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The day Peter threw his life away: A reflection on Luke 5:1-11


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Russell E. Saltzman - published on 01/07/18

All of us sail the deep waters, sometime, and most of us would not go, but for two words.

This is the story of a fisherman who threw his life away in the high waters of a perfect storm. (Luke 5:1-11)

Jesus is in need of a platform, as the story opens, so he can teach to a gathering of people along the shore of Lake Gennesaret. Gennesaret is also known as the Sea of Galilee and, in tribute to the emperor, the Romans called it Lake Tiberius.

Simon’s nearby fishing boat is a handy platform. But Simon (later known by his nickname, Peter) is occupied cleaning nets with James and John.

He may have been inclined to refuse, but then he would have been refusing in front of a crowd of people who wanted to hear Jesus speak. It would be hard to say no in that circumstance and if he did, he might lose business; all these people eat fish, right?

So – I can see this — big sigh, yeah, sure, hop in. The sooner he can get rid of this character, Jesus, the sooner he can return to cleaning nets.

Jesus sat down in the boat and taught the people. That’s the way it was done in those years: student stood and teacher sat; same for sermons in the synagogue.

Whatever it was Jesus said does not seem to have made much difference for Simon. Maybe he’d heard it all before – there wasn’t a Jew in Galilee or Judea who hadn’t heard about what God was going to do, someday. The place was lousy with prophets and what-not; more recently that guy what ate honey-dipped locusts.

Simon, in any case, was unimpressed because, afterwards, when Jesus says let’s go fishing, Simon argues: Do you see any fish here? We’ve been out all night. We didn’t catch anything.

I can picture Jesus just looking at him, an eyebrow arched, questioningly.

Simon is still thinking, how can I get rid of him and back to work? Alright, I’ll take him fishing – then he’ll leave. He hopes.

So out they go, Simon and Jesus with him, out into the deep waters as Jesus orders, out to where small 1st-century boats were never meant to be. Deep water is no place for small craft.

My father often told of the time his cousin Roy in San Francisco took him (and me, then age 8) out in a small outboard, out beyond the bay, beyond the Golden Gate, out smack into the Pacific Ocean, and no life vests.

My father told the story with some relish. It was rock’n’roll, how the little boat bobbed this way and dipped that way, took some water over the gunnels, and him wondering how he ever let his crazy cousin talk him into doing it.

Simon goes out into the deep water, perhaps wondering something of the same, told to fish for fish that are not there.

What happens next, we know. Fish leap at the opportunity to be netted. Many fish, lots and lots of fish, so many fish the nets begin to snap.

Simon signals for his partners to come alongside and help. As the two boats settle low under the weight of fish, Jesus, I would guess, sits placidly watching, a grin on his face, eyebrow arched again, as he looks at Simon.

And something comes to Simon as he strains with the net, awareness, an awakening, awe, a fear, a deeper fear, something God-given, to outmatch his fear of deep water.

This is when Simon throws away his life, out on the high waters of the Galilee.

I never met Avery Cardinal Dulles (d. 2008), not personally. I heard him lecture a couple times. He, I thought, was a Disney Sleepy Hallow Ichabod Crane look-alike, tall, lanky, physically awkward (from a childhood brush with polio), words shooting from his mouth like shells from a tank turret. I wish I had met him; I had friends who claimed him as a friend. Most of their stories confirmed my impression.

He told a mutual friend when this notion of priesthood came to him, a one-time agnostic; he heard it as clear as Jesus speaking to Simon, “Fear not.”

After being made a cardinal, there was a dinner for him at Fordham University, New York. His sister, one of the last family members, spoke, telling about the family upheaval over his decision to become Roman Catholic and a priest to boot. His Presbyterian father, John Foster Dulles, a U.S. Secretary of State, flat-out told him he was throwing his life away.

His sister went on: “Of course, they were right. He did throw his life away.” Dead silence, a four second pause, at wink at her brother: “For Christ.”

All of us sail deep waters. We are set forth over the waters of Baptism. These waters bear us as they might where wind and Spirit direct, often to places and shores we would not wish to go.

And we would not go, but for two words: Fear not.

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