew of Jesus walking on water. Although it is told in some form in all four Gospels, the calming of the storm, or when Jesus appears as a ghost to the disciples, or both, only in Matthew is Peter called (Matthew 14:22-33). Jesus invites Peter to walk towards him, “Come.” Peter does, and actually walks on water, until he is distracted by a wind, and by a lifetime of warnings about carelessness on the water and memories of many drowned fishermen. And he sinks. But his response, “Lord, save me,” is the correct one. He has faith, lost it, and regained it in abiding by Jesus’ saving hand to help him. The fastest sin, confession, and absolution in Scripture. And that is why we must recognize Peter as our example of the human condition. Jesus’ mission on earth as Son of God is also Son of Man. It is relational. We are the other part of that equation. Jesus did not come to save himself, but us. And Peter is our ikon. If we answer the invitation, the Kingdom grows, with God’s help. If we don’t, the world sinks into all the evil acts which turning from God freed. But we are given an endless bounty in our nets, food for our bodies and souls. Peter was chosen for a reason, to teach us how to be flawed and still feed Jesus’ sheep until he comes again.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She is a postulant in the Episcopal religious order, The Sisters of St. Gregory. She lives with her cats, books, and garden. Soli Deo Gloria.