The Calling of the Fishermen
Sermon preached by Dn. Jeff Smith on Sunday, September 25, 2022
Peter, James, and John: these are the men who are called today. And this very first calling marks the beginning of the liturgical year in September. The calling of these rough fishermen makes no sense in worldly terms. So how did their transformation happen? That’s the question I want to explore. Peter, James, and John were the three men closest to Jesus in his ministry. These were the men whom Jesus took with him at his most critical moments. These were the three who alone were permitted to enter the House of Jairus when Jairus’ little daughter was lying dead. These were the same three who were his companions on the Mount of Transfiguration. One or another of them is always present in the narrative of the Gospels.
First there is Simon. According to John, when Jesus first saw him, he said, “So, you are Simon the son of John? Now, you shall be called Cephas which means Rock.” Notice the language: “You are now… so you shall be.” Note the significance and the swift understanding of Jesus who recognized the man Simon was, eager and outgoing, but unsure of himself, a man with great undeveloped possibilities. Jesus saw what Peter could become and began to call him by the name that would always remind him of the grace of God in his life. If years later he would be asked what his ministry had meant to him, he might have replied, “I was a rough man, knowing nothing, except a rough fishing life. I wanted something better, but I had no confidence. I had hot impulses, but I never carried them through. I had as much courage as the next man, but I could not always count on that to last. Nobody expected much from me, that I would matter much at all, but then, one day, Jesus came, and he called me. He made me his friend. The one thing I began to want was to not disappoint him. I said I would stick with him through thick and thin, but instead, I left him, and I denied him. But even then, at that low, low moment, I knew, I knew that he loved me. And I felt that so much that it seemed as though the hand of God has his hold on me and wouldn’t let me go. In the end, I knew that despite everything, I could be the kind of man he was expecting me to be.”
And James and John, the sons of Thunder, seem to have been very much alike. These two wanted to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan village when that village did not receive their master. These were the two who wanted places of honor at Jesus’ right hand in the kingdom. But they were also transformed by Jesus’ love. Certainly John, the beloved disciple was. And he became known as the disciple whose message is that God is Love.
If later, John had told his story, what might that have sounded like? I could hear him say, “I was a very different sort of person once. I was hot tempered, proud, quick to pick up a grudge. But then Jesus came. I saw him interact with people in a different way. I saw what love could do. One day, I wanted God to curse a village, and burn it down, but I learned from Jesus, that’s not the way God works. He doesn’t come as lightning, instead he comes as love, love that gets inside your heart and melts your stubbornness, tames your pride, and awakens the love in your heart.
Simon Peter fell down at Jesus’ knees crying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Peter was overwhelmed by a sudden sense of divine power and goodness that made him feel small and unworthy. He felt he couldn’t bear to be in Jesus’ presence. Have we had the experience of meeting someone immensely better than ourselves? We may think we’re good enough, as good as we need to be. But suddenly we became aware of another life and its difference from ours. I am reminded of Aslan the Lion, his fearsomeness, his goodness, his otherness. Suddenly we see a kind of courage we hadn’t even thought of before. Jesus’ figure is outlined in the mountaintops while we were down in the easy fields of our own interests. But then, we began to really see ourselves, and our sin became an acute kind of disquiet. And we saw that we have sinned against the meaning of life itself. But that’s not the end of the story. When Peter cried out, “Depart from me, a sinful man, O Lord,” Jesus did not depart from him. Instead, he stood close by, determined that however Peter might falter, in the end, he would not fail. And so, it is with Jesus. He comes today as he came to the disciples, and he calls us to reveal ourselves. And we know we can feel his shining goodness in response.
Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. From now on, you will be catching men.” This reminds me of Gabriel calling Mary, “Do not be afraid Mary, you will bear a Son who will be a savior.” And Like Mary, these three men forsook everything, and they followed Jesus. As they commit themselves from that moment to become fishers of men, their shift and their change seems miraculously sudden. But it’s likely that Jesus came by Capernaum often, was already their friend, and their hearts were warm to him. So, when he asked them to follow him, they knew that that’s what they deeply wanted to do. Consider how little they knew that day and how little Jesus required of them. They could have no conception of the infinite significance of this moment. They could not have passed the most elementary catechism. They could not know the ends toward which Jesus’ life was moving. All they knew was that when they looked at him, they wanted to be with him more than anything else. And so, when he called them, they went with him. And they would see so many amazing things! But first, the essential matter was that they would respond, “yes” when Jesus said, “Come with me.” To be a disciple does not depend on what you know or how orthodox you are. Instead, it depends on the impulse to follow Jesus, and when that impulse is obeyed, all the rest will come. Thanks be to God.