To be a fisherman is to be at the mercy of nature. A farmer can at least see his land and his crops and do something to protect them and help them grow. But the fisherman has to search the seas for shoals of fish. He doesn’t have any control over where the fish are; his art or craft – even with the help of technology – is in knowing the likely places and then casting his nets in the hope that he may find some fish.
Fishermen on the Lake of Gennesaret, like Peter, James and John, worked in pairs from rowing boats. They used a net, which they would pay out behind their boats, and then drag through the water before hauling it back on board. This arduous procedure would be repeated many times during the night. And it was after such a night’s work, when they had caught absolutely nothing, that Our Lord came to teach on the shores of the lake near to where the fishermen were washing their nets.
After Our Lord had used Peter’s boat as a floating pulpit he asked Peter to row out into deep water and pay out his net. Now Peter and his friends were professional fishermen and they knew it was a waste of time trying to catch fish in deep water during the daytime. But, in deference to Our Lord, they did as he asked.
Now, by all human standards Our Lord’s instruction was foolish, and Peter’s acceptance of the instruction was even more foolish. Most fishermen know that fish avoid deep water during the day. Yet something in Our Lord must have prompted Peter to accept the command. We are not told what Our Lord had been preaching about, but something must have struck a chord with Peter for him to do this, and he was rewarded with a bumper catch of fish.
It wasn’t faith that prompted Simon Peter to pay out the nets. It was only the beginnings of faith. It was a realisation that Our Lord was special in some way; and yet many people, including those who met Jesus face to face, have realised that and yet they still went on to crucify him. Simon Peter appreciated the power of Our Lord’s words; but so have millions of others who have decided not to follow him, or have fallen by the wayside and no longer practice their faith. For Simon Peter, faith didn’t begin until he fell to his knees and said, “Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man”.
Peter is the only person we hear of in the scriptures who asks Jesus to go away, all the others who were impressed by him wanted him to stay, and they wanted to be his followers. But Peter begged Jesus, “Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man”.
Peter had true faith, and this means he was prepared to go a stage further than any of the others. The others saw a wisdom in Our Lord’s words and so thought it would be nice to have him around, provided of course, that this didn’t demand too much of a disturbance in their lives. But Peter saw that being with Christ meant the ultimate disturbance – and what is the ultimate disturbance for a person of faith but ‘conversion’ – a change of heart – and a change of life. Peter was the first person not only to do as Christ instructed, but also to recognise his own sinfulness and his absolute need of Christ. And that is true faith.
In Peter, perhaps, as he asked the Lord to leave him, there was a vestige of not wanting his life to be disturbed. And yet the first person to acknowledge his sinfulness became the first to be called.
Faith isn’t just a matter of seeing something in Our Lord that we like. It’s more about seeing something in ourselves. Saint Peter, like the prophet Isaiah in the first reading and Saint Paul in the second, saw that he was in a “wretched state” … “the least of the apostles”. And so it is for us. At the heart of any weakness of faith is our refusal to acknowledge our sin in a real way. For at heart most of us imagine that we are no worse than the average person: yes, we see ourselves as sinners, but then add “just like anyone else”, and do nothing about it.
So many times in Confession I hear people say that they are worried because they always seem to be committing the same old sins. And that’s fine. What is important is that we acknowledge our sins and accept Our Lord’s invitation to follow him in prayer and in the Sacrament of Penance. And, as we confess our past, he will direct our attention to a more glorious future.
Faith means that no longer will we be in control of what is happening to us. Recognising our own weakness, we can only rely on the grace of God. Peter, as a fisherman, was at the mercy of the power of nature. Perhaps that’s why he could accept being at the mercy of the power of God. Perhaps that’s why Peter was chosen to lead the Church.