When he finished speaking, Jesus said to Simon, “Go out into the deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, despite laboring through the whole night we caught nothing! But at your word I will lower the nets.” When they had done so, they caught so great a number of fish that their nets were beginning to burst. . . . When he saw this, Simon fell at Jesus’ knees. He said, “Depart from me, Lord! I am a sinner!” He said this because amazement had overcome him and all his companions at the catch of fish they had made.
Luke 5: 4-6; 8-9
The Gospel of Luke sets Jesus’ call of his first disciples in a unique and powerful context. In a distinctive way through his narrative, Luke details for us the spiritual dynamics of the call to discipleship (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, p. 89). Following his teaching to “the crowd” Jesus speaks directly to Simon and tells him to set out into the deep water and lower his nets for a catch. We realize at this moment that Peter and his “partners” have worked all day and caught nothing; they are experiencing the limits and frustrations of human life and effort, the desperation that comes with the realization of a vulnerability and dependence over which they have no control.
Peter makes clear that Jesus’ command to him is absurd. He knows this lake well, and there are no fish to be caught where Jesus is sending them. Yet, from his point of view irrationally, he will, at Jesus’ word “lower the nets.” Moved by the teachings and words of Jesus, Peter is drawn to “follow him” by abandoning everything that makes sense to him, even relativizing his own expertise in favor of blindly trusting the summons of Jesus. The act of faith, of following Jesus, requires that we leave the world of our own wisdom and understanding and follow the word and way of the Lord, however strange, difficult, and even foolish it seems.
As difficult as this has always been, it may be acutely so for those of us whose sense of transcendence has been atrophying for a considerable time. Even religious leaders, in our time, speak of the non-negotiables of “faith” in the ethical realm. To be a believer in our time seems to mean to adhere to certain tenets and doctrines, and to follow the moral path that is institutionally determined. To bring “faith” into the public square seems to be understood solely as to advocate for universal acceptance of one’s own moral norms and dictates. The religious-cultural battles of our time are waged almost totally in a universally accepted secular context.
Jesus does not first ask of Peter and the others to accede to the moral and ethical principles which exemplify the best of the tradition they already know. (He certainly doesn’t discourage this.) Rather, he asks of them what is untenable to their own perception and understanding. “Go out into the deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” The first thing they and we must do is leave the shore, the waters in which we feel safe and comfortable and “go out into the deep . . . .”
Peter obeys, in faith, and finds himself “amazed” at what happens there. Beyond the safety of the familiar and his own understanding and knowledge, there is a bounty and fullness “never before imagined.” The following of Jesus, the living, as St. John of the Cross says, in the “darkness of faith,” requires us to abandon the small, secure, circumscribed world in which we live most of our days. Faith is not faith that creates a God who “fits” our common sense. The illusion of which Freud speaks is a deity who is the projection of our own fears and desires. The demand of the One who is truly Other is that we abandon our attempts to “see God in all things,” in the world of our thoughts and feelings, our desires and needs, and instead abandon ourselves to a new way of seeing that would come, through faith, to “see all things in God.” This transformation of vision may well be what Theodore Ryken means by describing a step in his conversion as “a turning toward God,” a new seeing of the world in God rather than merely on one’s own terms. The first step in such a faith is the willingness to trust a word that tells us there is an abundant catch in those places where we think we have already “labored through the night and caught nothing.”
Having experienced the almost frighteningly abundant catch of fish, Peter falls at Jesus’ knees and declares to Jesus his sinfulness, his unworthiness to be in the presence of Jesus. Amazement and awe are quite foreign experiences to us. It’s interesting to note that as the word “awesome” has become more and more ubiquitous in our vocabulary, it has also become increasingly meaningless. There is little, in common parlance in the United States, that is not described as “awesome.” True awe, however, is a rare and even a frightening and terrible thing. It is an experience by which we recognize that which is at once so beyond and yet intimate to us and which reveals to us our own smallness and dependence. It is “the vision” of God that truly “puts us in our place”. The fear and trembling of that place lies in our recognition of our own vulnerability and mortality, and yet, it is also the place where our true significance and purpose is manifest. It is not a place we ever feel “comfortable” in: “Depart from me, Lord! I am a sinner!” Yet, it is the place where we truly belong. The place of “amazement” and awe is fearful because it is so unlike the comfort we establish in domesticating our spirits. In our secular world, love is romantic and gratifying to our senses and need for security. Yet, as Dostoevsky wrote: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
Jesus calls every human person to life to the full. Yet, to follow that call and so to realize that life requires a passage of us. We must have the courage to let go of all the ways we have limited our lives in order to feel safe and secure. Jesus asks of us, in what to Peter sounds quite unreasonable, to “go out into the deep water.” We may be fearful there is nothing there; but, perhaps, we are even more fearful of what is there. “Depart from me, Lord! I am a sinner!” We fear the truth of things, so we settle for the crumbs of gratification that our fragile lives afford us. Yet, Jesus does not depart from Peter who recognizes in Jesus’ presence his shallowness and sinfulness; instead he befriends him and commissions him with a “harsh and dreadful” call. Jesus not only shows Peter the Way, but he reveals to him the union with himself that is the Way. It is by losing our life that we find it.
Thus does the knight of faith, as though from the hand of God, receive back the world. Writes Kierkegaard: “Through a double-movement [Abraham] had attained his first condition and therefore he received Isaac more joyfully than the first time. . . . He did not have faith that he would be blessed in a future life but that he would be blessed here in the world.” Again: “only he who draws the knife gets Isaac”: only the one who in faith has related to God is able to fully relish the world for what it is.” And again: “only the one who was in anxiety finds rest.” Yet again: “To be able to lose one’s understanding and along with it everything finite, for which it is the stockbroker, and then to win the very same finitude again by virtue of the absurd—this appalls me, but that does not make me say it [faith] is something inferior, since, on the contrary, it is the one and only marvel.” Other than through faith, there is no true relation to the world. Kierkegaard’s pseudonym expresses astonishment at the ability to do this: “But to be able to lose one’s understanding and along with it everything finite. . .and then to win the very same finitude again. . ..”
Daphne Hampson, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique, p. 45