And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him(St. Luke 5:10-11).
Every year, I am struck by the pairing of today’s appointed epistle and Gospel texts. In the first, we hear the confident and beautiful love of our apostolic father, exhorting us to greater compassion and strength in the face of evil. In the other, we see Peter, earlier in his life, falling on His face before the holy presence of God—begging to be spared the just punishment he deserves. All week I’ve been thinking about St. Peter and what makes him different from all the other figures of our often bizarre multi-religious community. What makes St. Peter different from Muhammed or Buddha or Harvey Milk, for that matter? Right off the bat, an enormous difference can be seen in how St. Peter is portrayed in the eye-witness accounts of the events he lived through. In short, it’s very messy. No attempt has been made to airbrush the fear and failure of a real human man called to fight in the war between good and evil. No ‘noble lies’ have been formed to make him a hapless victim and thus forgive his errors, nor has any attempt been made to credit his transformed life to his own internal strength or resolve. What becomes abundantly clear as we study the highs and lows of a life given to Christ is that the ‘St.’ now placed before Peter’s name was welded on there by the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit. It is St. Peter’s weakness which reveals God’s strength: his journey from proud fisherman to crucified witness is the evidence of God’s holiness changing him and revealing the divine force acting with him and through him. Peter became a saint by being remade into a living testimony to God’s existence and love—a living vessel by which our short-lived and insular race might see and feel the hand of God in the world.
And so, it should be no surprise that St. Peter’s demands upon the church seem so very strange to a world in rebellion against its Creator, a world so very limited by its confident ignorance of the good. As he says today, ‘And who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good? But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled; but sanctify the Lord God in your hearts’ (1 Peter 3:13-15). Peter knows full well that those who conspicuously declare themselves to be the living testimonials of the God our world is rebelling against will face the hard persecution of physical torture and the soft but still deadly persecution of wealth, comfort, and the pressure to conform. Peter was there when Jesus warned him and the other disciples, through the Parable of the Sower, how persecution and wealth could lead to eternal death for the self-righteous, but Peter was also there when the world murdered His Lord and Master, and he saw the resurrection prove that it is hatred and death that are weak and trivial when compared to the love of the God. In light of that world-changing event, suffering for righteousness’ sake becomes a happy event, not filled with terror, but lived through with prayers and psalms as we grow ever closer to the God who is remaking our bodies into temples more glorious than Solomon’s. Who can harm the man or woman being re-created by the Creator? No one. Who can harm the man or woman being prepared for a new world without pain or sadness or shame? No one. What then does the Christian have to fear from a world whose only weaponry is the hate and death defeated by Christ?
To find the answer we turn to today’s Gospel. St. Peter, here referred to by his original name, ‘Simon,’ has already witnessed Jesus heal his mother-in-law, and so he doesn’t balk at allowing Christ to use his fishing boat to preach a sermon to the large crowds who have gathered to hear this new and powerful teacher. Peter does, however, give a weak protest when Jesus asks him to put out his nets and prepare for a catch of fish. Peter’s reluctance is understandable, as he was the captain of the boat and apparently owned a small fleet through the fishing company he ran with his brother Andrew and business partners James and John. Archaeologists have unearthed some of these boats, and they were significant vessels with 4-5 crewmen and sails and oars for propulsion—this was not a group of Boy Scout canoes for which Peter was responsible. Further, fishing was his livelihood, and in a fishing town, everyone knew that one didn’t try to fish with nets in the daytime. By following Jesus’ command, St. Peter opened himself up for ridicule from the large crowd and extra, seemingly futile work. Despite all of these excellent reasons to tell Jesus to stay in His lane, the future apostle complies and secures an enormous fortune making catch of fish which frays their nets and almost sinks their boats.
Peter’s response to all of this is to fall on his knees before Jesus and declare, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’ (St. Luke 5:8). It fascinates me that it is this event which breaks Peter for the first time—not the healing of his mother-in-law or the bold, authoritative preaching; no, it’s Jesus meeting Peter in the world he thought he understood and upturning everything he thought he knew about it. As these professional fishermen struggled to get back to land, it became clear that St. Peter and his friends were experiencing their own personal epiphany—a moment in which the only logical explanation for the events occurring all around them was that they were in the presence of the divine. Peter falls on his knees because he knows he is unworthy to be in the presence of absolute holiness. Like Isaiah and Ezekiel before him, God has shown up to lay claim to St. Peter’s life and in that moment, the proud fisherman can only recognizes his darkness as he hides from the light of the world. In that moment, Peter realizes that Jesus may be standing in his boat, but Peter’s boat is sailing on Jesus’ sea.
Our Lord’s answer to Peter’s confession is the same one we hear from St. Peter today in his epistle. Jesus tells Peter, ‘Be not afraid…’ We, of course, live in a very fearful age, which is an interesting phenomenon given the relative safety and plenty of our time. As an observer of the human condition, I can tell you that people are very anxious and afraid. Much of this fear stems from living in a world where the very institutions built to serve and safeguard civilization have been taken over by thieves and liars who use their power to enrich themselves and betray their calling. It is quite reasonable to fear for the future if we place our hopes and dreams in the hands of these wolves. But, what Peter experienced on the deck of his ship was the crushing realization that none of the decaying, lifeless, temporary nonsense fallen men treasure meant anything in the presence of the divine image from which we derive our true identity—no matter how hard we try to maim ourselves and mar its beauty. We desperately need the same experience. When people ask me, ‘Why do I need to go to church to be a Christian,’ their whole mode of thinking is based around an idea that the Christian religion is about harnessing some force to make our present lives better. This position is titanically wrong. One does not become a Christian to make his present life ‘better,’ whatever ‘better’ actually means; no, the only reason to become a Christian is because through the Word of God and the grace of His Sacraments, we truly come into the divine presence and, in that holy communion with God, we recognize the total powerlessness of our own self-righteousness. Every aspect of a true church’s devotion is designed to show us what we are too blind to see on our own: we cannot save ourselves. Anyone who tells us something different is trying to sell us a temporary, decaying trinket to distract us from the truth; what those dark peddlers are selling us is death. If and when we see this absolute reality, we begin to understand that these smiling monsters are asking for our everything and giving us nothing in return.
When Jesus, however, tells Peter, ‘Be not afraid,’ our Savior is engaged in something wholly different. On a warm summer day on the Galilean Sea, the Son of God could look down on a trembling fisherman and know how his story will end. In that moment, Jesus knows that after 3 years, He will offer Himself as a sacrifice for Peter’s sins and the sins of the whole world. He knows that this trembling fisherman will be the beginning of humanity’s only hope, and He knows that, in His divine presence, Peter need not fear anything ever again. Jesus has come to save sinners, but he has also come to show the world why it should want to be saved. We are not saved to become happier dying people; we are not saved to be more satisfied as everything falls apart; no, we are saved to banish fear; we are saved to fight against evil; we are saved to draw dead men into the presence of the living God.
And so, St. Peter can tell us to ‘Be not afraid,’ because he knows that our fear comes from trying to save a worldly, temporary life we can never save—no matter how hard we try. He and the other apostles could leave everything and follow Christ because the only real life is the the eternal one we know is coming because it has already begun in our resurrected Savior. The truth those apostles knew, and I pray we all know, is that by leaving the decaying, lifeless, things of this world they were leaving nothing and gaining everything. They were leaving nothing and gaining everything. So now let us say with St. Peter, ‘Be not afraid,’ for the only thing we have to fear is losing the life we were always going to lose. Let us freely give that life and gain everything.