In today’s Gospel we find Jesus quite close to the start of his public ministry in Galilee. He has been baptised. He has spent the forty day fast and its related temptations in the wilderness, and on his return to Galilee he goes first to his home town of Nazareth. There, he was invited on the Sabbath to read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue.
After the reading he proclaimed, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” – and the people ran him out of town. He then set out for Capurnaum, a fishing village on the shore of the lake, where he taught on the Sabbath in the local Synagogue there.
Next we hear of various healings and exorcisms after which he went out to a lonely place probably, as he often did, to pray. Yet some people had followed him and continued to press in on him although he had told them that he needed to go and preach in other places as well. It is then that we come to this morning’s Gospel reading where he overcomes the immediate problem of being pressed in by the crowds.
They are close to the lake. There were two boats near the shore. He got into one of these which, the Gospel tells us, belonged to Simon Peter. He then asked him to pull out a little from the shore, and from there he was able to teach without being pressed in by the crowd.
Having finished what he wanted to say, he asked Peter to pull out into the deep and put down the nets for a catch of fish. Peter’s response was that they had toiled all night but without success but that, if Jesus requested, he would do so. The result was a net filled with a great shoal of fish, too great for one boat, so they had to call on another to assist, and both were full.
It was at that point that Peter recognised the truly exceptional situation in which they found themselves. He fell down before Jesus with the words, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” By these words Peter was recognising the truly extraordinary situation in which they found themselves, and he was struck by fear. Jesus responded with words of encouragement, “Don’t be afraid, from now on you will be catching men.” This was just the beginning. Greater things were yet to come.
Many years ago there was a film called “The Big Fisherman”. This was mainly concerned with the life of Peter. The tradition of Peter the Fisherman persisted into his later life and beyond so that, even today, the Bishop of Rome wears the “fisherman’s ring”. How appropriate the gospel analogy of the fisherman seems to be. “From henceforth you will be catching men”. Once a fisherman, always a fisherman, although the nature of the catch may be different. This was just the beginning. As the Lord spoke then, he caught fish. In time to come, the catch would be quite different – people.
Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man. Peter has been struck by something unique in Jesus. This man teaches with authority – greater than that of their scribes and Pharisees. He heals the sick. He drives demons out of the possessed, demons who were incidentally the first to recognise him for who his is, “You are the Son of God”, they cry. They are unable to resist his authority, and they leave the possessed in peace.
“Depart from me Lord ….” The original language of the Gospels was Greek. Peter addresses Jesus as “Kyrios” and the use of this word is significant. In modern Greek it is widely used and we would translate it as “mister”. Nothing special to note in that. In the N.T. it is most widely used of Jesus but I think that Peter, in this incident, may have been the first to use it of him.
However, in the Greek translation of the O.T. it translates the Hebrew “Adonai”. This is used in the O.T, in place of the proper name for God, Yahweh, or Jehovah. This was far too sacred for Jews to use, hence the substitute, Adonai, of Kyrios.
In today’s Gospel, Peter was usingthis substitute for the Divine Name, that is “Adonai”. Whether or not he was recognising Jesus as the Son of God at this early stage is debateable and, I think, unlikely, but he sensed the power of God in this situation, and it made him feel vulnerable. He wanted to step back. It made him aware, as a human being, of his sinfulness, and the experience of the power of God makes us afraid.
A familiar prayer to Orthodox is the Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” There is a lot more to the Jesus Prayer than simply reciting it many times. It recognises the point at which we are in our relationship with God, and at whatever time in our lives we may use it whether as convert, on our death bed, or at many times in between. When we can say nothing else there is nothing better.
Before God, all are sinners and, paradoxically, the holier the person, the more aware they themselves become of this fact. Perhaps, for Peter, this was the first time that he had come to recognise this reality – the first time that it had really hit home, and it was a humbling experience for him as he prays, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man”.
On a later occasion a Roman centurion begged Jesus not to come into his home because he was unworthy. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.”
It is through the humility and penitence of admitting our true situation – that we are sinful and unworthy – that the door is opened for God to enter more fully in our lives.
In Peter’s case, he received the promise of future blessing. He was to become a major instrument in hauling many onto that ship which is the Church of God. Initially, he might have been weak. He might have misunderstood so much. He might have denied his master; but in all of those experiences, when it was really important he became strong in the Lord, willing to accept suffering as his master had, even to a similar death on a cross on the Vatican hill just outside Rome where his tomb is still venerated today.