(Jesus) said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ And Simon answered, ‘Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.’ “
Unless someone here is extremely wealthy, and very lucky, and easily contented, each of us has wanted something in our lives, but could not have it. Usually we can have whatever we wish, if the wish is reasonable and reachable. But there are things that seem to escape us. No matter what is done, reaching or possessing or having that thing is impossible.
It is the sort of predicament that can cause more than a little frustration. We all know persons, or maybe ourselves, who would do anything to have a certain loved one back from the dead. At this point, however, there is no compromise. God is firm, and God instructs us to wait for the day and the dawn of another life.
Another such impossible longing, of wanting something forbidden, is the quest for love. How many lovers have had their affection rejected, and no amount of pleading or living or passage of time can erase the scar of love unwanted and unaccepted? Most of us have loved and been loved, but some of us have never been loved because of “circumstances beyond our control.”
There is a third such dilemma in human life where we find ourselves wishing vainly for a gift or a happening that is not a natural part of our experience. We find that our faith is too small, or even nonexistent. It seems incredible, but it is true, that the desire for faith is not enough to produce it.
Wishful thinking and faith have little in common. But let’s be honest. Let’s not even pretend that all of us want faith. Some of us prefer the security of another kind of Christianity, though there really isn’t such a thing.
We all know who we’re talking about. There is the intellectual who is hung up on exactly what to believe, but never going beyond an academic discussion of the issue. There will be no change or altering of a lifestyle to make it work. There is the social activist who wants to do something—change the world or at least a few minds, and let matters of faith run their course, so long as he is able to change society in some way for the better. There is the party Christian who enjoys “Christian fellowship” and is satisfied with this association as being the sum total of what Jesus has to offer.
There are other examples, equally ridiculous, but that is enough to see how possible and likely it is to not want faith, but some poor substitute that can make the days pass smoothly away. We can succeed in fooling ourselves with a gigantic hoax.
But, let’s go back to the person who wants faith, but does not have it. It is, hard to imagine a more common longing. Here are men or women who would believe anything, if only they could, and do anything, if only shown the way, but faith escapes them. Like the lover whom no one loves, or the bereft and the bereaved, so now the believer, who senses no faith, senses a certain helplessness on earth. What is such a person to do? If there is a difference between faith-lacking and other “impossible” situations, what is it?
As we turn to Peter’s’ activities in today’s gospel, we see what happened to him as it relates to his faith. It was a narrow little lake, about thirteen miles long and eight miles wide, a big splash 680 feet below sea level. Now it is nearly deserted, but in Peter’s day nine villages lived on its shore, and the tropical climate was pleasant.
Jesus was there changing his style of ministry. Until now he had preached at the synagogue, but this message is being proclaimed at the seashore. The synagogue will soon forbid him to speak. Offshore Jesus teaches from Peter’s boat, for Peter was through fishing for the day and his luck had been bad. Each of us knows what that kind of day, or period of time, is like. We work as hard as ever, but there is no return, no catch, no reward.
Scripture reads: “And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ ” Peter didn’t like that. You wouldn’t like it if I came to you at your job and told you how to do it. Hopefully you would be polite as you told me to mind my own business. So Peter says, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing.” Even the most dedicated fisherman occasionally gets skunked.
If you are struggling for faith that seems to be just beyond your reach, these words from Peter should be helpful: “We toiled all night and took nothing.” It’s like some of our prayers, “I’ve searched and prayed and begged – and nothing.” There have been some nibbles, but no bites. It’s quite some parallel for the would-be believer, for the men and women who cannot seem to get hold of a faith like they used to have when they were young, or when they were innocent.
Time and circumstances, death and failures, waning health and unanswered prayers often overwhelm us and we begin to fight back or give up. We complain: “I’ve tried. I’ve begged and pleaded. I’ve cried my eyes out, and still no answer, no faith, no one to hear or to care, no assurance of God’s presence in my life.” Like Peter, we know ourselves and our business. We know how earnestly we’ve fished for faith, what bait we’ve used, and how much we’ve wanted to believe.
Peter was the fisherman. Jesus was just a carpenter. What did Jesus know about this lake and this profession? It was bad enough for Jesus to tell Peter to go fishing, after the nets had been cleaned and he was through for the night, but to go out into the deep, in the daytime, was just too much. Fish were caught in the shallows at night as the fish fed! Every youngster in the village knew that much, but Jesus says, “Out into the deep. Put down the nets.” Peter still does not believe, but he doesn’t dare be disobedient. It’s one thing to doubt. It is yet another to stop acting on what one has been told to do by this Jesus. Peter says: “But at your word, I will let down the nets.” He knew it wasn’t right to fish that way, but he also knew it wasn’t right to disobey. So Peter goes fishing.
He has quite a bit at stake, just as you do and I do, if we do what we have been chosen to do. Peter could be accused of almost anything, the least of which could be stupidity in fishing that way. If the nets came up empty, as they certainly would, it would be a long time before he lived it down among his friends. That feeling is as real as ridicule. That feeling of hopelessness is as common as the fear of failing, the fear of an empty net again, the fear of an empty faith after working so long and so hard.
We get good at self ridicule after a while. Our knees get sore and our minds fight our spirits and we send off prayers that ricochet down from the ceiling. They never seem to go any further than our bedrooms, our kitchens, our sanctuaries. We know all about the agony of silence, of not wanting to confess any longer because we have confessed so often that we cannot even forgive ourselves, much less expect or think we deserve forgiveness from God. It is more than doubt. It is despair, and we no longer expect God to say “yes” to our dream or our need.
I have been there, and I suspect many of you have, too. But so was Peter, God’s chosen. The Chief Cornerstone, Christ, called him The Rock upon which the church would be built. Remember what happened? What a sight it must have been! The boats were so filled with wet, slippery fish,
squirming and wiggling about, jumping all over the fishermen that the boats began to fill with water from the weight of the catch.
And what did Peter do? What great thing did he do when he saw the fish? Shout for joy? Brag about this Jesus to his friends? Not yet. No, he falls down before Jesus and exclaims: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
When Jesus chooses a person, that person is changed. Peter wasn’t merely saying “I’m sorry for not believing you.” It wasn’t mere contrition for all his doubt and suspicion, for all the hesitation on his part. Peter was letting go of his self-chosen needs. Like the caterpillar, he was losing his cocoon so that wings could emerge. What he thought he wanted and needed, namely, a boat load of fish, was not nearly as important as he thought it would be.
Peter’s success was not in the amount of fish that he caught, but rather in the overwhelming realization that fish had very little to do with his happiness, and catching them was a very small goal to have. For Peter, it was a change in his style of living, and a change of goals for his life.
What does Jesus do? We’ll find this rather interesting because some of us have yet to admit we’ve been chosen to change our goals, our needs, and our prayers! The one thing Jesus does not do is moralize. He does not say: “Because of this you should go out and catch people.” Nor, “Because I chose you, you must go out and catch people.” But rather, “Because of this you will go out and catch people.”
Christ is going to use him now. He does not request Peter’s help. Instead he gives him a promise and a commission. Christ gives Peter a power; a power to have faith and to use it; a power to know what’s important in life and to seek it. He challenges Peter to participate in Christ’s work when he says: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
Here is the important point to remember about this passage: Jesus didn’t perform that miracle to catch fish! He performed that miracle to catch Peter! And through Peter’s change, countless thousands would see what happens to one God chooses. This fisher of fish became a fisher of people. The important thing that happened that day didn’t take place in the depths of the sea, but in the depths of Peter.
That is our destiny, too. Jesus forces us out of the shallows into the depths. He changes our lives by overwhelming us with more of a good thing than we can use. Think about it—there were too many fish to handle. This faith of ours is no easy faith. It demands from us a change in the way we think, the way we love, the way we give, the way we live, and the way we pray. We don’t catch faith as we do fish. The rod and reel and the lure are the wrong tools.
Faith comes when we are in the deep, over our heads, and too far from shore to swim for it. Faith comes when the shallowness of our life’s goals are revealed as too small for one chosen by God, too narrow to catch a broad glimpse of his work, and too selfish to have any value for others. Faith comes when we risk our necks to do foolish things commanded by God. If there is no risk, there is no faith. If there is no sacrifice, there is no joy in the sacrament. If there are only laments, there is only despair.
For God through Christ commands us all to commit ourselves to his way. And when we do, everything is changed, even ourselves. Our prayers soar to heaven like rockets because we no
longer wallow in self-pity. Our love may still be rejected, but it’s the other person’s problem now, not ours, and we find new persons receptive to our sharing.
Our faith grows strong like the oak because our roots grab hold of rocks, not sand, and among those rocks, like Peter, Jesus the Christ builds his Church of the chosen, his church of the changed. It was a beautiful swarm of fish that were hauled into the boat that day, but it was Peter who was caught by the net. Roll up your pant legs and skip rocks from the shallow shore, and wonder about this Christian faith, or grab a hold of the net, God’s Word, and journey into the deep as one chosen by God to change.