Here I am, Lord: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 5:1–11:

While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that the boats were in danger of sinking.

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.

Interestingly, my wife and I just saw our Gospel reading played out a few days ago. We have come late to the party on The Chosen, an Amazon Prime series depicting Jesus’ ministry, and the scene at Gennesaret is the climax to an early episode. Without giving too much away, the producers give Simon Peter a rather complex backstory in which he owes back taxes to Matthew and the Romans, the latter of which Simon Peter is trying to con a bit to extricate himself from his troubles. He’s on the edge of despair when he goes out to fish that night, needing a massive catch to free himself from his troubles but coming up empty.

None of this is in the Gospel or tradition (to my knowledge), and it seems a bit overwrought even in a roman à clef sense, but the depiction of the scriptural event otherwise sticks close to the Gospel. One does not necessarily need to have this kind of context to grasp Simon Peter’s potential despair, though. Most people in that time, even in the trades, barely survived on what they made. Even one night’s bad haul on the lake might have meant economic trouble for commercial fishermen of that time.

Either way, Simon Peter no doubt worried over a bad night’s work when he came upon Jesus preaching on the shore. When Jesus tells Simon Peter to go back out one more time, Simon Peter is skeptical (to the point of cynicism in The Chosen), but he does so anyway. Instead of the looming economic failure of the night’s work, suddenly he and his partners have more goods than they can handle. Jesus uses this moment to call Simon Peter and the other three men to His service.

At this, Simon Peter does something unusual. Rather than immediately give up his work and follow Jesus, he instead hides in his shame over his sinfulness. “Depart from me, Lord,” he tells Jesus, “for I am a sinful man.” This more than anything else is the root of Simon Peter’s despair — a sense that his sinfulness is somehow unique, and an utterly unconquerable obstacle for oneness with the Lord.

It’s this despair that all of us feel at one time or another, no matter how devoutly we practice our faith. For good reason, too: our sinfulness makes us unworthy of the Trinitarian life. We stubbornly cling to our own mastery rather than follow the Lord’s commandments and laws, and by doing so constantly lose ourselves in the material world, aiming for power here rather than love in the next life.

If Jesus suddenly appeared to us in the manner from today’s Gospel, how many of us would have the same reaction as Simon Peter? Perhaps not all of us, but for most of us, that would likely be our impulse — especially when we encounter Jesus in His glory, rather than as Simon Peter encountered Jesus at Gennesaret.

However, that would demonstrate a lack of faith rather than an abundance of humility. Christ came to save us in our sinfulness, providing the one sacrifice for all time to redeem us. Our first reading from Isaiah 6 shows us how we are to respond to His call for our salvation and the mission of salvation:

In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above.

They cried one to the other, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!” At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke.

Then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember that he had taken with tongs from the altar.

He touched my mouth with it, and said, “See, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” “Here I am,” I said; “send me!”

There is nothing wrong with feeling unworthy, because that is the proper recognition of our relationship to the Lord in this world. However, God wants so much more for each and all of us. He wants to excise our sinfulness and fallen nature so that we can be His true sons and daughters, and the Lord wants us to answer His call to find more of our lost brothers and sisters.

“Here I am, Lord,” is Isaiah’s response where Simon Peter initially withdraws in shame. In this passage, Jesus knows Peter better than Peter knows himself, and certainly loves Peter more than Peter loves himself, too. He lifts Peter up and calls again, assuring Peter that he will become a great fisher of men if Peter can put aside his shame to do the Lord’s work.

Although we do not have this passage in our readings today, Paul wrote about this necessity of working through weakness. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains that the Lord came to him and told Paul that His grace is sufficient, and that his weakness is necessary for the mission:

I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

To answer Christ’s call is not to put on a pretense of perfection. In fact, as Paul reminds us, it is anything but, as we are reminders to others than Christ came to redeem sinners, not to pretend they don’t exist. Our sinfulness is why we need Christ, and His grace is sufficient for us to put aside those sinful predilections and follow Him, as stumbling as those steps will be. Peter stumbled repeatedly after this call as a disciple, and yet became the rock on which Jesus founded His church.

We are certainly called to holiness, but more importantly, to perseverance even in failure. This is how faith carries us through the stumbles, when holiness seems so far away that we despair and hope the Lord averts His eyes from our ruin. Those moments, though, are when Jesus loves us most and calls again and again. Instead of hiding in shame, that is precisely when we need to gather our strength in our weakness and call out, “Here I am, Lord.”

The front-page image is the pulpit of St. Andrew’s Church in Antwerp, Belgium. Sculpture by Jan-Baptist van Hool and Jan-Frans van Geel. Photo by Ad Meskins (cropped to fit), via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

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