I often hate the Apostle Peter. Hate would be too strong a word if I hated Peter as a person, but I don’t. The times I hate Peter, it’s for what he represents as key-holder of the Church, not for who he is as a bearded Galilean fisherman.
I hate Peter at the Transfiguration when he literally tries to put God in a box. I hate Peter when he tells Jesus to go back to school after the crucifixion is foretold. I hate Peter when he wants to sacrifice the present of the elderly for the future of the young. I hate all the acts of assertive cowardice Peter performs that the Church still performs today. But there are times when I can’t hate Peter without also hating myself, because I know I would commit the same sin, the same denial, the same systematic doubt institutionalized into dogma. For instance, I would stand with Peter in the boat and tell Jesus he doesn’t fully understand what we have to deal with, that this is harder than it looks. I would steady myself against the rocking of the boat and tell Jesus that we are professionals.
Let’s back up just a bit.
Two sets of brothers — Simon Peter and Andrew in one boat, James and John in another — have just spent the dark hours of the night on the lake because, as all good fisherman know, that’s when the fish can’t see your nets. So here they are on the shore, washing their nets in the red-orange glow of the rising sun after a long and fruitless night, when Jesus comes to start a new day.
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat. — Luke 5:1-3
And then, Jesus does something weird. Remember, friends, that he has just resisted Satan to his face, resisted the establishment on the brow of the hill, shut the mouths of demons in the synagogue, and it’s only now that the truly hard work begins: the fruitless preaching, the name-calling, the sleepless nights, the stench of tombs, the pressing of crowds, the tears, the neediness, the hypocrisy, the loneliness, the waiting. Especially the waiting. And, since he’s not just fully God but fully man, he will need help.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” — Luke 5:4-5
This, friends, is where I stand with Simon Peter in the boat and give Jesus the look you give your grandmother when she advises you on something that’s out of her depth. This is where I open my mouth to fill his knowledge gaps, to give Jesus a dose of what I perceive to be reality. It goes something like this:
Master, we are professionals. We built these boats and we wash in these waters. We slit the surface with our nets in darkness. We trim our sails against storms that know our names. We dive despite rumors of Leviathan. We eat the fruits of our labor with calloused fingers. We clothe our children at the whim of the market. We keep our lineage at the whim of the empire. And if we say there are no fish, there are no fish. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.
In other words, I think Jesus would strike me as a well-meaning but inexperienced associate pastor, someone who spends too much time in the synagogue and too little in the streets, someone who collects stamps in his passport but hasn’t really lived anywhere, the kind of guy who thinks he knows pain because he’s witnessed other people’s pain. And as well-meaning as he might be, I think he would anger me.
There are two things to remember here, friends. First, Jesus is asking Simon Peter to lower his nets not in the middle of the workday, but at the end of it. Not only are Peter and his partners tired, but it was a fruitless night, and here they are washing their nets with nothing to show for it. Second, I doubt Peter and company are the only fishermen on the lake. Most likely, there’s an entire industry there on the shore, with the masts of dozens of Galilean fishing boats gently pitching with the waves, the air filled with the shouts of working men’s voices and the cries of Galilean seagulls. So not only does Jesus want Peter do something pointless and ham-fisted after an already long day, he wants Peter to do it in front of all his partners and competitors. This is why I picture Peter raising his voice just a bit when he says, “Because you say so.” I think Peter wants everyone watching to know that going back out into deep water and letting down his nets in broad daylight is not his idea. I think he wants Jesus to take full responsibility.
But that, friends, is the irony, and the saving grace. Peter’s motives may or may not be pure, but he is doing exactly what Jesus wants him to do: let Jesus be fully responsible for our daily bread. Jesus wants Peter to take all the skills of his trade, all the uncontrollable market forces, all the forces of nature, all the forces of empire, everything that not only affects his future but defines him here and now, and place it at the foot of the coming Cross. It doesn’t seem to matter to Jesus that Peter is essentially doing this under protest. What matters is that he’s doing it.
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners. — Luke 5:6-10a
This, friends, is one of the times I love Peter, or else I can never love myself. It’s one of the few moments during Jesus’ earthly ministry when Peter truly understands his relationship to Jesus, or at least comes close to it. And yet, I don’t believe it’s Jesus’ demonstration of power that sends Simon Peter to his knees. Instead, I believe it’s the knowledge that everything Peter knows is wrong. Jesus has taken everything Peter trusts in, everything that makes the world of Mr. Scratch turn, and has flipped it upside-down. In a moment, with a word, Jesus has shattered Peter’s worldview, leaving no room for argument, no room for doubt. And so I’m there too, kneeling, begging Jesus to leave me because I’m so ashamed.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. — Luke 5:10b-11
Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Peter is back to his old self, mentally bound by the laws of economics when the five-thousand are hungry, unable to think beyond levitical temple worship during the Transfiguration, and denying Christ entirely when it’s time for death and resurrection. But for the moment, he — and I with him — are free. No one can shame us into picking our nets back up for another long, dark night of slavery to the systematic theology of economics. No one can hit us over the head with cherry-picked Proverbs or the jots and tittles of the Law. No one can accuse us of taking the words of Jesus too literally when we abandon the tools of our trade, ruin our resumes, or throw away our technical degrees to follow Jesus away from shore on the path toward life.
Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But remind me of all the nights past when my nets were breaking. Remind me that I am always free to follow you from the shore.