The Gospel for today from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of St Mark is about how Jesus Christ called Simon Peter and his fellow fishermen, James and John, to follow Him. This is a story that many of us know, but today I would like to suggest—to propose—this call by Jesus Christ to Simon might also be a call to each of us about how to live our lives.
Simon was going about his daily job—fishing with his helpers John and James. Simon had not yet been named Peter, and although Simon knew Jesus as a respected friend and leader, Simon did not yet know that Jesus was and is the Christ. We too go about our daily jobs with our helpers, at work, at school, at university and at home. Jesus Christ is present in our lives, but perhaps we are not yet aware of how powerfully present He will be in our future. Like Simon, we are surrounded by many people; and we are not expecting Christ to come up to us and ask for our help. And yet, and yet, that is precisely what happened to Simon that day. Suddenly, Christ asks Simon to go out in his little boat, just a little distance from the shore, so that Jesus can speak to the large crowd from Simon’s boat. Perhaps that had happened before; and Christ knew that Simon would be willing to help Him, but this is the very first mention of Simon Peter in the Gospel of St Luke. What happened next is what changed the lives of Simon, of James, of John, and perhaps of us.
The Gospel reads, “And [Jesus] sat down and taught the people from [Simon’s] boat. And when He had ceased speaking, He said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ And Simon answered, ‘Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at Your word I will let down the nets.’” At times, I have felt like Simon after a time of fruitless fishing; and perhaps this has happened to some of you. We have worked hard at trying to achieve a livelihood, at trying to accomplish something of value, but we have not been successful. Then we pray and trust that Christ will help us; and suddenly everything fits into place, perhaps not exactly as we intended, but as Christ intends. This was what happened to Simon. When he let down the nets, “they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them.”
St Cyril of Alexandria, a fourth century Patriarch strongly committed to spreading the Gospel of Christ, has offered an insightful commentary on this Gospel. St Cyril has written that Peter and his companions, and I quote, “beckoned to . . . those who shared their [work] in fishing, to come and help them securing their [fish]. For many have taken part with the holy apostles in their [work], and still do so,” preached St Cyril, “especially those who inquire into the meaning of what is written in the holy Gospels” [end of quote]. In other words, whether in the first century or the fourth century or the twenty-first century, if we “inquire into the meaning of what is written in the holy Gospels,” we share in the work of Christ. If we read the Gospels, they can offer us important insights on how to live.
Now Simon was immediately aware that he had become part of a miracle worked by Jesus Christ; and Simon felt so unworthy “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” That is a very humble response from Simon, but rather than agree with Simon about how sinful he was, “Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” The prophetic words of Jesus Christ that henceforth Simon would be “catching men” were appropriate in a first-century culture, because it was assumed that when Simon caught men and their households, women would be part of those households. However, in the twenty-first century we rightly insist that men and women are both invited as equals to come to Christ.
A fifth century bishop and preacher, St Maximus of Turin, has pointed out that we should all “understand that the Lord was speaking of spiritual fishing.” In other words, suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, Simon is confronted with a big change in his understanding of life and of what work he should be doing. As St Maximus phrases it:
[Simon sees that he] will [no longer] fish with fishing gear, but with grace [that is, with the mercy and love offered by God to humanity. Simon will no longer fish] with diligence acquired by skill but with perseverance acquired by devotion. . . . [Simon] Peter, who beforehand was unable to see in order to make a catch, enduring darkness without Christ, had indeed toiled [that is, worked hard] through the whole night. But when the Saviour’s light shone upon him, the darkness [was] scattered, and by faith [Simon] began to discern [that is, to see clearly] in the deep [water] what he could not see with his eyes.
We are each in the same situation now as Simon. If we live our lives only with “diligence acquired by skill,” we might be able to live peaceful, uneventful lives—perhaps—but we will not be able to live the event-full lives that Christ plans for us, as each of us serve Christ in different ways.
I close with a metaphor from St Maximus. Children, a metaphor is a way of applying the meaning of one word to another word. In this case, the word “boat” is taken by St Maximus to mean “the Church.” St Maximus preached, and I quote, “Just as a little boat holds the dying fish that have been brought up from the deep [water], so also the vessel of the Church gives life to human beings who have been freed from turmoil [that is, from deep confusion and stress]. Within itself, I say,” preached St Maximus, “the Church gives life to those who are half-dead, as it were” [end of quote]. Now, perhaps we are not half-dead. As independent persons alive on earth with God-given free will, we are not “dying fish” or “half-dead.” However, St Maximus is fundamentally right: if we live in the midst of the grace and love that Christ offers to each of us, we become alive in Christ, part of His Church, and part of His plan for each of our lives.