What's In It For Me?
This overly familiar story of the miraculous catch of fish and the call of Peter has been told and retold, preached and re-preached, until it has become rigid with familiarity. Can any good come from rehashing it all over again?
Surely you know the sermonic treatments by heart. There's the miraculous bit: My what a mess of fish you can get if only you have faith. Or there's the "call" sermon, over simplified into a story of great self-denial and heroism with Peter the hero in shining armor and the exhortation to follow in his steps--and you and I are no Peter! Or there's the evangelism approach: Be "fishers of men"...Get with it and haul in a big catch for the church down on the corner. It's hard to shake the rigidities, the rigor mortis, that has clutched this story and squeezed the life out of it until there is nothing surprising here any more.
But if there's no surprise left, it's really not worth talking about. If Christ has been entombed by the rigidities of the conventional approach, rather than released, then it really isn't worth talking about. So today let's try to crack open the rigidities and the rigor mortis and try to shake out of it the surprises that are here. For if there are no surprises left, it's no longer a word of God to us, no matter how pious or serious our intentions may be to deal with it. For whatever else you may think of God, if we can in any way accept the biblical picture of God, one thing comes clear. God's full of surprises.
The story begins in good dramatic fashion with no particular surprises at all. Early in his ministry, Jesus was popular. The crowds gathered, as here, to listen. Among them was Peter, and that was understandable. For Jesus had healed Peter's mother-in-law. Naturally he'd be interested and intrigued and more than willing to lend Jesus the use of his boat for a pulpit to speak to the crowd on the shore.
Thus far the story is very much at home in our own experience. Those of you who are listening at the moment--as you have said--are always ready to learn a bit more about God and life and the figure of Jesus. No doubt you'd be willing to lend your boat, too, for a time, if you were asked. So you probably lend or give of your time to the church, or the community chest, or to a worthwhile community project like the Red Cross. You may well have cleaned and opened your home for a meeting, or given your skills in sewing or cooking or carpentry for a church project or served on committees or even joined a theological study group. God has done something for you in the past, and you're willing to respond in kind. Nothing very surprising about that.
Trouble is, all too often this is where we stop in our Christian commitment, to use current jargon. We think this is what it means "to follow Jesus." It's all very comfy and standard and expected. And it is great, you know, as an important preliminary step. I'm not down grading this kind of conventional Christianity--if we're aware that thus far we're only on the fringe. But, by the same token, if we've not gone even this far, chances are we'd never even hear the call to "follow." It is important to be near enough to the place where explosive things can happen, to be on the fringe, to lend our boats and to listen.
But now the story explodes into absurdity. "Launch out into the deep and let your nets down for a catch." Put yourself in Peter's place. You're a fisherman, a pro, skilled in your trade. You know that in that spot the fish run--if they run--at night. You've just spent a whole night at it with miserable results, not a blooming fish to show for it. "Launch out into deep waters," so Jesus says. Well, you respect Jesus in his field. He's an effective healer; you know that. He speaks compellingly; and you know that, too. But what does he know about fish? Carpentry is his trade. Not the sea. You don't catch fish in full sunlight, but at night. And you don't catch fish in deep water but in shallow. Let him stick to his business which he knows and let me stick to mine. "Nevertheless at thy word..." It was absurd. Ridiculous. A waste of time and energy. Maybe Peter even thought to himself, OK--we'll show him.
For whatever reason, Peter launched out into the absurd. And there are a lot of people around today, mostly young, who are willing to launch out into the absurd. They sing songs to the music of loud guitars, but at least they're willing to get away from the fringe, reject the established way of doing things and launch out into the absurd.
And it is absurd, isn't it, when big government and big finance and most of the people in the country, apparently, can see no other way. But they're willing to challenge our accepted way of doing things.
Of course, we who are older could mention that the preaching of the Gospel in the churches is equally absurd! These rebels--a lot of them, anyway--reject the church because it has so often identified itself not with the Christian revolution--which is what the Gospel really is--but with the way things are. But to proclaim a loving God in the middle of a world of injustice and suffering; to proclaim life in the presence of death; to proclaim that life has deep meaning and purpose in a world of superficiality and meaninglessness--that is launching out into the absurd, too. Trouble is, we who are older savor our little securities and comforts so much--how devilishly hard it is to recognize the Christian Gospel for the revolution, the launching out into the absurd, which it really is! Maybe we can learn from each other. But one thing is sure: Peter would never in the world have found out what Christ was really up to unless he had been willing to obey in the face of that absurd command. And you and I will never really know what Christ is up to until we are willing to obey in the face of the absurd command--for example--to open up housing in our neighborhood. I know--we, like Peter know all the good, solid arguments against it. But until we are willing to say "Nevertheless at thy word...," how can we ever know what surprises God has in store?
For Peter, of course, got the surprise of his life. Not just a decent catch, and not just one boat load of fish; he had to call for help, and the second boat got filled up, too, until they both began to sink. Here, of course, was the "sign" that Jesus really knew what he was talking about. But in all the excitement of a couple of fishing boats foundering from a bonanza of divine bounty, let's not fail to notice that, unlike you and I, Peter did not demand the "sign" first. Most of us operate on the principle that we'd like to be sure we know what is in it for me first--before we launch out into the absurd. So we seek some sign, probably not a miracle anymore, but something to prove beforehand that God knows what he's talking about when he makes his absurd demands. I'd like to know before I start sticking my neck out what's in it for me! But to demand some sign, some proof, is to attempt to use God, to get him into my hands, somehow, so he can be manipulated for my benefit. Is there any proof, for example, that my property will not decline in value if different people move into my neighborhood? What, after all, will I get out of it?
But the story makes clear that God is not to be used; God is to be obeyed. Then see what happens. Well, what happened here was a bonanza, like hitting the daily double or holding the right sweepstakes ticket or making off with the "Big Deal" of the day. Then what happened? The miracle is irrelevant. Peter gets down on his knees mumbling "Depart from me." What sort of nonsense is this? It's the dramatic picture of a man, when he does get his sigh or proof that God is and that he knows what he's doing, suddenly overwhelmed by God's mercy and his own unworthiness. I suspect you, too, would find any bonanza irrelevant if suddenly you discovered that faithful obedience may lead to a direct confrontation with God and God's assurance. Love is more important than fish, or whatever you'd like to substitute for fish, a Lincoln Continental, a sweepstakes fortune, or whatever. Suddenly life and its gifts--and the gifts are not to be sneezed at--find their place in a proper order of values. You might not like that! I'm not sure I would, either. But that's the risk we take in an obedient plunge into the absurd. It depends on what you'd give for an overwhelming purpose and meaning to life along with a solution of your identity crisis. You know who you are and what's to be done. Like Peter, you've been had!
For the next word is the call: "Don't be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men." We've managed to take the surprise out of that, too, by domesticating it into a typical American success formula: Go out and evangelize the neighborhood, by which we really mean, get more members into the church--for their own good, of course--but incidently it will swell the budget, make a new building closer to reality, increase the prestige of the congregation and enable us to enlarge the staff. It's still the old numbers game in so many places which has fascinated so many Christians here in America. Is this what Jesus really means?
One scholar suggests that a more accurate translation would be to "catch men alive." The symbolism of the waters from which the fish were taken has deep and profound meaning all through the Bible. At the moment of creation, the Spirit--or breath--of God brooded over the waters which symbolized chaos. At the end, in the book of Revelation, there is the promise: "And there shall be no more sea." To the people of Israel, the "sea" meant: chaos, death, destruction, the meaninglessness and frustration they may endure. It was to be simply the offer of new life brimming with aliveness and hope.
Is that too much to ask of you? Of me? Maybe we've reached a point in history that we cannot say very much about it to others because it sounds so trite and well-worn in the ears of most people today. Christianity may be the offer of good news, but the good news is no longer new news. Maybe we'd just better shut up for a while, not waste our breath and instead show our concern and our love in working with people for justice and the alleviation of misery. I suspect what we do will count far more than what we say at this juncture. Maybe later on we'll be able to say something pertinent about what we're doing and why--after they've learned to trust us and to discover that we're not out for what's in it for us or for our churches, that we're not the phonies we may appear to be, but we're concerned rather simply to release something of the love and concern and freedom and hope in life that God has given to us in Christ.
Is that still too much to ask? Is Peter getting in the way here? After all, he was a Saint, the "rock" on which Christ established his church. But don't forget that Peter didn't set out on his mission to "catch men alive" as a full-blown saint. He had moments of high conviction and other moments when he blundered along, putting his foot in his mouth, wobbling between faith and denial, blustering one moment, weeping his heart out the next. And never sure of his motives.
So with us. We're not perfect and don't look for Christian perfection in yourself. I suspect God knows us better than we know ourselves. And don't go examining your insides to see if your motives are pure or not. They're not. But if you will offer yourself, preferably on your knees in the midst of God's mercies, God's forgiveness will take care of your mixed motives and your failures and God will strengthen and encourage you along the way--if you're not saying, what's in it for me, but rather, what does the world for which Christ died need that I have to give? And isn't that enough?