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2 fishing stories

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There are quite a few fishing stories in the gospels. Because many of the disciples were fishermen, this is only natural. These stories are not just cultural snapshots of the lives of people in the first century; these narratives tell us something about the disciples or Jesus or both. Two stories in particular seem connected not only because of their amazing and miraculous catch, but because they show us something about the faith journey of one of the disciples, Peter. Here are the two stories:

Story 1:
When [Jesus] had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken ... Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (Luke 5:4-10, NRSV)

Story 2:
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. (John 21:4-8, NRSV)

In the first story, Jesus calls the fishermen to follow him, to change their occupation and leave the fishing life (in the literal sense) behind. This first encounter with Jesus and the many fish is early on in Peter's relationship with Jesus, when the disciples are not exactly sure who Jesus is or what the implications of following him might be. The second story takes place after Jesus has been crucified, been raised from the dead, and appeared to his disciples a few times. At this point, Peter has been through an emotional roller coaster. First, it appears as if Jesus is about to start a political revolution (yay!), then Jesus is arrested, leaving the disciples angry, confused, and afraid (what?), then Jesus dies and their hopes are dashed (nooooooooo!!!!), then Jesus appears to them in resurrected form and causes great excitement (is this really happening?), but they are not sure what it means for them (what do we do now?). So Peter goes back to what he knows: fishing. And this is when he encounters the risen Christ (and the fishes) again.

Mark Buchanan makes an interesting observation about the first story where Jesus is calling Peter. When the disciple says, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man," it may be more than just a shameful awareness of his shabby, sordid life. Mark wonders if it might be "an evasion ploy, a diversionary tactic, a rash outburst to buy himself some time. After all, Peter says those words while standing knee-deep in fish. The catch of a lifetime. His biggest windfall ever. ... That boatful of fish would have cashed out nicely. It would have paid a lot of bills, bought a lot of upgrades, provided a few luxuries. It would have made Peter's hardscrabble existence not so hard and scrabbly."[1] But the call of Jesus is to leave everything behind (including winning the fish lottery) and follow. Mark notes that, "Peter's first instinct is to dodge the light." [1]

The second story shows a very different reaction from Peter. When another huge catch of fish is suddenly his for the taking, Peter does not hesitate. Instead of needing some distance from Jesus, he "plunges into the water ... and comes up panting and dripping, hoping with everything in him that Jesus will reissue the call, the hard call to follow him. Jesus does not disappoint." [2]

The question that Jesus asks Peter in John 21 is this: Do you love me more than these? More than the boatload of fish, more than the fishing buddies, more than the life you know? And Peter says yes, yes, yes.

There is a simple prayer exercise which speaks to the themes we find in these two fishing stories. It is called Palms Down, Palms Up.

Palms Down: "Begin by placing your palms down as a symbolic indication of your desire to turn over any concerns you may have to God." [3] This is a posture, both physical and mental, of letting go, of surrendering. You may surrender anger, fear, anxiety, or frustration. Or you may let go of the fishes in your life, the good things which vie for your loyalty and love. Some find it helpful to picture giving these things to Jesus instead of just letting them fall to the ground.

Palms Up: "After several moments of surrender, turn your palms up as a symbol of your desire to receive from the Lord." [3] After letting go of anger, you might ask to receive love, after letting go of fear, anxiety, and frustration, you might ask to receive peace, patience, and joy. After letting go of the fishes in your life, you might want to ask Jesus to issue or reissue his call on your life. What is he asking you to commit yourself to?

Because my heart and hands so quickly fill with concerns, burdens, and fears, I usually find myself alternating between surrendering (palms down) and receiving (palms up) in my prayer time. The two are intricately related. If my hands are full, I cannot receive what he is offering. And if I am constantly obsessed with everything I need to surrender, I am unable to receive the fullness Jesus offer me. The life of Peter reveals that both of these postures (letting go and receiving) are not one-time events. Walking with Jesus is an ongoing journey, an adventure in learning and relearning how to say yes, how to let go, how to love, how to give, how to receive, how to fish.

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1. Mark Buchanan, Spiritual Rhythm (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 234.
2. Ibid., 235.
3. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (HarperSanFrancisco, 1978; 1998), 30-31.

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