The miraculous catch of fish in today’s gospel was repeated by Jesus for emphasis. We recall, from evensong the Friday after Easter, how the Risen Christ appeared to certain apostles by the Sea of Gallilee (or the Lake of Genesaret) and once more told the fisherman to give it another go, with similar results (John 21:1-17). By the first miracle, Peter was called to ministry. By the second miracle, Peter was restored to ministry.
The initial version of the miracle began with Jesus preaching to the multitudes, using Peter’s boat as a pulpit. Jesus sat rather than stood. Sitting in a boat a little distance from the land gave him the best angle to address the crowd. When he finished, Jesus turned to Peter and spoke.
One gets the sense that the command to resume fishing was a practical application of what Jesus had just said to the crowd. Perhaps the sermon touched on how faith means to hear the word of God and do it. Perhaps Jesus spoke about how Moses obeyed the command to walk toward the Red Sea before it parted, or how Joshua obeyed the command to walk around Jericho the specified numbers of times before the walls fell down.
The sermon being ended, we can imagine the people, including Peter, thinking “What a fine preacher this rabbi is. Now lets go get some brunch and enjoy the afternoon.” We know that Peter was doubly anxious for that leisure, having “toiled all the night and taken nothing.” If you’ve ever finished a graveyard shift by hosing down the dirty mats or mopping the filty floor, you know how sweet the anticipated rest will be.
Jesus required activity, not rest. “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Take the nets that you’ve just cleaned and dirty them again. Take the wet clothes you just removed and put them on again. Lift your tired arms and resume your rowing.” Obedience is often inconvenient and doesn’t make sense. Obedience often requires us to do the exact opposite of what we would do.
Jesus said to the rich young ruler, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven and come and follow me” (Luke 18:22 ). That also didn’t make sense. His family worked hard to accumulate the wealth and he was the steward of it. Besides, didn’t Jesus know all the good and charitable works he was doing with the money? Just walk away? Just like that? The rich young ruler heard the word of God and didn’t do it. There was no miracle, no famous story of a new saint. He went away “sorrowful because he was very rich” (Luke 18:23).
However, Peter took the command as the Word of God. He said, “I don’t want to do this and it doesn’t make any sense, but because YOU say so, I will launch out and fish again.” The result was a miracle and a new vocation.
Sometimes it is hard to understand exactly what God wants us to do. More often it is not so hard to understand, it is just hard to do. The commandments are straightforward. Thou shalt do this and thou shalt not do that. Above all, “Thou shalt love God with all thy heart, soul and mind, and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” This is not hard to understand, but sometimes it is hard to actually love the particular neighbor in front of us at that particular moment.
We naturally doubt and disobey. We know what God’s word says. We just don’t always want to do it. We always have a good reason. “I can’t do that now, but I will do it later.” “My situation is different.” “We can’t expect people in the twenty-first century to do what the Bible says. I mean, come on, be realistic.” So we save ourselves the toil of launching out into the deep again. But we also fail to realize the miraculous catch.
This is the dilemma of faith and doubt. We say, “Where is God’s presence and provision? God says, “Why won’t you do what I say?” At the root of every area of life in which we feel that God is absent, there is doubt and disobedience. As St. Matthew said of Jesus’ ministry in his hometown of Nazarath, “He did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58).
The simple, child-like pattern of responding to God’s word with faith and obedience can get lost over time in the Christian life. Our love grows a little bit cold, and we begin to make compromises. We give into temptation and get stuck in habits of disobedience. Our patterns of thinking come to be formed by the world rather than by the word of God.
It happened to Peter. Full of desire to die with Jesus, Peter, instead, ended up denying three times that he even knew him. We can sympathize with Peter on Maundy Thursday as he ran away weeping. He must have wondered, “How the heck did that just happen?” The intentions were so good. We can sympathize because, we, also, have been blind-sided by temptation, fear and doubt in the heat of moment, in the midst of the trial. Faith that has never had a moment of failure has never really been tried. Our faith can never become strong until we realize how weak it really is.
Fortunately, there was a second miracle and second call to ministry. The risen Christ appeared to the cowering band that decided that perhaps fishing, and not apostleship, was their true calling after all. The risen Christ told them to let down the nets again to remind them that they were to be fishers of men, not fishermen. The risen Christ restored Peter and entrusted Peter with his own sheep.
The Second miracle teaches us that, though we may stumble, God does not abandon those he has called to faith. The second miracle teaches us that faith is not so much about our faith as it is about God’s faithfulness. Our faith may wax and wane. But God is always faithful. God will call us again and ask us to obey again. “Launch out in the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
Though we are tired, though the commandment doesn’t makes sense, though we don’t want to, nevertheless, we will do what Jesus asks us to do. For we have learned what is means to remain on the shore, rested, but with empty nets. We have learned, with Peter, that faith may be hard, but faithlessness and distance from God are unbearable. As Jesus said, “Blessed are they who hear the word and God and keep it” (Luke 11:28).