One of Israel’s most popular attractions is the Sea of Galilee (what Luke’s Gospel calls the Lake of Gennesaret). Having crossed the lake in the so-called “Jesus Boat,” modern pilgrims can then dine on “St. Peter’s Fish.” That name, of course, recalls the story we just heard of Peter’s great catch of fish [Luke 5:1-11]. For someone always identified by his profession as a fisherman, it is striking how in the Gospels Peter never seems to catch any fish on his own. The only fish we ever hear about him actually catching are the ones miraculously caught with Jesus’ help. Of course, as that story itself makes clear, in the end the point is not really fish but the great growth in people that lies in store for the Church, whose essential mission is to evangelize the world – to put out into the deep water of the world and lower its nets over and over again for a catch.
Like Peter’s fishing, the Church’s mission to evangelize the world sometimes seems to be going nowhere and to suffer frustrating setbacks. Yet, despite his obvious frustration with his failures and the depressing tiredness that commonly accompanies frustration (“Master, we have worked all night and caught nothing”), Peter the fisherman found the faith, the confidence in Jesus, to respond with what turned out to be the right answer, “at your command I will lower the nets.”
No sooner had he done so, of course, than they caught a great number of fish, whereupon Peter fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man. If Peter were a modern politician, our scandal-seeking, personality-driven media would surely highlight what would be seen as a gaffe on Peter’s part, Peter once again saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Or perhaps we would be speculating about what sort of sin in Peter’s past he might be referring to that might yet derail him from the fast track to leadership in Jesus’ Church!
When Peter addressed Jesus as Lord, however, that was not just Peter being polite. It expressed Peter’s profoundly religious sensibility – his sudden recognition that he had come face-to-face with the awesome holiness of God. Peter reacted as any normal, pre-modern person would react in the presence of holiness – not unlike Isaiah in today’s 1st reading, who naturally assumed that no one could survive something so awesome as seeing God directly.
Certainly, something so totally beyond our ordinary experience can cause one to respond in apparently contradictory ways – sailing out into the deep with Jesus one minute, then apparently pushing him away the next. That’s the way we are. People are complicated creatures, contradicting ourselves all the time. Far from frightening Peter away, however, Jesus’ intention was instead to bring him even closer – calling him from fisherman to disciple to apostle to pope, thus setting in motion the mission of the Church.
As members of that Church and beneficiaries of its mission, we have, all of us, been invited to sail out into the deep water of the world with Jesus, present in his Church in a particular way in the ministry of Peter. It is obviously no accident that the Pope’s ceremonial ring has, for centuries, been called “the Fisherman's Ring,” and that the image portrayed on it is that of Saint Peter in a boat - fishing. It is precisely our union with Peter which has sustained our community of faith over the centuries and which provides us today with whatever energies and resources for renewal and evangelization we may have.
Peter may be the Church’s fisherman-in-chief, but he is hardly its only fisherman.
We are all becoming increasingly familiar with the inevitable consequences when insufficient numbers step up to carry on the mission of the Church in this country – the sick missing out on the sacraments, the dead being buried without a priest present at the cemetery, everywhere everyone having to make do with less.
Listening today to these incredibly inspiring stories of the commissioning of Peter the Apostle and Isaiah the Prophet before him [Isaiah 61:1-2a, 3-8], listening too to Saint Paul’s powerful personal description of his own vocation story in his letter to the 1st-century Christian community in Corinth [1 Corinthians 15:1-11], we are challenged to be alert to God’s every invitation and to ask ourselves what we too can do, what God may be asking of us - and to ask ourselves if there is someone we know (perhaps right here in this church this morning) whom the Lord is depending upon to pick up part of Peter’s net, so that Jesus’ boat can arrive at last at its destined shore.
Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 10, 2013.