Ordinary Time 5
February 7, 2010
William G. Carter
There are many stories in the New Testament about people who are called to serve God and follow Jesus. Of all those stories, this story makes the most sense.
Remember the story about Paul? (Acts 9:1-20) He was persecuting the church, dragging Christians out of their houses and condemning them to death. One day, he saw the Light, and it knocked him off his horse. It's hard to relate to such a dramatic conversion, but there it is.
Remember the story about Matthew? (Matthew 9:9-13) One day he was sitting at his tax collection table, minding his own business and counting the change. All of a sudden, Jesus looked at him, and said, "Get in step and follow me." Matthew didn't take time to think about it. He stood up and went. It is difficult to understand such an abrupt decision, but there it is.
Remember the story of Nathanael? (John 1:43-51) His brother Philip told him about Jesus. He sounded interesting, until Philip said, "And he's from Nazareth!" Nathanael said, "Can anything good come out of that one-donkey town?"
Just then, Jesus said, "I saw you under a fig tree before Philip called you." Suddenly Nathanael states a Christological formulation: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel!" It is curious to hear about such instant orthodoxy, but there it is.
But the call of Simon Peter? That story is far more satisfying. The way Luke tells it, Simon wasn't sure that he fit into the whole Jesus business. It took some time for him to figure it out, and even then he had some misgivings. Did you hear what he said? "Get away from me, Lord. I'm not a good enough person for you." That's the way Luke tells it.
If you listen to the gospels of Matthew or Mark, the story is much shorter. In those more familiar accounts, Jesus showed up one day and said, "Come, follow me!" Immediately Simon Peter dropped his net on the shore and off he went. No questions in his heart. No doubts in his mind. No inner conflicts. No sense of inadequacy. Immediately he went.
But as Luke tells the story, the call of Jesus could have happened to you or to me. By the time Jesus gets to the beach in chapter five, he has already been to Simon Peter's house. He went there after preaching in the synagogue. Simon's mother-in-law did not hear the sermon. She stayed home with a very high fever, and they asked Jesus about her. So Luke says he stood over her and screamed at the headache. The headache left her, so she got up and made some soup. Jesus went to that house long before he ever mentioned a job change to Simon Peter.
And there is no telling Simon would have taken the job anyway. Who wants a Boss who screams at your mother-in-law's headache?
Then Jesus went down to the lake to preach on the beach. It would have been a serene place to hear a sermon, but there was a crowd pressing up against him. So he climbed into Simon's boat, pushed out from shore, and began to speak some more. All of this happened before he said, "Come, follow me."
After Jesus finished speaking, they pushed themselves into really deep water. Jesus proved himself to be the first in a long line of preachers who could offer some advice on fishing. It didn't sound like good advice, and Simon said as much. Fish feed in that lake at night, not broad daylight. They stay close to the rocks near shore, and not in the deep. But Jesus insisted. Simon and his helpers threw in their nets and the catch was unbelievable! Fish began to swim into the nets and jump into the boat. There were so many fish, the boat began to sink with Jesus still in it.
Somebody waved to the partners on shore: "Get another boat out here, so we can save the Savior." It was a silly thing to say.
For one thing, there were too many fish, and too little deck space. For another, a Savior doesn't need much saving. The other boat came out anyway. The fish began to jump into that boat. The boat began to sink. Next thing you know, all those men began to yell at one another: "Get these boats to shore."
Peter was on his knees, absolutely enshrouded in amazement. Then he said the first truly intelligent thing he said all day: "Get away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"
If you ask me, this is a story that I can understand. It is not an instant success story. Instead it is time consuming, unfinished, and it smells like fish. At a moment when Simon Peter the fisherman gets the catch of the century, he wants to push away the Founder of the Flounders.
And who can blame him? The church has manufactured its own mythology about the first disciples. We have spun tales about their grounded faith and their perfect understanding. We want to believe that they had their collective act together. We want to affirm the people around Jesus as competent and capable, always knowing the correct answer to a question or the perfect solution to a problem.
But that was not the case. The twelve disciples were ordinary people, like you and me.
I don't know about you, but that makes me feel a whole lot better. Following Christ is difficult enough. It is an awesome task to live as God's person in a world like this.
It is even worse when you're a leader, under the scrutiny of the others, with demands put on you to lead God's rag-tag bunch. Who among us is qualified to lead, let alone follow? Who among us has enough holy traits, or few enough bad habits? Not one. According to the Bible, all kinds of people have said so.
Abraham said, "I'm too old."
Jeremiah said, "I'm too young."
Moses said, "I don't talk so good."
Mary said, "I am only a woman." God never hears any new excuses.
Simon Peter pulled in a load of fish, and said, "Lord, get out of here. I can't handle this. It is too much for me to take in. I am not the kind of person who can handle such generosity. I am not good enough to have you in my boat."
Call him, if you will, the patron saint of inadequacy. Simon Peter stands in a long biblical tradition.
These days, church people still squabble about who is good enough to serve the Lord. When that happens, I suggest we read the Bible. None of us are good enough, but God wants us anyway.
That is not to say the work is easy. Jesus said, "I want to invite you to give up fish to go fishing." Ever since the time of Jeremiah (16:16), whenever anybody talked about "going fishing," it was a metaphor for doing God's work. When Jesus said, "Go fish," he meant to gather in as many fish as we could, so that God alone can sort out the good and the bad, and ultimately God alone can decide what to keep and what to throw back.
For our part, we are called upon to throw out the net as far as we can, and then see what happens.
So the first word he speaks: "Don't be afraid!" We can be amazed, painfully aware of all the problems we face and the limitations we know.
Yet he says to us, "Don't be afraid!" It is Christ's call, Christ's work, and Christ's miracle. The invitation never begins nor ends with us. The One who calls us is the One who knows that he only has imperfect people to call. For our part, we simply have to decide if we are going to get out of the boat once we land on shore.
As Joseph Fitzmyer points out, when Simon says, "Go and leave me," Simon acknowledges that Jesus is rooted in "a realm or sphere to which he himself does not belong." The One who calls us in the midst of our inadequacy is the One who ultimately judges us adequate. None of us are ever good enough, but God is good enough. And that's where we must start and finish.
The people who should scare us the most are the people who answer the call of Christ with such smug self-confidence that they know exactly what they are going to do. The person who thinks that she or he has all the answers frightens me. People like that are scary, because they follow their own agenda - - and do not pursue what is most healthy for the whole body of Christ. A self-righteous servant is a contradiction in terms. The only person whom God can use - - and by this I mean the only person - - is the person who can hold humility in one hand, and in the other hand, confidence in the Gospel which redeems us.
The invitation to serve and follow Christ is greater than any one of us can fulfill. When the invitation comes, we are called beyond any feelings of inadequacy to grow into the role, to claim the purpose, and to invest ourselves in Christ's future. It is a future when we will be presented, not in our own power, but in Christ's power, fully mature, fully humble, and full of love.
It’s Super Bowl Sunday, so let me end with a favorite football story. A number of years ago, Dr. John Hubbard, the former president of the University of Southern California, took a trip to Texas. While he was there, he met Tom Landry, the coach of the Dallas Cowboys. When he left, Coach Landry gave him a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt.
Sometime later, Dr. Hubbard put on the shirt, and went out to play a round of golf. His caddy noticed the t-shirt and said, "Sir, are you the coach of the Dallas Cowboys?"
Without thinking, Dr. Hubbard said, "No, I'm not the coach. I guess I'm a scout."
The caddy was deeply impressed, and said, "I play football for Cerritos Junior College. Someday do you think I could play for the Cowboys?" Dr. Hubbard sized him up and responded, "Son, I don't know if you have the size to play professional football. But keep at it, for you never know what might happen."
By the time he sank his final putt, Dr. Hubbard was feeling a little guilty about what he said, so he turned to the caddy and said, "I want you to have this t-shirt, but I'm afraid it is too big for you."
The young man smiled at him. Then he said something very wise. "Don't worry, sir. I'll wear it until it fits."
(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved
Note: Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX (New York: Doubleday, 1981) 587.