A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Learning from Simon Peter

based on Luke 5:1-11

Most of forever, people have gravitated towards Simon Peter as an individual who summons our understanding and sympathy. In college, I had to read a play called Everyman. The play itself wasn’t spectacularly entertaining. It was a 15th century morality play. But the idea that the central character represented every person was intriguing. In a similar way, Simon Peter seems to represent humanity well - is a sort of “every person”, if you will.

I imagine him washing his nets that morning after a long and unsuccessful night spent fishing. I see a large man, a little rough around the edges, but supremely good-hearted. I picture an easy, if somewhat weary and worried camaraderie among he and his partners, John and James and his brother, Andrew.
He thinks about his brother with affection and more than a little tinge of exasperation…frustration. His brother, so easily persuaded by charisma, by the promise of great things on the horizon. Gullible? Maybe a little. Mostly though, Andrew seems to be groping for something more, something other. An impulse Simon can’t quite get his head around.

Simon is content with his life, though a few more fish in the nets would be more than welcomed. He is a man of deep and abiding faith. He finds comfort in the traditional contours of his religion. He is a husband, a father, a respected community….perhaps not leader, but a respected figure in the community. He even appreciates his work - the hard labor, the brotherhood, the quiet time in the dark, himself and the stars.
He sees Andrew’s new friend approaching the docks, a stranger Andrew dragged home with him. Clearly some sort of allegiance had shifted. Last they knew, Andrew had been shadowing the man called “the Baptist”. It was of some concern to the family, Andrew’s devotion to a teacher very much on the fringe of society. Jesus at least looked a little more presentable.

And no doubt, the guy seemed to have a great gift for healing. Simon’s mother-in-law had been taken ill very suddenly and was hot to the touch, too hot, that same day Andrew and Jesus appeared. When Andrew heard about Naomi, he insisted Jesus go see her and really, all the man had to do was touch Naomi and the fever broke. News spread quickly, as it always does in this little village. Soon they had a whole crowd of sick and injured neighbors waiting outside the door. Jesus had made quite a favorable impression on Simon’s family as he patiently spoke with each ailing person in turn and relieved their suffering. No, it was clear this man was not only a great healer, but a good and compassionate man as well.

Simon watches Jesus approach with a welcome smile and they clap each other on the shoulders. But Simon is surprised by Jesus’ question. Could he borrow Simon and his boat for an hour or so? He waves his hand to indicate the growing crowd of people gathering to hear Jesus say a few words and understands the man’s predicament. Eager to offer some small service in return for Jesus’ great gift to his family, Simon readily agrees. Andrew observes the exchange with a knowing and slightly annoying grin.

As Jesus begins to speak, the morning sun and forced inactivity begin to have their way with Simon as he sits and dozes. Some time later, Jesus nudges him and with an apologetic shrug, Simon scrambles to his feet, and prepares, along with Andrew, to row the boat the short distance back to the dock.

Simon is thinking about home, his family, his bed when Jesus pulls him up short with yet another unexpected request. He shakes his head, certain he’s misunderstood. “You want us to head out fishing again?” Quickly, Simon’s good temper dissipates, replaced by frustration and disbelief. But again, he owes the man. He mutters as he turns the boat towards deeper waters, “Sure, I just got back from fishing all night. Yes, I’m tired. No, we didn’t catch anything. But why not, let’s go fishing again.”

Minutes later, Andrew and Simon lower their freshly washed and oiled nets into the barren lake waters. Simon quietly seethes. And then, a funny thing, there’s a sharp pull before the nets begin to sink under groaning weight as Simon and Andrew strain mightily. Simon calls to the shore for help as netting begins to snap and give way. They pull load after load into the small, fishing boat. James and John arrive and begin to help with the haul. At some point in the chaos, Simon realizes their boat is taking in water as the lip begins to dip perilously close to the water’s edge. Panicked, they row for shore and the four men leap from their vessels as soon as they reach shallow waters.

When his hand touches the dock, Simon rests his head for just a moment on the prow and tries to still his trembling arms, legs, heart. He pulls himself up onto the dock and sees Jesus, as if for the first time since they let their nets down into the water. His body races ahead of his mind and he literally collapses at Jesus’ feet. Cowering on the floor of the dirty fishing boat, among the still flopping fish, his numbed mind works to make sense of what has happened. He is terrified as well as ashamed of how little he understands. Hardly knowing what he’s saying and still on his hands and knees with his face to the floor, he cries out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

“Lord”, interesting. And the text doesn’t say this, but I think it must have happened because Jesus was always touching people. I think Jesus must have bent down to touch Simon and say to him gently, “Do not be afraid.” I also tend to believe the multitude of fish wasn’t what caused Simon’s conversion, that terrifyingly glorious miracle simply set the stage for it. I think Simon figuratively embraced Jesus when Jesus bent down and touched him and told him not to be afraid. This is the moment Simon understands the incarnation. Grand and impressive miracles, while scary, were also somewhat expected from emissaries of God. I’m sure Simon had no doubt, as he crouched there among the netted fish, that Jesus was sent from God. But when Jesus touched Simon and offered him words of comfort, offered him compassion, that was something different. This was an experience not of God’s omnipotence, but of God’s immanence. Jesus was not only appealing to Simon’s mind, more importantly, he was addressing Simon’s heart. I wonder if maybe on some level, Simon intuited there on the boat that day that not only was Jesus sent by God, Jesus was of God.

At any rate, loyal, forthright and solid Simon gave his heart to Jesus that day and never looked back. Oh, he made mistakes. That’s part of the reason we love him so much. Simon was far from perfect. At one point Simon rebukes Jesus, in an attempt to keep Jesus safe. Simon cuts the ear off one of the guards who comes to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. And of course, Simon denies Jesus three times that night in Jesus’ life when he needed his friends the most. But Simon also becomes Jesus’ rock, thus earning him the name, “Peter”, the disciple Jesus relied on…leaned on. And in a very telling passage from Matthew, Jesus turns to his disciples and asks them to honestly tell him who they think he is. Only Peter replies, declaring Jesus “the Messiah, Son of the living God.”

Jesus responds, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:13-20).”

And Simon….Peter….fulfills this prophecy, going on to become the most widely recognized leader in the very early church movement. I think Peter was a fairly single-minded person. He maybe saw the world in pretty clear brush strokes, not so nuanced. He had a very clear sense of right and wrong and was good at following his intuitive voice. All of this meant that when Peter gave his heart to a person or to a belief, to a cause, he was all in. He gave his everything, no reservations. This, perhaps more than anything, was what enabled Peter to respond honestly to Jesus’ question. Because I don’t think Peter would have ever left home, vocation and community behind unless he felt an unambiguous, larger than life mission and calling in the person of Jesus. Peter was only saying what he had come to believe quite some time ago. Peter gives not only his heart, but his whole being to Jesus. And Jesus knows it and that this kind of commitment and passion would be essential for the building of the church.

As we think about what church could be or should be, maybe we pair that with reflection on what we, as individuals, give our hearts to. What do we feel most passionate about? What gets our creative juices flowing?  And maybe we learn from Peter as well, the value in single-mindedly giving our heart to a Someone and following in faith.

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