Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-2a,3-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
TODAY WE ARE ASKED to consider three interlocking elements of our Christian living — faith, experience and apostleship.
Our faith has two elements. The first is expressed by Paul in the Second Reading where he gives the briefest summary of what the Christian message is about. To “have faith” at that level is to accept that message as true and credible. For many Catholics, faith often stops at that point. If a person fully accepts the teaching of the Catholic Church (as opposed, of course, to teachings of Protestant churches), we sometimes hear people say, “He/she has the faith.” Some Catholics like to spend a lot of time spelling out in detail what is orthodox and what is not and condemning those they believe to be “deviating from the true Faith”. For some people faith can even be a painful matter leading to scruples.
Faith as trust
However, there is another level of faith which we ignore at our peril. And it is the meaning that predominates in the Gospel. The Greek word for “faith” is pistis (). The basic meaning of pistis is “trust”. To have faith in Jesus is to put one’s total trust in him.
That involves a different kind of relationship from the first. We might express the difference as between “believing a person” (what he/she says is true and reliable) and “believing in a person” (I would be ready to put myself totally into the hands of that person). Or, “I believe what you say” and “I completely trust you” are quite distinct in meaning and application. I might well be ready to believe as true what someone tells me while being not at all ready to entrust my life to their care.
Both levels are at work when we speak of Christian faith but the second is surely the real test. A real faith not only accepts the content of God’s message but involves a total surrender of one’s self and all one has and is into God’s hands. A complete letting go. Like those group dynamics games where you let yourself fall back into the arms of another person trusting they will not let you fall to the ground. It will not be enough for them just to say: “I won’t let you fall.” Something more on my part will be needed.
This is basically what we see happening in today’s Gospel. Peter and his companions are the experts when it comes to fishing in that lake. But even so, after a whole night’s work they have nothing to show for their efforts. Then Jesus, after he had finished teaching the crowds (giving them the message to believe), suggests that they go out into the “deep water” and let down their nets. There is an element of scepticism and even condescension in Peter’s reply. “We [the professionals] spent the whole night in vain, but if you say so, I will let out the nets.”
The result was overwhelming and totally beyond their expectations; their nets could hardly hold the catch. It was their first test of faith in Jesus. The same call comes to us: “Go out into the deep water… Trust me completely… and you will be in for a pleasant surprise.” We really have not learnt to believe until we have reached that level of total and unconditional trust in the Way of Jesus.
It is clear, too, that the huge catch of fish is just a symbol of what they and their successors will do later in drawing people to become followers of Christ. A large harvest will materialise and it will be the work of the Lord.
The second key word today is “experience”. It is linked with the second level of faith. Too many of us were told to limit our Christian faith to the doctrines we were taught at home, in the church or in school. Church history teaches us that many strange forms of Christianity have emerged from “experience”. Msgr Ronald Knox, a Catholic convert from Anglicanism, wrote a book called Enthusiasm, which describes what happens when people get carried away by what they believe to be a Christian experience and end up with very distorted views of the Christian message. In our own day, we have seen many claiming to have visions and special messages from Jesus, or, more frequently, from Mary.
At the same time, an over-emphasis on doctrine is not good either. It can lead to a very impersonal religion, a religion which becomes legalistic, intellectual in the bad sense and often far removed from a close, loving relationship with God and people. You know things are going astray when people are more worried about the kind of vestments the priest is wearing (or not wearing) than about the plight of the poor and needy on their doorstep.
To be a Christian is first and foremost to have an experience of Christ. It is to find oneself in relationship with him in all the circumstances of one’s life. It is to find him challenging us to love, to have compassion, to practise justice, to live in freedom, to be able to forgive and be reconciled, to be kind, gentle and accepting; it is to seek, to find and to respond to him in all things. It is, because of this, to live lives of joy and peace in the midst of pain and turmoil. This is really more important that being able to give an approved explanation of the Trinity or the Immaculate Conception. It was a medieval writer who said: “I would prefer to experience repentance than be able to define it.”
Our third word today is “apostleship”. This word should be distinguished from “discipleship”. To be a disciple is basically to be a follower of some master or guru. The word ‘disciple’ comes from the Latin verb discere, to teach. The noun is discipulus, one who receives teaching. One learns from the master and one tries to incorporate his teaching into one’s own life. Obviously, in that sense, we are called to be disciples of Jesus. However, today’s readings ask for more than that. We are not only to follow and make Jesus’ Way our own. Part of our calling is to become gurus ourselves in the sense of transmitting the message of Jesus to others.
After the sensational catch of fish, Peter is absolutely overwhelmed by what has happened. He knows that he is present before the power of God himself. All his arrogance disappears and he is overcome by his own smallness and unworthiness. “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” It is, in fact, a true sign of an experience with God. Anyone who truly comes face to face with God must become aware of their littleness and what might be called the shabbiness of their lives. (Like the housewife in the detergent advertisements who thought her washed clothes were white until she saw her neighbour using another brand. Now hers look positively grey!)
It is a reaction which we find in all the three readings today. Isaiah says, for instance: “What a wretched state I am in! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips… and my eyes have looked at the King, the Lord of hosts.” Paul, not particularly known for his modesty, says: “I am the least of the apostles… I hardly deserve the name apostle.”
In spite of that, all – Peter, Paul, Isaiah – were called to be apostles. The word “apostle” means a person delegated and sent out to convey a message or carry out a mission on his or her master’s behalf. These three men were called and, indeed, every person who wishes to be known as a “Christian” is called not only to be a disciple, a follower, but also an apostle, a herald, a proclaimer. And it is done not just by words but by the whole witness of what one is and does. “Here I am, send me,” said Isaiah. “I have worked harder than any of the others [in preaching the Gospel of Jesus],” says Paul. “From now on, it is people you will catch”, Jesus tells Peter. And that was the message: if with my help you can catch so many fish, just imagine how many people you will draw to become disciples.
It is a totally natural outcome from the faith that we have in Jesus which leads us to the unique experience and joy of knowing him and putting him unconditionally at the centre of our life. That is an experience that we must share, not because we are told to but because we cannot help doing so. True discipleship of itself overflows into apostleship. It was what happened on that day when Peter, James and John left everything and went after Jesus.