I hope you are reading or getting ready to start reading the parish Christmas present to you, the book Rediscover Jesus – in fact, take a look in our bulletin this weekend. We have three opportunities for you to read, reflect and rediscover Jesus in conjunction with the larger community. I have been reading along and it has been a wonderful spiritual exercise, reason to pause and consider my Lord, Savior, Brother, and all that he is in my life. Of course any text is read in a context – in this case, the context of our lives – or in my case, the context of my life.
Given today’s gospel it occurred to me that Jesus was a Navy or a Coast Guard guy. I know, I know, … all the members and veterans of the other branches of the armed forces may take offence at such a bold proclamation, but hear me out on this. Jesus did not have a horse – so we can eliminate cavalry; did not carry a sword – so he wasn’t infantry; did not have siege weapons – so not artillery. In fact, Jesus even tells Pontius Pilate that he does not have an army. So, I conclude, not an army guy.
Now, you might make an argument for him being an Air Force guy because he ascended into heaven, but I think lacking an airplane or helicopter we can move on to other considerations.
Is Jesus around water a lot? It seems like every other story of Jesus’ ministry is on the shoreline, on the water, or walking on water… water, water, water. I think there is lots of evidence to show he was Navy or Coast Guard. Given my Navy background, you might think me an impartial judge (and you are probably right), but lets see where this musing on Jesus can lead us.
Many scripture scholars point out that this scene in Luke’s gospel is an image of the Church: Jesus, Simon Peter, the apostles – all in the boat together. The early Christians understood the scene that way and depicted the boat, the ship (or barque) as a Christian symbol of the church. It is the Church tossed on the sea of disbelief, worldliness, and persecution but finally reaching safe harbor with its cargo of human souls. Part of the imagery comes from the ark saving Noah’s family during the Flood (1 Peter 3:20-21). The symbol of the church as boat was seen in Jesus protecting Peter’s boat and the apostles on the stormy Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41). In very early Christian writings, the bishop is described as the helmsman of the faithful charged with steering them to the shores of salvation. And, you the faithful, do you know where you are sitting? You are sitting in the nave of the church – and yes, nave is from the Latin for “ship.”
In our gospel scene, there is no doubt of who is the captain. Peter might own the boat in the secular sense, but even he acknowledges it is Jesus who is in command. “After [Jesus] 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.’”
After the amazing catch of fish, Luke pointedly refers to Simon as “Simon Peter,” the name given to this specific follower of Christ: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.” (Mt 16:18). It struck me that this is a precursor to a coming change of command ceremony and Peter’s reaction is very similar to the prophet Isaiah in the first reading. When the Word of God comes to Isaiah calling him to his mission, Isaiah’s first reaction is he is unworthy, unprepared, not equipped, a sinner, and he tries to beg off. But in the end he responds: “Here I am….send me.” And so too will Peter.
Peter has the same response: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” But when you are called, you are called: “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.” Maybe at this point Peter is a newly-minted Ensign in this navy Jesus is forming. In time he will advance in rank, so to speak, and when facing the very question we face as we rediscover Jesus, Peter when he hears “But who do you say that I am?” – he steps up, speaks for the other apostles, and says “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” He is ready for command. He is not perfect, but ready. He will make mistakes along the way. But it seems to me that mistakes he makes have one thing in common: he gets out of the boat.
On the sea at night Peter sees Jesus, walking on the water coming to Peter, but has doubts – he gets out of the boat and sinks like a rock. When his commanding officer needs him the most during his Passion and Death, Peter abandons ship. Once again on the shoreline, Jesus reconciles Peter and restores his command responsibility: “feed my sheep.” It is only in the boat that Peter discovers and can continually rediscover Jesus.
The same goes for us: we need to stay in the boat – as imperfect, sinful, distracted, impatient, bored, or whatever as we are – stay in the boat. It does not matter that we do not think we are in line for “command,” that we are forever crewmen, hands on the oars, raising the sails, swabbing decks, doing our part to keep the ship sailing to safe harbor. Because I will tell you, each and everyone one of you is already in command – tasked with what St. Paul describes in the second reading: “I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received.” You are captains in your families, in your classrooms, in your businesses, in the life that you lead – asked to hand on to those around you, the important life-giving Word of God that you have already received. You are captain, helmsman, and navigator – your place is in the boat.
The boat is the place where you discover and rediscover Jesus, find safety from the storms of life, find assurance in the vessel of redemption, and know that you are ever steering to the safe harbor of salvation. The boat is where you find the Word and the Eucharist – where you truly come to know Jesus.
Stay in the boat. Amen.