A reflection on the readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
A third-century book called the ‘Acts of Peter’ narrates the events of the persecution of the early Christians at the time of Emperor Nero. People who were with Peter feared for his life and pleaded with him to leave Rome. So, he left the city through the south along the Appian Way. On his way, he encounters Jesus walking towards the city. When Peter looks at Jesus, he asks, “Quo Vadis, Domine?” “Where are you going, Lord?” Jesus replies, “To Rome, to be crucified again.” Peter, humiliated, turns, and goes back to the city where he asks to be crucified upside down, feeling unworthy to be crucified in the same way as his master. (Acts of Peter, XXXV)
We don’t know if this story is true. However, there is something that we can learn from it. Peter gives up and seeks an escape from his divine calling. Something similar happens in the Gospel today. It is the story of Peter just giving up and going back to his old profession of fishing—until Jesus intervenes.
We have stories in the Gospels of Jesus’ appearances to Mary Magdalene, to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and to the group of eleven disciples, but we have no story in the Gospels of Jesus appearing exclusively to Peter, as mentioned in the second reading, 1 Corinthians 15: 3-5. This verse is one of the earliest Christian creeds we possess, “that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the Twelve.”
According to many scripture scholars, the scene in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 5:1-11) is actually a post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus to Peter. It is a meeting between the risen Christ and the principal disciple who had denied him during His Passion. From that standpoint, the event probably did not happen during the beginning of the earthly ministry of Jesus, but rather after the death of Jesus, when the entire early Christian community was disillusioned.
In this version of events, there was nothing for the disciples to look forward to after Jesus’ death. Peter had already gone back to his old trade of fishing with no expectation about a future of continuing Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps Peter tried his best to keep himself and the community together in faith but failed miserably. His only option was to go back to what he knew best: fishing.
In the Gospel, we see Jesus meet Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. There were two boats, but Jesus gets into the boat that belonged to Peter. Jesus is depicted as the majestic Lord present in the midst of His people. He sits in a boat and teaches, which gives him a distance from the crowd. The Risen Christ is the immanent God, yet He is also the transcendent God. It is from this boat Jesus teaches the people, assuring Peter that He is with him in his boat, in his struggles, in his failures, and in his dejection. He has not left him alone to fend for himself or to fight alone.
Peter failed in his divine call and mission. Now he is failing in his old profession of fishing as well. Jesus tells him yet again, “Put out into deep water and lower nets for a catch.” Peter is so disheartened and says, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” This time there is a miraculous catch of fish.
With Jesus in the boat, the nets were tearing from the weight of the catch. Peter realizes his sin of neglecting his divine call and falls at the feet of Jesus, saying, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” What was his sin? It is the sin of forgetting his calling by Jesus to share His mission, instead giving in to failure, hopelessness, and going backwards.
Peter lost his confidence but Jesus did not lose His confidence in Peter. He did not set up Peter for failure but to be the leader of His people and to draw more people to His Kingdom. It is at this time Jesus reminds Peter of the purpose of his call: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” The call demanded a break from failure, hopelessness, and dejection. Thus, Peter became an instrument to continue the worldwide mission of Jesus and lead the Church.
That this is a post-resurrection event shows us how even Peter, the leader of the disciples, could go back to his old ways of living in utter failure. It is Jesus, who once again brings him back and sets him on his divine mission.
Just like Peter, we feel tired. We have given our best effort, but our hope failed us. We resign ourselves and go back to our comfortable shells as he did. We feel better with the monotony of life. Sometimes, we pour ourselves into a job, a relationship, a ministry, a dream — and come away exhausted, frustrated, thwarted, and feel we have come to the end of the road. Even the most earnest and hardworking of us can land on shore some mornings with empty, stinking fishing nets tangled in our fingers.
Just like the way He shows up by Peter’s side, Jesus comes into our lives exactly at these moments of loss, defeat, failure, depression, emptiness, and dejection. During such grave times, Jesus shows us that with Him in our boat, we are set for a miraculous catch of fish. It is at these moments Jesus is alongside us, reminding us never to forget our divine call.
Look at the Catholic Church today. We seem so divided and politicized. Our pews look empty every week. Our young people find our parishes no longer relevant to their lives. The Church seems to many people to be offering answers that have no relevance in their day-to-day lives. It is in this time of defeat and failure we can remember that Jesus comes into our boat and reminds us of our original call to evangelize, to be prophets, to be the salt of the earth and light of the world.
The best response is to imitate Peter in telling Jesus, “Yet if you say so, I will,” and take the leap of faith:
Yet if you say so, I will try again.
Yet if you say so, I will be open to the truth.
Yet if you say so, I will go deeper rather than remain in the shallows.
Yet if you say so, I will face the truth about myself.
Yet if you say so, I will trust your presence in the boat.
Yet if you say so, I will cast my empty nets into the water, and look with hope for your kingdom to come.
Image: “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes” by James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Public Domain
Fr. Fredrick Devaraj comes from India. He was a member of the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer, the Redemptorists of Bangalore Province. Now he is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri, serving at St. Alban Roe Catholic Church.