“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” Peter says after falling to his knees. Jesus responds saying: “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching men.” The interchange between Jesus and Peter happens on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had asked Peter to take him offshore so that the gathering crowds could hear him teach.
After this, Jesus asks Peter to set out into deep water and to lower the nets. Peter responds by telling Jesus that they had been fishing all night and had caught nothing. He nevertheless puts out and lowers the nets. The catch is so overwhelming that Peter and his crew are astonished. Something miraculous has happened, hence he falls on his knees before Jesus.
Peter’s disposition before Jesus is admirable. He recognizes his unworthiness before the Lord. He is a sinner. Jesus’ response is remarkable. He tells Peter that there is no need of fear and that from now on Peter will be a fisher of men.
The encounter is one that will happen in different ways throughout the public ministry of Jesus. Peter has a unique role in “catching men,” in other words in the life of the Church, however all followers of Jesus are called to share the good news and invite others to the life that Jesus offers. He has a mission that he shares with his followers.
Peter’s humility before the Lord is similar to that of Isaiah. We hear in the account from Isaiah in the first reading for Sunday’s liturgy that Isaiah has a vision of the heavenly court. Isaiah sees himself before God the almighty, King of heaven and earth.
Isaiah, like Peter, recognizes his unworthiness before the Lord and says: “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Yet the Lord chooses Isaiah to be his spokesperson, to be his prophet. He is first cleansed of his sins through the mercy of God, symbolized by the angel touching Isaiah’s tongue with an ember from the altar. Then Isaiah hears the question, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” Isaiah responds: “Here I am, send me!”
The wholehearted response of Isaiah is one that Peter will embrace, one in which all of us who are called Christian should embrace. The call to serve the Lord through the spreading of his Word is given to all who share in his life.
The abundance of fish hauled into the boats, especially contrasted with the fishermen’s earlier efforts, points to the great number of people who will find faith through the efforts of these and future “fishers of men.”
Yet it is not them, in themselves, who accomplish this great spread of the Gospel, it is the Lord who works in them. It is at his command and through him that the communion of the church is established and grows. But he calls people like Peter, Andrew, James and John and many others as the Gospel unfolds to carry on his work in the world.
The call of Peter certainly highlights Peter’s role in the church. He among all the apostles is signaled out in this particular account of the call. His role is further identified and specified as Jesus’ mission continues. His role comes to full flowering after Pentecost as he clearly leads the other apostles and disciples in the proclamation of the Gospel. Yet Peter’s call also serves as a reminder to us that we are all invited into service of the Lord and called to be his witnesses.
Jesus invites Peter to set out into deep water. How many times in our lives have we been asked to go out into the deep? To areas of our lives not yet explored. To arenas where we never have ventured. To situations that seem hopeless or sometimes senseless. We all have to face these challenges in life.
Now the difference between Peter’s two tries at fishing that dark night give us an insight. The first attempt Peter and his men did alone – and caught nothing. The second attempt was directed by Jesus and done at his request. With Jesus the catch was astounding and abundant. Jesus makes the difference.
The same is true in our lives. Jesus makes the difference. If he is with us, then any situation, challenge or opportunity can be transformed; many times without us even realizing it.
Jesus calls us to continue his saving work. He shares his mission with us. All of us are called in the particular vocations of our lives, to spread the Gospel and to invite others to life through Christ Jesus. This mission entails the “handing on” of the Gospel that has been given to us in Christ Jesus. St. Paul reminds us of this in the passage from First Corinthians that serves as the second reading for today’s Mass.
Paul recalls for the Corinthian Christians that his mission comes from Christ, and the Gospel he preaches is that of Christ. The center of that Gospel is the proclamation that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.”
Jesus has died and is risen. He is alive. He has conquered sin and death. He is the victor. He is the Lord of Life. This is the message. In him we have life. He shows us the way to life. The Gospel preached by Paul is authentic because, like the others, he is handing on what has been given to him to hand on.
Paul, like Peter and Isaiah, also recognizes his unworthiness for such a mission. His unworthiness is perhaps the most dramatic for, as he says, “I persecuted the church of God.” The transformation in his life, like the others, was through an encounter with Christ. Unlike Peter, Paul’s experience was only of the Risen Lord, having not known Jesus prior to his death and resurrection. Regardless, Paul says: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.”
Paul continues giving witness to the power of God’s grace in Christ Jesus that continues to be poured out through the mission. He says: “Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me. Therefore, whether it be I or they, so we preach and so you believed.”
The proclamation of the Gospel continues. The mission of Jesus continues. Through the life of the church and her members, God’s saving Word is proclaimed, his saving activity continues, and many come to life because of it.
On Wednesday of next week we will begin our annual observance of Lent in preparation for the celebration of Easter. Perhaps as part of our Lenten observance we might reflect on Christ’s mission in our own lives. He loves us despite our sinfulness. He calls us in mercy and transforms us through his life-giving death and resurrection.
This great gift of love that has been handed on to us is not for us alone but a gift to be shared by all. All are called to faith. All are called to life. All are called to spread the good news of salvation and to be transformed by it.
Our Lenten observance provides an opportunity for renewal so that our thanksgiving will be deeper and our proclamation more authentic. And so we say with Peter; “Depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man,” and we hear Jesus say to us: “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching me.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.