Our Gospel reading today is Luke’s version of how Jesus called his first disciples, chief among them Simon Peter. This is more than a matter of historical interest, because we too call ourselves disciples of Christ, and so much of what is true of Jesus’s first interaction with those who followed him then is also true for those of us who attempt to follow him now and will be true of his followers in the future.
There are in fact three truths about Christ’s call upon our lives that I want to point out today. First, when Jesus calls someone, there is a moment of self-recognition in that calling. Peter discovers something about himself in this moment. Second, when Jesus calls someone, he calls them to a new kind of work and life. Peter is given a new job to do when he chooses to follow Jesus. And third, when Jesus calls someone, he calls them to leave their old life behind.
So let’s consider the circumstances of Christ’s call on Peter. Interestingly enough, according to Luke Jesus calls his first disciples at something of a low point in their lives.
Simon Peter with James and John, his business partners in their little fishing consortium,have been out all night and taken nothing, and now they are cleaning up their nets after a difficult and fruitless effort. It’s been a frustrating time, with lots of work and nothing to show for it.
Fishing from boats would have taken place overnight, so it’s probably daybreak now, but despite the early hour, masses of people are already pressing in to hear the word of God that Jesus uniquely speaks, and so he gets into Peter’s boat to continue his teaching. And when he is done, he has a last word for Peter directly: “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
You will notice that Jesus does not say, “let down your nets and maybe you’ll get a catch.”
He says, “Do as I say and you will get a catch.”
And yet there seems to be no particular reason to believe this. Peter is an experienced fisherman who has been working all night; if there areas fish to be taken he would have taken them, but he trusts the word of Christ and does as he is bid.
Jesus promises Peter a catch, and a catch he gets. All night long there were no fish, and now there are more than they can all handle.
So here is the first point. Self-recognition. Peter knows he is seeing a miracle. Nothing can explain this except the power that is wrought by the word of God, which has just been spoken in his hearing.
And because he is in the presence of the divine Peter does what people in the Bible always do when they realize they are in the presence of the divine. Gideon in today’s reading from Judges does this, and now Peter does it too. He says, “depart from me, for I am a sinful man.”
The presence of the holy convicts us of our own sin. Knowing we are sinful means we cannot remain safely in the presence of God. We, like Peter, know that our sins make us unworthy to be in God’s presence.
But Jesus does not depart. Jesus does not depart from sinners, because as he says in this very same chapter he came not to call the righteous but to call sinners to repentance.
That is why he is here. Jesus did not come to recruit the morally perfect. He is here to call sinners to repentance, and that is good news for a sinner like me and good news I trust for you too.
Second point: Jesus calls us to a new life. The fishing metaphor is a memorable one, and Luke skillfully develops it, but there are depths here that we may miss.
Peter is a fisherman, and he has as he put it in verse 5 “taken” nothing despite a night’s effort. When Jesus miraculously provides a great catch we know he is intent on staying with us despite our sin and calling us to something new. And so he tells Peter, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.”
The most obvious way this is new is that Peter Jesus says will now be fishing for something different; instead of fishing for fish, he will fish for people.
But with these words, I want to argue that Jesus changes the meaning of what Peter does. He doesn’t just change what Peter fishes for; he changes what it means to fish.
It is good that our translation uses different words for what Peter describes as his own activity:—“we took nothing”—and the words that Jesus uses to describe what Peter is going to do in the future:—“you will be catching.”
Because “took” and “catching” are definitely different in the Greek.
To “take” fish in the Greek implies to catch in the sense of trap or take prisoner. The fisher of fish is someone who catches fish to trap and ultimately to kill them.
But when Jesus says you will be “catching” people the word he uses there means literally to “catch alive.” The fisher of persons is someone who catches those persons to keep them alive.
The fisher of fish is a trapper; the fisher of people is a rescuer.
So despite a surface continuity here between fishing for fish and fishing for people Peter has in fact been given by Jesus a radically new job and a radically new life. From here on out the work he does is work for Christ, to bring others into the same relationship of discipleship with Jesus that Peter himself now begins.
Which brings me to my third point: When Jesus calls us he calls us to leave our old life behind.
What’s the last thing Peter and James and John do in this passage according to Luke? “When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”
Think about what that means in view of what has just happened. Peter and James and John, longtime partners in the fishing business, leave their boats and everything in them at the greatest moment of their careers. They are fishermen, and their boats are packed full of fish. This is what they work for, and they have just pulled in the haul of a lifetime. This is like earning your fattest payday ever but refusing to cash the check. And then quitting your job. Just walking away.
So what about those of us who would be disciples of Christ today?
Does Jesus find you this morning at a low point in your life? Do you feel some frustration and annoyance with what you are doing, like you are getting nowhere?
Our own work is often this way. Like Peter, we toil and take nothing.
But if we are disciples of Christ we are not meant to be in the taking business anymore. If we are following Christ, then we are in the business of catching alive. To be like Peter a fisher of persons is to acknowledge our failings, to leave that old life behind, and to follow Jesus wherever he may lead. To fish for people is to draw others as if in a net into following Christ as we have been inspired follow him. And that is a job we can and will be empowered by Christ to do in his service. Just as surely as our Lord promised Peter “you will get a catch” so too does he promise “you will be catching men.” The promise of Christ to us when he calls us is that we are now no longer the frustrated, unfulfilled, and sinful people he called but the who we are becoming as a result of faithfully following our Savior.
But to follow him into that new life it’s possible that today he is asking us to leave something of our old life behind. Maybe even at the height of what looks like success in the eyes of the world. Is our Savior asking you to forsake some comfort or convenience or even walk away from a big payday?
If he is, then know this. It is a new life to which you are called. Whatever our ordinary work might be our task of discipleship is a new job that we are meant to be working alongside and within whatever else we toil at.
Our real job is to help our master Christ call others as we have been called, to rescue them into the life that only he can provide. If we will do this, we can have confidence that where Peter led the way we too will follow and by following we will help rescue others into that same new life that we—with all the saints—enjoy in Christ Jesus. Amen.