After the terrible moment when both God and his own wretched self are revealed in a blinding blast, Isaiah gathers himself together and answers the question, “Whom shall I send?” by crying out: “Here I am, send me.”
For Simon the professional fisherman, obeying the first command of the landsman Jesus might have been more a courtesy than anything else, but the incredible catch stops his heart and opens his eyes. Like Isaiah, he knows himself in a new, devastating way. The fisherman becomes a prophet and speaks a word of truth: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” But it seems that it’s not the whole truth. Jesus, echoing the “voice” of Isaiah’s experience, ignores Simon’s cry and instead gives him a mission: “from now on you will be catching men.” We don’t hear what Simon says to this shattering revelation, but for the next nineteen chapters of Luke, we see what he does, and his actions can offer us a way to understand this one pericope.
What we will see are some very good moments. He gets a new name and becomes “Rock.” He catches “men” (and, presumably, women) by accompanying Jesus on his route; sent out on his own with just another disciple, he shares the Good News and heals the sick. When he sees Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah on Mount Tabor and seeks to improve the experience, we might think to ourselves, “Well, he’s naïve, but well-intentioned.”
But we will also see many, many rough moments, when Peter misses the mark by a mile. Like the time when he tells Jesus not to talk about his impending Passion and death, or the time when he can’t believe his own eyes: Is that a ghost walking on the waves? The time when he resorts to violence to answer violence, and the three times when he denies the best Friend and Master he ever had, the One who gave him the mission highlighted in this passage.
So Peter’s response to the call of Jesus is a mixed bag – maybe even weighted a bit toward the failure side of things. But Jesus was not naïve. He knew the man he was calling, and he called him, not “anyway,” but because of who and what he was. He gave Simon his new name because, contrary to all human good sense, he planned to build his Church on those big sailor shoulders. It’s touching to see that Paul, in his account of the beginning of the Church to the Corinthians, says pretty much the same thing about himself. Jesus chose him, who is like “one abnormally born,” a reference to his persecution of the Church before his experience on the Road to Damascus.
So often we imagine that since we’re no “saints,” we’re off the hook. Jesus would never waste his time calling US to anything much beyond a weekly hour on Sunday, would he? And yet – look at Peter. Look at any of the Apostles. Look at the saints who’ve been canonized. Better yet, look at those who haven’t been canonized but who you know very well are saints. And then take another look at yourself. If you like, pray with Peter: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful human being.” It’s a good recognition of a truth that is often obscured by that very sinfulness. But don’t stop there. As we head into Lent this week, get out on the road. Make mistakes. Do dumb things. But count on Jesus to make you right again. He saved Peter. He will save you, too.
PS: A good song for these next weeks might be “There is a Balm in Gilead,” an old African-American spiritual:
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin sick soul.
Sometimes I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.
If you can’t preach like Peter,
If you can’t pray like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus,
And say He died for all.
Paul Robeson, the great African American singer, recorded this song back in 1957 at Carnegie Hall in New York. Very plain, very powerful. You can hear it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okl2XbTM7xM.
—Sr. Nuala Cotter, RA, Provincial of the U.S. Province