Luke places discipleship in the context of an evolving ministry in the area and an evolving recognition of who this Jesus might be. Jesus has been teaching. He is as willing and eager to teach as the crowds are to listen. No doubt, many want to see a miracle, or secretly hope that their physical needs or political hopes might be realized. Others don’t know what to make of him. In this passage, Luke 5:1-11, we find that it is one thing to be a part of the crowd, but quite another to be called out as a disciple.
The fishermen are not there for a sermon. They are exhausted, and are wrapping up a fruitless night on the water. They are cleaning their nets. They aren’t really listening. They have other more immediate concerns, notwithstanding a good sleep. No fish means that they have nothing to barter with, no income, and may be wondering what they might tell their wives when they show up fish-less. They will restlessly sleep away the late morning and into the hot afternoon, dreaming of being still on that dark water, still bobbing with the waves, still pulling up their all-too-light nets.
Jesus asks Peter to borrow his boat that he may speak to the people.
For a fisherman like Simon, a boat is an intimate part of himself and his work. I couldn’t help but imagine that a boat is also a good symbol for our own self-created identity. We construct such a craft that will protect us from the depths. We have the illusion of self-sufficiency and are buoyed up by our skills and competencies. Beneath us is the unknown, and all around us may be storms and waves, but we bob along and hoist a sail and stave off existential anxiety and death for yet another day. Our ego-boat keeps us dry, safe and moving along. A boat means possibilities, adventure, vocation, but is also about self-preservation at all costs, leading to self-justification. "Don’t rock the boat" we say. In other words, don’t you dare challenge my assumptions and what works for me. Simon was to have his assumption severely challenged this day.
Sometimes it is others and sometimes it is events that challenge our precious assumptions. Interestingly, Simon, without explanation, is called here for the first time "Peter", meaning "rock" or "rocky ground". The irony and humour of this new name in this story is that rocks don’t float, they sink. Peter would sink many times, both literally and figuratively in the Gospel accounts; however, his discipleship would not depend on the buoyancy of his talents or successes, but on God’s faithfulness to him and his willingness to be a part of this new story, even if the first simple request is to loan Jesus his boat.
Peter obliges and pushes a little out from shore. Jesus’ voice easily carries over the water and off the rocky shore, a natural amphitheater. As he teaches, he is aware of the yawning Peter. He can sense his worry and resignation in the way he is slouched over the gunnels. As with any failure, Simon Peter is wondering "What’s the use? What am I about?"
"Put out into deep water and and let down your nets for a catch," Jesus says.
"Master," he says, with a hint of sarcasm. Usually he is referred to as teacher or rabbi. After all, Peter is the master of this craft, the captain of this boat, the true fisher, not some carpenter. And then a mild protest… "We’ve been working hard all night, and haven’t caught anything."
Every fisherman knows that the only time to catch anything on this lake is at night when the fish move out of the deep water towards the shallow shore. Not only that, but he’s packed it in for the day and cleaned his gear. But then he remembers his mother-in-law, wracked with fever, and how at Jesus’ word the fever left her, and in her joy she had waited on them.
Peter relents "…because you say so, I will let down the nets." Peter doesn’t let down his nets because there are fish there -- for he knows there wouldn’t be -- but because of Jesus’ word. How often does our own rationality limit God’s work in our lives? We assume that we know, and expect God’s work to keep in line with our assumptions. Perhaps Peter was broken enough at this point, or maybe he was graced to be genuinely open to a new possibility, we don’t know for sure, but he did obey, and something amazing happened; the sea boiled with fish, more fish than they could handle.
What would a peasant fisherman think about such a ridiculous amount of fish? What would it mean? "That’s what I came for," some in the crowd may have thought. "That’s what we really need: a full belly, a fat wallet, a kick-ass show."
"Look how he’s helped these fishers. Look at how happy and rich they will be!" others might say.
How easy it would be to be distracted by the trick of it, the shear scale. On this side of heaven, it represents security and wealth. Abundance is often misinterpreted as God’s favour. For one who sees past this, it means the very opposite: the inherent burden of material gain when at your deepest level you long for something else, something lost that no amount of fish can provide -- a new identity and vocation only found in God.
For a fisherman, how many months or years, how many nights of "bobbing in the murk" does this represent for Peter? I like to think that in those fish, Peter saw his future years. He saw in an instant every fish he would ever catch, every late night, and every trip to the market until he was too old to toss a net. I am a letter carrier, and for me the equivalent would be like seeing at a glance every mile I would walk placed end to end on a satellite image, or every letter, magazine and flier piled up together. What if I could stack up on a table every dollar that I would ever make? Could I say, "There’s my future. That’s what I’m really about?"
In the presence of Jesus, time collapses, and our vocational desires are contrasted to God’s purpose. For those who thought that the miracle was the fish, they would miss out on what the message of the kingdom really is. The miracle was not the fish but Peter’s call to discipleship. "Signs" are often mistaken to be about the people’s needs, when the true miracle is Peter’s repentant heart. In Luke, miracles are always in the context of Jesus’ words and teaching, and are to show that the words mean something, that they are authoritative.
Peter was humbled. Here is the one area of his life where he should be in control. His reaction is to push Jesus away so that he wouldn’t have to face his own failure and inadequacy. "Go away from me, Lord." How much easier it is to push away or blame those who bring us face to face with who we are and what we’re really about than to face the truth of who we really are.
Peter’s response is not gratitude about the huge "severance package" of fish, but that of fear and then epiphany. More than a miracle of fish, it was nothing less than an encounter with the living God. He recognizes that he is in the presence of God, and that he is unworthy. He is a sinner; he should be left alone.
This is always the first sign of a true encounter with God, a recognition of one’s own sinfulness. We feel like retreating to our failed illusions, but we are always invited into the new possibilities found in Jesus’ words. Jesus responded to Peter not with condemnation but with the assurance "Don’t be afraid." Jesus responded with grace and love, that he had worth and value even if he had no confidence in himself. Peter was redefined. Jesus says he will be catching people instead of fish. He was catching live fish; he would now catch dead people and help them be alive in light of the new Kingdom. Peter would have his own large catch of "fish" in light of the future growth of the church, of which he was to be a rock, not for sinking or crashing upon (though he would be that too), but upon which the church would be built. Peter’s value, and for all those who would follow, would no longer be defined by their own efforts, successes or failures, but by the power and the word of God at work in their lives. God’s purposes would be fulfilled.