Is 6:1-2a, 3-8
You may have seen a film called “The Pope Must Die”, which came out a few years ago. At least that’s what it was called here. In the US Catholic groups protested about the title and so the American edition was renamed “The Pope Must Diet”. It’s the story of an inept country priest, played by Robbie Coltrane, a priest who is ill-qualified, incompetent, has a murky past and doubts his vocation. In a case of mistaken identity, he’s accidentally elected Pope in place of a corrupt cardinal who’s been money laundering for the Mafia. With hilarious consequences.
Of course, we all know it’s not like that in real life. Real Popes are well known high flyers in the Church: accomplished theologians, outstanding pastors and administrators, renowned for their disciplined and holy lives; men like Karol Wojtyla and Josef Ratzinger. How unlike Robbie Coltrane’s bumbling priest. And how unlike Simon the fisherman, later known as Peter.
Luke this morning tells us the story of the call of the first disciples, and Simon is the main character that Jesus interacts with. It’s a very condensed story and a lot happens in a short time.
Simon with his fellow fishermen has been fishing all night and caught nothing. We can imagine that they are tired, ready to go home and rest, probably despondent that they have nothing to show for their night’s work. They will eat less well today.
Then Jesus, the strange rabbi who has just appeared in their town, wanders along and gets into Simon’s boat, which he uses as a sort of floating pulpit. Apparently that part of the shore forms a sort of natural auditorium, a curved bay, and anyone speaking from a boat at its focal point would be heard very easily. PA systems, first century style.
Now the day before this Jesus had already cured Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, so Simon would have begun to realise that there was some unusual power at work in this rabbi. Even so, when Jesus told him to put out into the deep and let down his nets, you can almost hear the tiredness and grumpiness in Simon’s reply.
And then there is the miraculous catch of fish, and Simon instantly realises that in this rabbi before him the power of God is at work. And he’s terrified, realises his own sinfulness and unworthiness, and begs Jesus to go away. But Jesus does no such thing. Instead, he makes Simon a promise, “from now on, you will be catching people in your nets”.
There’s a deliberate pattern here, that we’re meant to recognise. This story of the call of Simon is told in the same way as stories about the call of prophets in the Old Testament. And we have an example in our first reading. Like Simon, Isaiah is surprised, caught out, by a sudden manifestation of Divine power, and feels his own sinfulness and inadequacy in the presence of God. And yet God calls him anyway and appoints him as a prophet, a bearer of God’s message to his people.
So this story reflects the past, and the hope of Israel spoken in the message of the prophets. It tells us about who Jesus is.
But it also looks forward to the future. Jesus promises Simon that he will catch people in his nets. But that doesn’t come true straight away. Before that happens, Simon will run up against his own weakness, and the great failure of his discipleship. Three years from this scene, when Jesus is arrested and put on trial, Simon Peter will run away and deny that he ever knew him.
We know that story, of course, but that shouldn’t dull us to the shock of it. The shock brings home the point. It’s Simon the useless fisherman, Peter the failed disciple, who is chosen by Jesus. And after the resurrection, Jesus comes back to Peter, and calls him and sends him again. After the death of Jesus, Peter knows his own failure and sinfulness far more deeply and keenly than he did on that boat in Lake Gennesaret. But more deeply still he knows how completely he is forgiven. Not in spite of his sinfulness, but because of it, he knows himself to be truly and unconditionally loved. And it is Peter after the resurrection who goes out and fills his nets with people, the Jews and Gentiles who come pouring into the Church, the new community of forgiveness and love which Jesus has established. When Peter knows deep down that he is forgiven and loved, he can convey that forgiveness and love to others too.
Are we worthy of Jesus? Assuredly not. We are sinners, all of us, as we confess at the beginning of every Mass. And before we approach to receive Holy Communion we all say, “Lord, I am not worthy”. But our worthiness is not what matters. Jesus bids us welcome at his table, feeds us with his body and blood, his very self, not because we have earned it, but because he loves us. Totally, unconditionally, we are welcome.
So many people, even committed Christians, have a very stern and remote idea of God. A God who is always disapproving and disappointed. A God for whom we can never be good enough. That is such an obstacle in so many people’s spiritual lives. What we end up doing is focussing on ourselves, on our own failure or inadequacy, instead of on God and his love.
Jesus shows us what God is really like. God doesn’t ask us to be good enough for him, as if we ever could be. He gets into the rickety little boat of our lives, where perhaps we feel we’ve been fishing all night and caught nothing, and meets us just as we are.
In calling Simon and the other disciples, Jesus knew exactly what they were like, better than they did. He loved them and chose them and called them anyway. And he loves us, and has chosen us - every one of us – and called us to follow him. We confess our sins, not to wallow in guilt, but so that we can know ourselves to be completely forgiven and unconditionally loved.Love bids us welcome today at this altar and is present for us in our lives, just as we are. Love that knows us through and through and loves us all the more. Love that calls us and will sustains us to the end.