While Jesus was speaking to a crowd that was pressing in on him by the Lake of Gennesaret, he noticed some fishermen washing their nets. He got into one of their boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. He then taught the crowd of people from the boat. After he had finished speaking, he told Simon to go out into deep water and lower his nets for a catch. Simon replied that they had worked all night and caught nothing, but he would do as Jesus asked. Simon and his partners caught so many fish that their nets were about to break, and their two boats were completely filled.
When Simon Peter saw this he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” When they reached shore, Simon and his partners, James and John, left everything and followed Jesus.
One of the most pervasive threats to the faith of Christians during the first centuries of the Church was a religious philosophy called Gnosticism (from a Greek word meaning “to know”). This philosophy rejected the creator God of Genesis for a supreme, unknowable Divine Spirit beyond the God of Scripture. Further, Gnostics taught that all matter, including the human body, was evil. They believed, however, that certain human beings were a spark of the Divine Spirit, and through a secret knowledge could be freed from the prison of their bodily humanness to realize their true, eternal spiritual nature.
In their view, Jesus was a Gnostic, a spark of the Divine Spirit, who only appeared to share the nature and lot of human beings. He, therefore, really did not suffer and die, but came only to teach the secret knowledge to other “spirituals” in the fallen world. In its negation of the material world, Gnosticism was a threat to Christian faith because it seemed to be spiritually superior. The New Testament, on the other hand, stresses the reality of the suffering and death of Jesus in whom “dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily”(Colossians 2: 9). Jesus endured the shame of the cross, Paul said, and to proclaim Christ crucified was a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1: 23).
The mind-set of Gnosticism remains a pervasive force in American culture. Harold Bloom, Yale professor and perceptive cultural critic, in his book, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, maintains that the American religion is Gnostic. With supposedly superior knowledge, the ideal American Hero ultimately feels no need to be guided by the dogmas and moral inperatives of the past or of organized religion. Like the first humans in the Genesis story of the Fall, the heroic individual desire is to be like the gods, determining for oneself what is good and what is evil. Thus, with unlimited rights and freedom, the essential moral imperative is to create one’s own meaning and destiny.
In the mind of Jesus, there is no bypassing humanness, either his own humanity or the humanity of the Church. Today’s gospel reveals an important moment in the coming-to-be of the Church, a very human, structured society that Jesus intended even during his earthly ministry. Through this society, aptly called his own Body, he would continue his mission in history, not merely for elite spirituals, but for the whole crowd of people pressing in on him. The Church, which Jesus initiated at the beginning of his earthly ministry, he continues to complete as Risen Lord by sending the promise of his Father (Lk 24:49). It will thus be from the abiding presence of Jesus through his Spirit that Peter will again hear the words of today’s gospel as he speaks to the crowds at Pentecost: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”
For many people today, the humanness of the Church, if not a scandal and foolishness, is often regarded as an obstacle to direct communion with the Divine Spirit. I am sure that many times the successors of Peter have echoed his words in their hearts: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Yet, the good news is that Jesus has not departed, and has promised never to depart from the Church. And it is through the humanness of the Church, as through the humanness of Jesus, that God finds us and welcomes us to our true home.
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.