Fr. Dan Ruff, S.J. – Pastor
Old St. Joseph’s Church, Philadelphia
5th Sunday O.T. (C) – 2-7-10 – 5:30 p.m. Vigil, 6:30 p.m.
I think this passage from the fifth chapter of Luke’s Gospel is probably my favorite conversion and call story. First of all, it’s about Peter – and what’s not to love about Peter? Secondly, I think it tells us a lot about how Jesus breaks into our lives, and what he wants from us and for us. And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it tells us a lot about our perspective versus God’s – particularly as regards our own sinfulness.
First of all, the person of Peter himself. Remember, this is Jesus’ own choice for first pope – the one who will be left to lead the infant Church after Jesus’ ascension to the Father. Peter has no Ph.D. or teaching credential. He is not even a rabbi like St. Paul. He is presumably an observant Jew in a down-to-earth, blue-collar kind of way. He is also burly and strong, his skin sunburnt and weathered from long days of fishing on the Sea of Galilee. The man is a bit rough around the edges, a blunt and plain-spoken man who seems, often enough, to suffer from “foot in mouth” disease – his mouth gets in motion before his mind is in gear.
So what on earth can have attracted Jesus to call this man as a disciple, let alone as leader of all the disciples? Well, certainly, there is a simplicity and an honesty, a deep-down genuineness about the man – what you see and hear is what you get. Peter also seems endowed with incredible passion and vital energy. But maybe most important of all, Peter has a great heart – generous, loyal, and deeply loving. He is a man willing to go out on a limb – to trust his intuitions and take a risk.
How many fishermen, I wonder, would be willing to loan their boat as an improvised pulpit to some unknown itinerant preacher? And yet, as I have prayed imaginatively with this passage over the years, I have always supposed that Peter agreed to Jesus’ request, at least in part, because he wanted to hear what Jesus would say. Even more telling – how many fishermen, having fished all night and caught nothing, and having just washed their nets before heading home to breakfast and some shut-eye, would have put their boats out into deep water and cast their nets again, simply because a rabbi said so? Yet Peter does this – seemingly without hesitation. Thus, we know that something inside him is willing to trust Jesus, even before he really gets to know the man who will become his Master.
Second point for today’s Gospel: how Jesus breaks into our workaday lives, and what he wants from us, and for us. I think, most often, Jesus enters our own lives more or less as he enters Peter’s – that is, he simply shows up. I can’t help wondering – had Peter already heard rumors about this wandering rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, and his interesting new message? Or was he simply intrigued by Jesus’ forthrightness, and by the compelling presence of Jesus’ personality?
Either way, I feel pretty confident that Peter did not imagine, as he was loaning his boat to Jesus, that he was responding to a divine visitation. Rather, the meeting of Peter and Jesus must have seemed like a random occurrence, one of a thousand such incidents that make up our own days and weeks. Only later on, with the benefit of insight and hindsight, would Peter realize what a fateful meeting this was – a life-changing encounter charged with God’s grace.
I believe that Jesus usually comes to us just as simply. Burning bushes, visions and voices, are the rare exceptions. More often, the Incarnate Word comes in the voice of a friend who says: “Are you sure you really want to do that? Slow down; think it through first.” Or Jesus speaks to us through a song on the radio, a human interest story in the pages of the Inquirer, a request from a neighbor for help. If we want not to miss our own life-changing encounters with Jesus, our own transformative infusions of divine grace, then we need to have our eyes and ears open, to be listening intently with our hearts, to be reviewing our days with the consciousness Examen, so that with hindsight and insight we can catch God’s regular interventions in the ordinary fabric of our daily lives.
Third point: when we relate to God, God is the larger and more powerful partner. Whatever is truly good and powerful in our lives originates with God’s creativity and generosity. So when we find ourselves face-to-face with God’s power and goodness, it is natural for us to feel small and inadequate – because we are. So, when Jesus thanks Peter for the use of his boat by causing the miraculous catch of fish, Peter naturally feels awed and overwhelmed. He falls to his knees and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
But… what is Jesus’ response? “Yes, fine, tell me something I don’t already know. But I actually like working with honest, contrite sinners. In fact, your brokenness is apt to make you inclined to trust and depend on me; so don’t be afraid! And I’ll teach you how to fish for people, for souls!” There, sisters and brothers, is the Good News! Our smallness and inadequacy don’t matter! In fact, they may actually be helpful, provided they make us willing to trust, depend, and follow!
St. Paul’s experience was similar. A devout persecutor of Christians, Paul was literally “knocked off his high horse” by Jesus and told that his admirable and potentially useful zeal was utterly misdirected. For the rest of his life, and throughout his writings, Paul would look back and ponder that fateful moment of encounter with the risen Jesus. And so, we heard him this evening in First Corinthians, “Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.”
So… we can glory in our weakness, our brokenness! Provided we are honest, self-aware sinners who are willing to respond to grace and follow Jesus, we find ourselves in great company! We can no longer hide behind the excuses: “Oh, I can’t pray. That’s for holy people!” “Oh, I can’t follow Jesus and preach the Good News – that’s too hard for me!” Rather, the Good News is precisely what Peter preached: “I told him, ‘Depart from me, Lord; I’m a sinner!’ And do you know what he said then? He said, ‘Don’t be afraid; I’ll teach you to catch souls!’” Or the Good News is Paul recalling: “I hated and persecuted Jesus’ followers; but he went out of his way to speak to me, to show me how wrong-headed I was. And then he sent me to Christians who healed me and called down the Spirit on me. And he invited me – me! – to go out and preach the Good News of forgiveness, conversion, and salvation.”
So bottom line, sisters and brothers? Weakness and fear are no excuses for begging off from becoming disciples of Jesus and preachers of his Gospel. They are, instead, a summons to open ourselves to healing grace and respond to its promptings. And we must honestly ask ourselves: is it failure we fear? Or is it success? Do we cling perversely to our familiar negative self-images, refusing conversion because we fear change and challenge? Do we continue to dream small because we fear the cost of dreaming big?
I love the famous inspirational passage by Marianne Wiliamson in her book, A Return to Love. She writes: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some; it is in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
If Jesus stands for anything, it is for this: allowing love and trust to liberate us from fear. Jesus saw all that Peter could be; and when Peter confessed his own fear and brokenness, Jesus responded: “Great! Now I can step in and teach you to catch other people!” When Paul was lying stunned on the road to Damascus, Jesus said: “Great! Now you are ready to ready to carry my name to Gentiles and kings as well as to Israelites, and to suffer for my name!”
The lesson for us is clear. The Gospel is not for posers; it is not for the practitioners of spiritual plastic surgery. Like Peter and Paul, we are to meant bring ourselves – warts and limps and all – and trust that the God who made us will shape and use us as he sees fit. We must also be vigilant and open to the work of grace – waiting and watching for God’s interventions in the mundane details of our daily lives. And lastly, we must trust that our sinfulness and brokenness create space and opportunity for God’s transformative grace to work its way with us; and we must risk becoming all that God imagines we can be – even when that pulls us beyond obscurity and facelessness, and beyond the safe and the familiar. If we can dare to conquer our fear, we, too, can become catchers of women and men.
©2010 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.