Are you ambivalent?

At that time, as Jesus was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, he saw two boats by the lake; but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he was astonished, and all who were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.

Luke 5:1-11

John Chrysostom commented on this story and he said that this was the second time that Peter was called by Jesus. Why did he say that?

In the gospel of John, Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, and the next day he meets Andrew, Peter and other disciples. But in this gospel story from Luke,

A few chapters earlier it says that John the Baptist was put into prison. Today’s story takes place after John the Baptist was put into prison.

John Chrysostom points out that Jesus is using Peter’s boat to sit and teach the crowd. Jesus already knew Peter in today’s story. Jesus had healed Peter’s mother-in-law just a few days earlier (in Luke 4). John Chrysostom also points out that when Jesus met Peter the first time, Peter’s name was Simon, but Jesus gave him the nickname Peter. But in today’s story, Peter is already called Peter. This is the second time Jesus calls Peter to come and follow him.

Why did Jesus need to call Peter two times? Didn’t Peter follow him the first time? I think it was a very difficult thing for the disciples to leave everything and follow Jesus. I think they needed time. I think some of them started to follow him but needed to go home and take care of some business, and then came back. I don’t think it was a simple thing for them to leave all their obligations and wander around from village to village with Jesus.

Perhaps one of the biggest hinderances for Peter was that his mother-in-law was sick and he was obligated to care for her. James and John had a father called Zebedee. Someone needed to care for him.

What has always bothered me about this story is that it appears that Jesus just doesn’t care. One person comes to Jesus and says, “let me bury my father and then I will follow you.” And Jesus says, “let the dead bury the dead.” It sounds like Jesus doesn’t care. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. Jesus does care.

What the disciples were experiencing when they first encountered Jesus was ambivalence. When we are ambivalent we want two different things. Although we know we cannot have both we want both. We stand there like deer in the headlights and we cannot choose.

Ambivalence is our inability to accept the truth about which problem in life is the biggest problem in life. There are many problems. Many challenges that we need to grapple with in life. For example, I need to eat. That’s a problem I have to solve. I need to get a job and work and buy food. I need shelter.

What about the problem of the government? The problem of social issues? Those people over there are doing bad things. That government is doing bad things. That religious group over there is doing and teaching the wrong thing.

Another problem that we need to solve in life is fitting in. Humans are social animals. God made us that way. e need to fit in. We need to be part of the team, part of the tribe. We need friends.

These are not non-issues. These are critical issues for our health. What happens when we are surrounded by people who are alienated and disgusted by our faith and our worldview and by our values? Or what if we are surrounded by Christian people who hate the sobriety and solemnity of our Orthodox faith? What if we have friends who think that the most important part of church Is entertainment and the fueling of an emotional addiction? What if these friends of ours can barely contain or hide their utter dismay at the way our Orthodox faith does not even try to cater to those passions? What if we have friends who think that religious people are reactionary and dangerous?

These are legitimate problems and concerns. Our pain and our anxiety are legitimate.Jesus does not dismiss our problems. Jesus knows more about them than we do.

In today’s gospel Peter has an empty boat which Jesus uses to preach from. All the people thronged around Jesus and he was about to fall into the water. So he gets into Peter’s empty boat. Peter has time to row Jesus out into the water because Peter had not caught any fish the whole night before. Peter does not have any fish to take to the market. Peter has nothing better to do this day because he has not caught any fish.

John Chrysostom points out that when Jesus came to Peter and James and John  they were mending their nets. And John Chrysostom says that this shows how poor these fishermen were. When the nets were breaking and wearing out they did not have enough money to buy new ones so they had to patch them up by hand. So not only have they caught nothing this day, their nets are also old and worn out they can barely manage even when the do catch fish.

When we suffer from our ambivalence we find that whatever it is that we allow to compete with our dedication to Jesus, whatever that is, is itself always going to fail, regardless. If we do not allow our minds and our hearts to follow Jesus completely then our sin and our bitterness and our anger and our resentment are always going to undermine whatever we were hoping to accomplish. Unless God founds the city, the builders build in vain, say the scriptures.

Unless the highest truth in our minds is Christ, unless the truth we speak loudest about is Jesus, unless the first person to whom we belong is Jesus, all other things will fail to some degree or another.

For example, we allow our minds to be colonized by the foreign invaders called news anchors and pundits. We allow them to come in and occupy our living rooms all evening. We allow politics to sit on the throne of our hearts. When that happens, we find that although we try to care about the salvation of the world we cannot muster any power of imagination to imagine that people would actually meet Jesus and believe. We begin to struggle to imagine how Jesus could change their lives. The evidence for the fact that we lose our imagination is how utterly committed we become to a message of condemnation and alarm. There is nothing imaginative or hopeful in condemnation. We have no joy left over, no hope for what the power of the Most High could mean for our neighbours. Because the rage of politics has ensnared us like a net, it has caught us. Rage and judgment and righteous indignation cripple our ability to hope and to imagine a world where the Saul who persecutes us can become Paul, the great apostle. We say, “those people are hopeless.” All our mental energy, all of our attention, all of our urgency is already devoured by the sea monster of political rage. We do not preach a message of hope but of doom. The solution we truly believe in is not Jesus, but policy and action.

People who can only express despair and dismay over the political situation in the world have nothing to offer a visitor to the church. There is no good news to be told, only judgment. The vitriol becomes toxic because political rage has no ability to see the power of God which is expressed in quiet humility and patience.

Some of us have a different problem. In our circle of friends, we self-censor and avoid bringing any attention to our faith. We try to pass as “normal. ” But when a friend of ours is in obvious pain, or has suffered a great loss, when someone needs us to believe for them, to hope for them, we find that we have sanitized our language from all mention of God so much that although we long to be able to tell the suffering person, “I will pray for you,” and although we long to actually sit and pray with them, we find that we cannot. We have almost forgotten how.

Whatever feeling of belonging we may have purchased is quickly lost because we become strangers to our true selves.

Not only are we failing to make the world a better place because of our rage, and not only are we failing to find true friendship and true companionship by pretending to be someone we are not, the net of our faith also becomes old and worn out. We are not catching fish and our nets are broken.

Then Jesus says, “let your nets down.”

When Jesus tells Peter to let his net down Peter is sceptical. Peter tells Jesus, “We were fishing all night and we didn’t catch anything.” Basically, Peter is saying, “look, Jesus, no disrespect, but there aren’t any fish to catch. We already tried. But because you told me to, I will try it.” Peter is humouring Jesus. It is safe for Peter to do this because he feels certain he will not lose face. Peter is getting ready to tell Jesus, when there are no fish, “It’s okay, Jesus, don’t feel bad. You’re not a fisherman, Jesus, you couldn’t have known that there were no fish there. (even if we did tell you). Don’t worry about it.” That’s what Peter thought he was going to say.

They let down the net and they catch so many fish that the nets are bursting and breaking. Maybe the nets are ruined now. Maybe this is the last catch of fish that these nets can manage to get to land.

The problem that Peter could not tear himself away from in order to follow Jesus was that he needed to catch fish and make a living. And now Jesus has shown that he is able to solve that problem. Jesus can give him fish. Jesus knows about our worries and concerns. And he does care. He is able to provide. He does provide.

Jesus does care about the things we are worried about too. Jesus does care what happens in our society. But his solution is different than ours. Jesus saves by preaching a righteousness that is greater than the Pharisees. He saves us by showing us a vision of humility, by allowing himself to be crucified.

Jesus does care about our need to belong. And his solution is to tell people, “come follow me.” Jesus creates a community by his obedience to his Father. By serving and loving.

As Orthodox Christians we have something that all our peers need. Jesus knew that he had something everyone needs. That is how he found companionship and community and a sense of belonging.

We will not see how Jesus is providing for us unless we also allow him to solve the one problem which is greater than all our other problems. There is one challenge that is more urgent than all the others and we cannot see how Jesus is filling our nets unless we figure out which problem is the biggest problem.

When Jesus fills Peter’s net with fish, Peter says to Jesus, “depart from me for I am a sinful man.” Peter has many problems and challenges and obligations. But suddenly he understands what his biggest problem is. He realizes what the one thing needful is. Peter’s biggest problem is that he is sinful, not that his mother in law needs help, not that he needs new nets, not that he didn’t catch any fish.

I don’t know about you, but I always imagined that the decision to follow Jesus was always a one-off take-it-or-leave-it moment of crisis. Each person made their mind up once and that was it. That is how the gospel stories sounded to me.

Today’s gospel suggests to us that it was not so simple even for Peter and the other apostles. Maybe that’s why Jesus is always saying, “no one who puts his hand to the plough and then turns back is worthy of me.” Because some believed but struggled. Some wanted to but did not know how. Some people did not think they were worthy.

Followers of Jesus struggle with ambivalence. Jesus does not judge us for our ambivalence. Rather, Jesus is waiting to help us conquer our ambivalence.

Peter’s words reveal his deepest fear and his deepest worry. “You can’t help me, Jesus. I am beyond help. There’s no point.” That is what Peter is saying. “I am going to mess up. I’m going to fail. I’m going to ruin your ministry, Jesus. Run away from me.”

Peter was willing to take a chance on letting Jesus find the fish in the water. But can Jesus find Peter in the deep dark ocean of sin? Can Jesus fish Peter out? Can Jesus take away his sins and make him whole?

Can Jesus heal your pain so that you can feel confident that his grace is sufficient for you? Can Jesus change you? Can Jesus give you peace even when the leaders and politicians have gone astray? Can Jesus make you shine with the light of his love? Can Jesus speak through you to suffering people and save them? That is the biggest question. And the answer is yes.

When Jesus dies for us on the cross he shows us that the only problem that matters is that I am a sinner and the sinful world is perishing. The biggest problem Is that I cannot become who I am created to be unless Jesus calls me to come and follow him.

When Peter realized that his greatest problem was his sinfulness and his lack of hope and faith Jesus gives him a lifeline. Jesus says, “I will make you a fisher of men.”

I know who you are. I am what you need. I am who you need to be. I am carrying the pain you feel. I am the resurrection and the life. Jesus says, “all power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

Turn the news off.

Walk away.

Go mend the net of your hope and faith in the kingdom of God. So that you can become a fisher of men. Devote your energy and hope and urgency towards the redemption of the people you know.Reserve the throne in your heart for the one who can solve our biggest problem.

In the book of 1 Kings we read this story:

Elijah went …  and found Elisha son of Shaphat. [Elisha] was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah.

“Let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,” he said, “and then I will come with you.” (literally: I will walk behind you)

“Go back,” Elijah replied. “I will not stop you.”

So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his servant.

(1 Kings 19:19-21)

Elisha was called to become the apprentice to the greatest prophet Israel had ever known. He made his acceptance of that calling into a clear public statement of faith, and he dedicated his great choice to God as a sacrifice. He gathered people around the choice he had made. He did not only burn the plowing equipment, he burnt his bridges. Now there was no turning back. Elisha put himself in a position of such vulnerability towards God that he had to see how God provided for his needs since no one else could provide for him. Now he had no other livelihood so only God could help him.

Jesus, let me also slaughter the oxen of my worries, let me burn the yoke of my fears so that I may sacrifice together with you. Help me to put off my ambivalence and make myself dependent on you alone, so that I will always remember what is most urgent. Help me to walk behind you.