I have an image in my head of an older St. Peter, before he was martyred. Sitting around a campfire at night with some of the kids of his first converts – the second generation of believers – like a grandpa gathered with the grandkids at a family function. “Tell us how it started!” they begged him. “Tell us how it all began for you.” A smile comes to his face. His eyes go a bit distant. And misty. Finally, in a voice full of emotion, Simon begins to tell his favorite fish story.
“There we were, cleaning our nets after an unsuccessful night’s work. And this upstart street preacher, being followed by a crowd as far as the eye can see, comes rushing right to my boat. I couldn’t tell if they were chasing him down for something he’d said, or just following because they were so anxious to be close to him. So without so much as a ‘how do you do’, he jumps into MY boat – not Andrew and Philipp’s – but MINE. (chest swells with pride) And boys, let me tell you what happened next…
We heard what happened next in the gospel that was just proclaimed.
There is something about beginnings that contain the rest of the story. You see Simon’s willingness to put himself aside, a bit impetuously, when Jesus asks. You see his willingness to be made a fool of when he puts into the deep to fish in the daytime. (a no-no even for our time as any good fisherman will tell you.) AND you see his awareness of his unworthiness – “I’m just a nobody – leave me Lord! You want someone else. Better, smarter, less rash. Leave me.”
The story could have stopped there, couldn’t it have? It would have been a great fish story, perhaps the greatest of all time. Certainly it would have been the highlight of Peter’s career on the Sea of Galilee. The locals would have talked about that catch of fish for months.
Instead, believers have spoken about his favorite fish story for centuries. You see, Peter wasn’t done with his fish story. In my imagination, Peter stops and he looks at those kids gathered around him around the fire, and says: “Do you know what happened next?” (of course, they all did, but they didn’t want to stop him now.) “Jesus did his own casting of his net, and caught ME!” Me. Lowly Simon. The guy with more enthusiasm than sense, more heart than brains.” He said “from now on, you will be a fisher of men.” And he had me, hook, line and sinker. That’s my favorite fish story, boys. That’s how it started. Like Isaiah in the temple, I heard the voice of the Lord saying TO ME: ‘Whom shall I send, who will go for us?’”
So, back to that trick gospel question – what is YOUR favorite fish story? What is the moment when Jesus stepped firmly into the boat of your life and suddenly, your world was never the same?
For me, there are many moments that give me snapshots into my fisher of men story. One of pivotal ones happened late on an August night, 1981. It was the last evening of three summers doing volunteer work in Northern Ireland. A group of us were coming home from Tom Mallon’s house, back to the school that housed us. Our path took us to the top of Ballyoran Green – this little bit of park-like space overlooking most of the town of Portadown. Nobody told us to stop. We just did. Next thing I know, we were all arm in arm, locked together in our own private thoughts and prayers, looking over the town where we had given so much. I found the tears rolling down my cheeks – weeping for the beauty of the people, their struggles – and their seeming inability to do for each other what they had done for us student volunteers. That had reached out to us, shared their homes, shared their stories and their lives. They had welcomed us and forgiven us, but they couldn’t seem to do it for the neighbors they lived with all the time – just for us guests.
And suddenly, I was transported to a hillside I had never been to, to a place where Jesus also stopped with his friends, and looked out over his city Jerusalem and wept because they too, were not who they could be, who love needed them to be. 2000 years later, as my eyes wept over ‘my’ city, I heard the voice that had spoken to Isaiah saying to me: ‘Who will go for us? Whom shall I send?
<<raise hand>> And like Peter, hook, line and sinker, I was caught.
This week, I invite you to think about YOUR favorite fish story. No, not the one that got away, but the one where our Lord caught you and changed you forever. And then write it down in a diary for your children and your children’s children to read. Post it on facebook. Share it around the dinner table. Find a venue that works. But make sure that you tell YOUR favorite fish story.