Dangerous Side Effects

Reference: Luke 5:1-11

From personal experience, I can tell you that walking into a party wearing a clerical collar ruins the event for some people. Holiness, real or just perceived, or even the symbols thereof, can cause acute discomfort, leading to an early departure from what had looked like a good party. Most folks believe God is everywhere. But they prefer his presence to be in very small non-threatening concentrations. Many religions organize it in a systematic way by identifying sacred places where you can go to visit the deity, who will not otherwise intrude on your life. Despite two millennia of Christianity, the notion remains strong even in Christian-influenced societies.

Encounters outside the presumed boundaries with the sacred are thus disturbing. Think of the prophet Isaiah, for instance. He finds himself unexpectedly seeing God on his throne, in awesome glory. His reaction is to see the drastic contrast with his own wretchedness. “Woe to me, I am ruined, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips,” he wails. And the same thing happened more than once with Jesus, that his sanctity frightened people. It happened to Peter in the account referenced above, on the shores of the lake where Peter and his crew were commercial fishermen.

The crew had spent the night fishing, without success. Tired, they were repairing and cleaning their nets before going home to rest, when Jesus came along the shore followed by a crowd clamoring to be taught. Jesus asks to use Peter’s boat as a podium, and teaches the gathering. Then he tells Peter to set out to catch fish. The fishermen all know that is a dumb idea. Fish are best caught at night, not during bright daylight when they avoid the surface brightness. If there were none there at night, it is even less believable they will be there in the sunshine. Peter thus objects to the crazy idea, but he nevertheless accommodates Jesus’ wish out of respect, while expecting nothing. Amazingly, the nets fill up with fish. They have to call over the other boat to help, but the fish continue to pour into the nets. The windfall turns into an alarming situation, as the boats begin to sink from the overload.

Peter’s emotions are on a roller-coaster. Starting with skepticism, perhaps with a tinge of smug arrogance, knowing there are no fish to be found right then, to amazement when there are indeed fish, to gratitude and awe as a bonanza unfolds and then the alarm as the miracle threatens to disappear under the waters, along with the boats and perhaps drowning fishermen with them.

People in subsequent centuries, including our own, have often exclaimed how they envy the first disciples for their personal closeness with Jesus. It is a classic illustration of the caution, “Be careful what you wish for.” Like Isaiah, Peter saw clearly his incompatibility with divine holiness. “Go away from me, Lord;I am a sinful man.” Hanging out with Jesus is not without dire problems. A study of Peter’s time with Jesus may easily disabuse you of the notion of envy. The roller-coaster continues through the entire time. Peter spends much of it not getting it and being corrected, sometimes quite sternly. It ends with Peter, assuming all is lost, emphatically denying any relationship at all with Jesus. Only when that relationship is post-Resurrection, which is to say, the same relationship all subsequent generations have had, does it fall into place for Peter.

The encounter in the boat has much that we can learn from.

1. That which you regard as a miracle has much to do with your perspective on life. Was the presence of a large school of fish at an unlikely time a miracle or was Jesus simply insightful or even lucky in the event? For some of us, God acting in his creation is continuous miracle. The provision of air for us to breathe, without which we could live for only a few minutes, is miraculous, as is the miracle of growth for food and other needs, which we can organize and encourage but cannot do the actual growth. The universal presence of water, renewed by a system of rain, is also a basic need which we must have to live more than a few days. The gift of beauty and of sight to perceive it also ranks. It is possible to explain all these things as part of a natural plan, although the question still remains who established the plan. It is possible not to think of the natural life process at all, simply because it can be taken for granted. It is possible even to abuse the gifts, to foul the air, pollute the water, cut down the forests, and even to call it the price of “progress.” The Christian sees it all as miracle, however, culminating in the greatest gift of all, the love of God resulting in the gift of salvation. “The whole world is in his hands.” As such, the water of baptism, the bread and wine of Eucharist, the oil of healing, are miracles as well, filled with the presence of Christ among us as surely as he stood in Peter’s boat, and fit in the same pattern as provisions of the loving God. The Christian Eucharistic “attitude of gratitude” for the continuous all-encompassing miracle of our life in his creation forms our worldview.

2. Don’t take more than you can eat. The miracle in Peter’s boat went wrong when they tried to take too much. It is perhaps a natural human instinct to do so, but God’s miracles are instead intended to be governed by a wise stewardship. This means caring for the creation which nurtures us and sharing its bounty equitably. In short, greed is neither a Christian virtue nor is it compatible with the plan of creation. As Peter and his crew discovered, it can wreck the miracle. We have abundant evidence of such wreckage in our own day as well, on a much bigger scale than Peter’s experience.

3. Jesus is your savior and calls you his friend. But he will not be your accomplice in nefarious or selfish schemes. We are here to do his will, not the other way around.

4. Being around Jesus can be wonderful. It can also be very uncomfortable and alarming. We are sinners and need to understand that our relationship with Jesus always depends on his absolute grace and forgiveness or we are, in a word, toast. If we lose the awe for the divine, we also lose the friendship.

5. Jesus responds to Peter’s realization of the gap in holiness between them. His advice to Peter is “don’t be afraid.” That is advice for us as well. He understands us very well, better than we understand ourselves. He loves and is forgiving. Our sinfulness gets us in all kinds of trouble, but it does not preclude divine forgiveness.

6. The experience of God’s grace changes life. From that day forward, Peter was transformed to be “a fisher of men.” It is the idea of “metanoia,” the basic radical change of direction into following where Jesus leads, not where ego or greed want to go.