I love miracles; I want to see miracles, they are spectacular and exciting, they really mark the moment, and when they happen I know that there is something bigger than myself going on. Things that are spectacular and out of the ordinary have a real way of catching our attention — and when Simon, later called Peter, met Jesus these spectacular things started happening.
In Luke’s gospel, we first see Simon Peter when Jesus is going to his house after he leaves the synagogue. At this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus was traveling from town to town preaching in a number of synagogues. Now I don’t know why Jesus went to Peter’s house after teaching in the synagogue; maybe it was because Peter, as a small businessman with a handful of employees, was accustomed to offering hospitality. Maybe Jesus and Peter already knew each other because they both lived in Capernaum. What is important is that Peter’s mother in law was ill when Jesus visited, but Jesus healed her. This story ends with a few words telling us that Jesus left town to travel from town to town preaching in synagogues.
The next chapter, he is back at the lake, and there is a crowd eager to hear him teaching. As exciting as eager crowds are, they are more than a little dangerous; such a crowd could push Jesus into the lake. Jesus gets onto Peter’s boat and asks him to launch so that he can speak to the crowd from the boat.
When Jesus finished speaking, he told Peter to put out into the deep water, and start fishing. Peter answered that they had been fishing all night and that they caught nothing, but, he’d cast again at Jesus’ request. The catch was big enough that the boat couldn’t hold them all — in fact, it was so big that when Peter called for help, and the other boat came, it was too much for both boats.
When Peter saw the miracle, he was a bit afraid of such miraculous power — but Jesus told Peter not to be afraid, and that from this point on he would be catching people. Luke tells us that Peter and his fishing partners James and John were all there for this catch. When these men returned to the shore, scripture tells us that they left everything and followed Jesus.
How Peter responded to Jesus calling him into something else amazes me. Peter had a small business and business partners. He had a mother in law, which strongly implies he had a wife, he had a home, and thus he had all the bills and expenses and responsibilities that come with having a small business and a family. People depended on him, both his own family and his business partners; and his work benefited society, because everybody needs to eat. Peter walked away from his business, including two boats overfilled with fresh fish. It is tough to commit to something new and risky when you have a vision for your life — this is what Peter did, he walked away from his life for something new.
When I read this passage last week, for some reason the last chapter of John came to mind. If you recall, John ends with Peter saying to several disciples: “ Let’s go fishing”, so several disciples go fishing with Peter. This happens after Jesus is crucified — it even happens after Easter, and after Jesus appeared to several of the disciples.
Peter had denied Jesus, and it is very possible when he said: “let’s go fishing”, he was ready to end that chapter of his life and go back to the work that he knew. Needless to say, the Crucifixion wasn’t in Peter’s plans — and it made sense for him to go back to work after Jesus was dead and buried. It made far more sense for him to go back to work than it did to wait and figure out what it meant that a number of disciples saw a ghost.
So, Peter and several disciples fish all night, and they catch nothing. At sunrise, a man on the shore calls to them and asked them if they caught anything; the men in the boat answered that they caught nothing, so Jesus said: “Cast your net on the right side of the boat,” they did, and the net had too many fish it it for them to bring it into the boat, so they had to drag the fish to shore beside the boat. Somebody recognizes Jesus, so Peter jumps into the lake to swim to shore. Jesus then invites the disciples to eat breakfast with him and following breakfast Jesus had a discussion with Peter that ended with what Jesus said the first time there was a miraculous catch of fish: “Follow me.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m sometimes a bit slow to pick up on things. I too often need to be told three times before something really sinks in. I know I point out that even after spending years with Jesus, the disciples did not always get what seems obvious after a nearly 2000 years of Christianity; but when I look at how long it took me to learn some things that seem obvious now, I have to admit that like Peter I’d need to be told again.
If I try to put myself in Peter’s place, “Follow me” would seem to have ended at the cross. As great as a Jesus internship was, it would never have crossed my mind that I would follow Jesus after Jesus was buried. I’d basically need to be called again to realize that “Follow me” had a metaphoric as well as a literal meaning; it is hard to embrace the metaphor when the literal meaning was correct. Literally, Peter followed Jesus as far as he could — why would he assume there was another meaning that would allow him to follow further unless he was called again; and even if I were clever enough to realize that “follow me” meant something bigger, the shame of denying Jesus may cause me to doubt that I was still called.
Now that I know that Jesus meant more than what was literal, I wonder what life-lessons Peter might have learned from these experiences that served as matching bookends: Why did Jesus say “Follow me” after a miraculous catch of fish, and what might have Peter seen when he reflected on it.
In both accounts, Peter had been fishing all night and had nothing to show for it. I think it is safe to say that this would not be a common experience. Empty nets do not pay the bills, and Peter does not seem the type who would insist on spending every night doing unproductive labor. Peter had an extraordinary failure so that he could see that when he did things on his own, nothing came from it, but Jesus provided everything. While this is not the normal results when fishing, when fishing people, it is God that gives the increase.
Another thing that is different between fishing fish and fishing for people is that when fishing if you fish all night and catch nothing, you can’t expect to catch anything in the morning either. The pattern of results is different so it would not work to treat both as they are the same.
I’m going to give a practical example: Six months ago, we had no idea if Iglesia Amigos could survive. Two blows came together — first blow, the church lost a family that was very dear to them, a faithful volunteer who was the first person to start attending. This blow came with another, roughly at the same time, an announcement that the most common legal status for the attendees would be phased out next year. It felt like the community was under attack, and the only thing I could imagine is the little flock being scattered.
Last Sunday, there were two services. The reason why there were two services is that Iglesia Amigos is twice as big as it was the Sunday before the calamity and two services are necessary. The larger of the two services had an attendance of about 70 people, which is as much as the worship space can comfortably hold. It is remarkable to go from questioning viability to needing to add services in a matter of months. You might know, Karla and I buy little gifts when they are on clearance, and make an in-kind donation to the church to give to the children; This December, the church church money to supplement these because the gifts that we donated were not nearly enough; not only that, but, they have started to write reimbursement checks (through in-kind donations are still pretty common). I’ve said before that they needed to move because there is a lack of classroom space: they now need to move because they fill the worship room as well, and starting on March 9 they will rent from a church that has space for them to grow.
Having observed what it means to work all night and catch nothing, and then suddenly have a catch bigger than the boat can hold; I have a new perspective of what it means to be fishers for people. It really is distressing to see what seems to be a disaster and have nothing to show for your work, and wonder if it is time to pack up and move on. I imagine most people involved in church planting have had those moments. No matter how much work you put into it — God gives the increase and on God’s timing. Simon Peter was called away from the fishing boat to fish for people, and we still fish for people. Some days we catch nothing, other days there are miracles.