God appeared to Isaiah in the year that King Uzziah died. Isaiah was understandably terrified. But an angel touched Isaiah’s lips with a coal from the altar and so cleansed him from sin. Then, when God needed a messenger, Isaiah volunteered. “Here I am; send me!” And so began the long prophetic career of perhaps God’s greatest prophet.
Paul doesn’t tell us a lot about his call in First Corinthians. But he tells us enough to see the same basic pattern. Paul lists a whole series of Jesus’ resurrection appearances: to Cephas (aka Peter), the twelve, a group of more than five hundred brothers and sisters, James, all the apostles. “Last of all,” Paul says, “as to one untimely born, [Christ] appeared also to me.” Before that encounter with the risen Lord, Paul actively persecuted Christians. After Jesus appeared to him, Paul worked harder than any of the others as the apostle to the Gentiles.
And of course our Gospel reading tells the story of Peter’s call. Peter was a fisherman. Jesus shows up, commandeers Peter’s boat as a platform to teach the gathered crowd, and then gives Peter a little fishing advice. The resulting catch was so enormous that Peter realized Jesus was something special.
Like Isaiah, Peter immediately acknowledged his own sinfulness. “He fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’” But Jesus tells him not to be afraid. Jesus tells Peter and the others that from now on, they will be fishers of people. It is enough. Peter and the others leave everything to follow Jesus.
I love the call stories in the Bible, and there are lots of them. But stories like our three for this morning can seem irrelevant to our lives. I have never had a vision of God surrounded by a chanting choir of angels. Our resurrected Lord has never appeared to me bodily, convicted me of sin, and set my life on an entirely new course. I have never even had a good catch of fish!
But these stories do in fact speak to us.
I read our Gospel passage to a few people at Saint Andrews this week, and asked them what they heard, where Peter’s story touched them, how it connected with their own stories of faith. Their answers were moving, and quite different from my own.
One person noted that Jesus’ call surprised Peter. There he was, going about his ordinary business, when suddenly, without warning or preparation, he finds himself in the presence of Christ. For her, the point was that God might appear to us at any time. Our task is to do what we can to be ready.
More poignantly, another person was distressed at Peter’s reaction when he first realizes that Jesus is special somehow. She was struck by Peter’s sense of shame, of sin, of unworthiness. That shame could have easily kept Peter from answering Christ’s call. It would have if Jesus hadn’t helped. Thankfully Jesus reassures Peter. Jesus tells him not to be afraid. Jesus gives him a new purpose. And Peter is able to follow Christ on the way. That was the lesson for her.
A third person connected with the first part of Peter’s exchange with Jesus. When Jesus tells him to let the nets down in deep water, Peter says, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” For her, the message was encouragement to keep going even when we get discouraged. We may not have caught anything yet. But if we keep at it, we may still have an amazing catch of fish.
That was the part of the story that touched me as well. But I got yet another message. I first noticed that Jesus appeared to Peter while Peter was fishing. Now, Peter was a fisherman. I am sure Peter went fishing virtually every day. So it is probably no surprise that Peter happened to be fishing when he met Jesus.
But there is more to it than that. Jesus uses Peter’s boat to teach. The way that Jesus touches Peter’s heart is by directing him to a big catch. Jesus uses Peter’s experience of fishing to help him understand his new call as an apostle.
The point is simple, and it is one that I make a lot. God meets us in our ordinary lives. We don’t need to travel to distant lands or scenes of majestic beauty or people of great wisdom and holiness to see God. God meets us at work, and at home, and in the ordinary course of our days. God meets us here too. We gather, and we worship, and it is often great. But even when it is a little routine, God is with us. It is a great comfort to know that God is with us in our everyday lives.
But we have to go a step farther. God does not simply meet us where we are and just leave us there. God’s presence transforms our ordinary experience. We see that in our story too.
I am not a fisherman. But I felt in my gut the line about Peter having worked all night and caught nothing. That is a perfect metaphor for many of us in contemporary America. We are busy. We work hard. We do our best to get the job done. And when things don’t go well, we work even harder.
I can get frenzied. I sometimes feel like the Tasmanian Devil from the old cartoons. I spin in place as fast as I can go, but without actually moving anywhere. This passage reminds me that, without Jesus, I am doomed to keep spinning without ever catching any fish. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor!)
When Jesus shows up, he helps Peer to fish more productively. That was my big take-away from this passage. That was the good news I heard. Jesus comes to us when we feel lost or hopeless or unproductive or just tired. And Jesus gently directs us where to put our energy to best effect.
For our own sakes, we need to follow Jesus’ direction. Peter could have said, “Jesus, I have worked all night. I am really tired. I am not throwing that net over the side one more time.” But then the night would have been a total loss for Peter. Instead, Peter goes about his ordinary business, but now with Christ’s help. And that’s when he gets the job done.
The same is true for us. If we refuse Christ’s help, if we try to get the job done in our own way, with only our own power, we are likely to come up with empty nets. But if we accept Jesus’ direction, if we heed Jesus’ call, if we walk in Jesus’ way as we go about our business, we will get done what needs to be done. That is really good news for all of us.
But there is always more good news. I invite you to read this passage over a few times this week. Let it sink in. Pay attention to what grabs you. And try to hear in it the good news that you need to hear.
For now, I give thanks to God for the gift of his Word, enlivened by his Spirit. I pray that we can each hear that Word as the good news we need. Most of all, I pray that we can heed Christ’s call and let God’s grace flow through us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.