SERMON: Peter’s Reaction to the Miraculous Catch of Fish in Luke 5:8
(Delivered at St Silouan Mission, Marysville California, Sunday, September 26th, 2001)
What happened in today’s Gospel from St Luke? Something quite remarkable, really. Luke’s account of Jesus’ call of the first disciples is unique among the Gospels. Matthew and Mark write that Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee and suddenly called Simon, Andrew, James, and John to follow him (Matt 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20). Only Luke has a “prequel,” telling us the story of a miraculous catch of fish preceding the later call.
In Luke’s Gospel, this is not Peter’s first encounter with Jesus. Jesus has already been to his home in Capernaum and healed his mother-in-law (4:38-39). This probably explains why Peter is so willing to let Jesus use his fishing boat as a floating bema. A bema (βῆμα) is a raised speaker’s platform ubiquitous throughout the ancient world, including the Temple and the synagogues of Israel.
Peter had been fishing all night without success. Now, in the early morning he’s working hard cleaning and repairing his nets. No doubt he was exhausted and looking forward to going home and getting some sleep. So, it must have seemed like a bit of an imposition when Jesus got into Peter’s boat and asked him to shove out a little way from the shore. Nevertheless, Peter, in resigned obedience, did what Jesus asked him to do (5:1-3).
The holy Apostle Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught the crowds that morning. He focuses on what follows. The Lord tells Peter to push out into the deep water and let down his nets for a catch. Simon obviously believes this will be a futile exercise. He is the professional fisherman, after all! We can almost hear the irritation in his voice when he says, “Master, we have worked all night but have caught nothing.” But then he continues; “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets” (5:4-5).
We know what happens next — nets so full of fish that they begin to break, boats so full of fish that they begin to sink. Seeing what was happening, Peter was overwhelmed with fear and wonder. He already knows that Jesus is special; he already knows that Jesus is holy; he already knows that Jesus has amazing gifts, but NOW, bang! Peter perceives that he is in the presence of overwhelming divine power. He responds by falling down at Jesus’ feet and begging Him to “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (5:8).
Now, this response might seem a bit odd to you. But it isn’t! Remember, Peter had just been grumbling in his mind, he had been irritated by Jesus, he had been arrogant in his thinking. Now, he is confronted with the massive power of the almighty God crashing in on his world, his own smallness and sinfulness equally crashing into his own mind. Listen to what St. Cyril of Alexandria has to say:
“For this reason, Peter is carried back to the memory of his former sins, and he trembles and is afraid. Realizing his own impurity, he is terrified to be in the presence of One Who is so pure. His fear is laudable: for he had been taught by the Law of Moses to distinguish between what is holy and what is profane.”
So, what does all of this mean for us?
First: No matter what was going on in their heads, Peter and the others were obedient to the word of Christ. St. John Chrysostom says, “mark their faith and obedience… when they heard the command of Jesus, they delayed not…Such is the obedience which Christ demands of us; we must not ignore it, even though some great necessity urges us.”
Second: If we are close to the Lord Jesus, we witness miracles every day. If we are paying attention, we know that miracles bring grace and light. Grace and light will reveal our sins to us. Amazed by the power of God displayed in the abundant catch of fish, Peter was immediately aware of his sinfulness and unworthiness. He sees the overwhelming difference between God’s power revealed in Jesus, and his own mortal, compromised life.
St Ambrose of Milan says, “You must also say, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,’ that God may answer you and say, ‘Fear not!’ Confess your sins, and the Lord will pardon you. See how good the Lord is, who gives so much to men!”