One of Israel’s particularly 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,” a name intended to recall the story we just heard. For someone always identified by his profession as a fisherman, it is striking how in the Gospels Peter is never portrayed catching any fish on his own. The only fish we ever hear of him catching are all miraculously caught with Jesus’ help. Of course, the point of the story is not the 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.”
When they had done this," we are told, "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 report this as a mistake 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 scandal in Peter’s past he might be referring to that might yet derail him from the fast track to leadership in Jesus’ Church!
But, 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 encountering God directly.
Certainly, something so totally beyond our ordinary experience can cause someone 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 – through Peter’s successor, the Pope - which has sustained our community of faith over the centuries and which provides us today with renewed resources and energy for renewal and evangelization.
But, while Peter may be the Church’s fisherman-in-chief, he is hardly its only fisherman.
today, we are all becoming increasingly familiar with the inevitable consequences when insufficient numbers step up to carry on the mission of the Church – 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, 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, 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 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 7, 2016.