Monday, February 4, 2019
A Peculiar Calling
The last time we read this Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 5:1-11) in church was February 7, 2010. This reading only appears in the proper for The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany in lectionary Year C. In the last two Year Cs (2016 and 2013), Ash Wednesday came too early for us to have enough Sundays in between Epiphany and Lent to need a fifth Sunday. That means that it has been nine years since we heard Luke's version of the calling of Peter, James, and John. What should we notice this year?
First of all, Luke is the only one who tells the calling of these three disciples like this. Matthew and Mark prefer a simpler version, in which the only technique Jesus uses is the invitation itself: "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." It is remarkable in those accounts that the disciples leave their boats and follow him, but Luke wants us to see more.
John also likes the story of the abundant catch of fish, which he weaves into a post-resurrection narrative. It it, Peter and the other disciples have labored all night in vain, but the mysterious risen Jesus tells them to put down their nets in a particular place, and, when they come back full of fish, Peter recognizes Jesus and dives in the water to swim toward him.
Although the point John makes is similar--recognition through abundant catch--Luke is the only one who puts the miraculous catch of fish in the calling story. Jesus meets the disciples where they are--not just physically but also metaphorically--using an image that makes sense to them. (You can read all four versions here.)
What is that image to us? Luke tells the story of Jesus leading the disciples to abundance. Not dissimilar to the episode from the wedding in Cana, Jesus shows his disciples (and us) that he is the one who can provide abundantly. The disciples decision to follow him, therefore, is a desire for abundance--fullness, fruitfulness, everlasting provision. More than that, because of Peter's acknowledgment that they had toiled without success, Luke's calling narrative is a confirmation that life spent not following Jesus is likely to end up barren or at least lacking the abundance that only Jesus can provide.
That Jesus calls these disciples immediately after preaching a sermon the a crowd is another interesting detail. At this point in Luke's account, Jesus has already secured a substantial following. Yet it wasn't his preaching that grabbed the disciples attention. Although it may have provided some foundation, it was the action--the catch of fish--that led Simon to see clearly what he was dealing with. This makes Jesus' invitation to become "fishers of people" clearer. He isn't just offering the disciples a chance to catch lots of fish but a fruitful ministry as his disciples. In other words, they aren't attracted to Jesus because he's a supernatural fisherman but because he has shown himself to be the one who can lead them to fruitfulness--a truth presented in his teaching and confirmed in the miracle.
Also notice that Jesus uses Simon--maybe even needs him--before Simon agrees to follow as a disciple. Jesus asks for the boat. Who knows whether there was any financial arrangement. Jesus may have rented the boat for a few hours, or maybe Peter thought a kind gesture would help his "luck" on the water the next night. Regardless, Jesus uses Peter and his boat before asking him to follow as a disciple. Luke is the only one who tells the story like this, and I wonder what the implication is.
Lastly, Simon has a moment of confession when confronted by the power Jesus demonstrates in the miraculous catch. He falls down and admits his unworthiness. Matthew and Mark portray the decision to follow Jesus as something the disciples accept. Luke, however, shows a transformation that occurs before the call is accepted. Maybe that's implicit in the other accounts, but Luke is the only one who makes it a central part of his account. John also reflects this epiphanic moment in his post-Easter narrative. For them, revelation precedes commitment.
This Sunday, we hear a story that we haven't heard in a while. It's good to let it sink in for a few days before we hear it.