Isaiah 6:1-2, 3-8; 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11; Luke 5:1-11
Simon Peter was a fisherman. It was his livelihood. He wasn’t a sport fisherman, fishing simply because he liked to fish. His life and the lives of his family depended upon his skills and his talents in catching fish. Not only that but the livelihoods of the men who worked for him depended upon him, as well as the security and happiness of their family members. Peter knew what he was about because he had to. People depended on him.
We find him in today’s gospel account in a moment of failure. We shouldn’t think it was his only failure. He probably encountered many other such moments in the years he had been in the business of fishing. Was this failure the last straw? Was this the final failure for him? Was he about to abandon his fishing business and start out all over again in a new business? We don’t know. But many of us do know the feeling; many of us have had moments of such profound doubt that we’ve been ready to give up.
We’ve had times, haven’t we, when we’ve been beset by a certain nostalgia and sentimental memories of earlier days, days when we began our careers and marriages with high hopes, with dreams and expectations of our futures. Such moments can be pleasant reveries or they can be memories of times of terrible doubts. In them we can severely and harshly judge ourselves to be failures.
Have we made a difference in the lives of those around us? Can we yet make a difference in the lives of those around us? We had such high hopes, such promising futures, back in those days of beginnings when we began our careers, entered into our marriages, and started our families. They were such seemingly happy days, days of happy anticipation over all that we were going to accomplish, all that we were going to do. All of that was before life dealt us its cruel blows causing us to enter into moments of depression, feelings of loss, and days of living in failure.
In writing his letter to the Christians of Ephesians, St. Paul wrote: “For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens…” He was reminding those citizens of Ephesus that we are dealing with immense forces in our world, forces that seemingly seek to beset us and destroy us by destroying our spirits, corrupting our souls, and reducing us to regarding ourselves as little more than a bunch of failures.
In today’s first reading we find the prophet Isaiah in such a state of mind. His soul was heavy; he was in a state of near defeat. His nation was divided between north and south. The Assyrians had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and then carried away those Israelites into captivity to Babylon. The Southern Kingdom of Judah was languishing in one civil war following after another. Religion had fallen into little more than observing a series of formalities. Real belief in God had all but vanished. King Uzziah, once wise and trusted, had fallen into disgrace and had recently died in dishonor.
On top of all that, Isaiah, whom history would later regard as one of the greatest of all Old Testament prophets, found himself held in contempt by those to whom God had sent as a prophet. No one was listening to him; some wanted to get rid of him by killing him. Isaiah was, to say the least, very conscious of his failures and limitations.
From time to time you and I are presented with the problem of failure. And failure raises questions, questions about ourselves and questions about God. If God is so good, we are asked, why is there such terrible suffering in our world? Why did God allow the Holocaust? Or ISIS to exist? Why does God allow babies to die? And then we are told: “I can’t imagine a God that would allow evil and pain to afflict innocent people.”
But why, we need to ask, should God be limited by our puny little human imaginations? Our evaluations? Our standards? The problem, you see, is with us – not with God. Is God limited by our limitations? Do we allow ourselves to only worship a God who is so small that he fits into our little intellectual categories?
Peter was offered a window of opportunity that came to him when he would have least expected it, after a night of failure. He took the chance, gave God what he did have, namely hope and trust, and suddenly defeat was transformed into victory. Peter, admitting he was a sinner, became the Rock upon which Jesus would build his Church. Jesus was saying to Peter: “Look, I know you are brusque, impulsive, strong-willed, and even a racist bigot. But you have given me your best. Now I’m going to give you my best.”
Isn’t it true that people who have been wounded become great healers? Recovering alcoholics become the best rescuers of active alcoholics. Slow learners become great teachers. Aren’t some of our greatest athletes people who have been told they have no talent? Remember that Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his greatest symphony when he was stone deaf.
Winners never quit, and quitters never win. If we try to limit God by our own limitations, we will only succeed in limiting ourselves. The great Jewish prophet Isaiah was, like Simon Peter, given a window of opportunity in the midst of failure. He took the opportunity and said: “Here I am Lord, send me.” Peter, having confessed that he was sinner, heard Jesus respond: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be a fisher of men.” Peter responded to the challenge, the opportunity, and became the chief of the apostles.
How then, do we respond to failure? Do we see it as a challenge and then at a deeper level see that every challenge is but an opportunity? Do we respond as did Isaiah and Simon Peter? To do so, we cannot limit God by our own limited little imaginations. We are not responsible for everything that happens in our lives. We are responsible only for our responses. No one else is, only we are — not God, not others, not life. Such, then, is the challenge of faith, for faith is not simply our adherence to a creed or to a set of doctrines. Faith is how we act in life, the arena in which God comes to us.
You may think that everything depends upon you, but you would be very wrong-headed in thinking that way. And you may think that you are a failure and will never make a difference in the world. You would be equally wrong-headed in thinking that way. The only way to face life is with the belief that “with God all things are possible,” and then live our lives while depending on Him.