Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany | Luke 5:1-11, Isaiah 6:1-13
We don’t know what Jesus told them. A story centered on Jesus sitting in a boat and teaching a crowd, and we don’t hear a word of what was said. That’s odd.
We do hear from Peter, a fisherman willing to let this wandering teacher use his boat as a platform, the water’s edge as an amphitheater. More than that, Peter is willing to take their nets, the ones they were washing out and putting away, and drop them back into the Sea of Galilee. (Yes, same place — Gennesaret, Galilee, Tiberias.) Whatever Jesus had been saying must have made an impression.
When tired fishermen pull in two boatloads of fish, that makes a bigger impression.
Peter’s reaction is the most interesting part. That is where this gospel story is focused — not on the teaching, not on the miraculous catch that’s so large we’re still telling the fish story 2,000 years later, but on how Peter responds.
If Peter had no depth of character, he would have asked Jesus to come back and repeat the miracle the next day. If he had been a religious man, Peter would have questioned Jesus, his claims of authority, this sign of his miraculous power. If Peter were a little bit more religious, he would have asked for blessings — not fish, but other gifts. Power. Something to be gained from the divine.
If Peter were extremely religious, carrying around the guilt that religious folk specialize in carrying around and handing out, he may even have asked for forgiveness. He doesn’t do any of that. Instead, he asks Jesus to leave.
“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Maybe that’s what Jesus sees in Peter. Not his sins, likely as plentiful as our own, but his heart. His lack of self-deception. His focus on what he himself lacks rather than on what someone else might do for him.
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord….” That is the beginning of the matched passage the lectionary gives us from Isaiah. King Uzziah had been king for over 50 years — since long before the prophet was born, it is thought. A father figure, a symbol of authority and stability, a personification of national identity, is dead. It’s a crossroad, a moment of change, and the prophet has a vision of God.
“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Sound familiar? It’s the same kind of heart. Peter might have said the same thing, given a better vocabulary.
Today, it’s popular to focus on the other person, but not in a good way — here’s why she’s wrong, why he’s not like us, what they should be giving us, why we think God is going to condemn them and love us. Peter and Isaiah are self-centered, but not in a bad way — here’s what keeps me humble, what makes me understand that the universe does not revolve around me.
Peter saw everything clearly, and he found it to be a humbling experience. May we learn from his example.
There were other similar stories in the gospels, of course. Here’s a re-telling of one set later in John. It’s from my novel, I,John.
I was left remembering all of it, at least I was left remembering those days. They were in my mind with the vividness of dreams, the ones that somehow seem more real than memory. Not that all of it was the same. Some moments stood out more than others, as with any memories, and not always the moments that I would have thought. One might think that the crucifixion was my most vivid memory, but it was not. Oh, I remembered that day, certainly, but it was not what haunted my dreams or crept into my waking thoughts. I remembered blind men, and Mary. I remembered Peter’s great bobbing head as he made his way through the crowds. I remembered the bread that Jesus gave us.
Most of all, I dreamed of that morning at the shore.
Smoke was rising from a small fire on the beach, and I saw him standing next to it. He was looking over the water toward us as we made our way to shore. I thought I knew him, even from that distance, but I couldn’t place him.
No one was talking. Peter’s boat was creaking, leaking slightly from having seen little use for the last three years. Maybe it was good that we had caught nothing. We probably would have torn the nets and sunk the boat with us in it. A fine bunch of fishermen we were. Perhaps we had forgotten how to fish, forgotten how to live like regular people, make a living.
Peter was mending a hole in the net. He dropped the netting shuttle, and I could hear him muttering and cursing as he felt around in the coils of rope for it. He had a curse for everything, all manner of language rearranged to suit the target. When his muttering died down, the only other sound was made by waves gurgling on the side of the hull.
“Friends, have you got any fish?”
I heard his voice over the water. Friends, he said. Something about the voice was like it was speaking inside me instead of from the beach, a crazy idea.
No, we told him. Nothing. No breakfast here. Go away.
“Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you will catch some.”
All of us stared over the water at him, at the small fire, the smoke. That voice, I thought. We each turned and looked over the side of the boat. Nothing, no ripples, no flash from fish swimming in the morning light. We looked at our nets, piled in the bottom of the boat, wet and empty. Nobody spoke; we just started moving, pulling a net up, throwing it over the side.
The ropes pulled tight right away. We must have snagged something, I thought, and I leaned over the side to see into the water. Fish, schooling, a flashing churning shoal of fish, were filling the net, drawing it down. The others started pulling on the net ropes, straining against the weight. I was holding a mast tie, leaning out the other side of the boat for a counterweight, and I looked back to see him on the beach. He stood perfectly still, watching us, and I thought he smiled. That was when I knew him.
“It is the Lord,” I said, leaning out over the water. The boat lurched as Peter grabbed his tunic and jumped into the water, swimming for the shore. The rest of us struggled to get the net into the boat, fish piled gasping at our feet. As we made for shore I again held a mast tie and leaned out over the water, this time at the bow to listen and watch. It seemed to me that their voices murmured across the water, Peter and Jesus, but I could never tell what they said over the sounds of the oars and of the others talking in the boat before letting their words die as they also looked to the shore and to the one sitting with Peter on the beach.
There was a bump and the sound of sand dragging against the hull, and we were ashore. We left the boat and the fish, not bothering to cover them with our net or to wet them as was our wont. We stepped onto the sandy beach still unbelieving but wanting to believe, waiting for our vision to clear or the moment to resolve itself into something other than what we perceived.
Jesus was sitting by a fire, his arms around his knees as though simply sitting there was natural, was what he always did. He is dead, I thought to myself. I watched him die, slowly, crucified. Most of the others had run, not that I blamed them. I stayed. The women were there and somehow I could not leave them, could not leave him.
“Mother, behold your son,” he had said. I thought he meant himself. “Son, behold your mother,” he had added, and I knew he meant me, though at first I thought he meant to call me his son rather than Mary’s. Later I was not so sure he did not.
In years to come it was the sea that I thought of, blue green at the surface that day, black in the depths and shoaling with silver fish unseen from above.