When Jesus joined the crew of Simon Peter’s fishing boat after a long night catching nothing, I learned one thing: commercial fishing is hard work. I didn’t realize the level of work until I moved to a fishing village along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Many of our 800 or so residents are fishermen. Like Peter, James, and John; they fish with large nets, all night long. They do this to support their families. They work incredibly hard for sometimes very little return.
It was in the midst of this kind of fatigue and exasperation that Jesus met Simon Peter. After borrowing Simon’s boat to serve as a floating pulpit, Jesus instructed Simon to go a little further and deeper into the water. You know the story of Simon’s incredulity. “These waters are empty. We fished here all night.” He thought further efforts were pointless. Whether out of a sense of hospitality to his guest or because he was simply out of options, Peter acquiesced. “Yes, Jesus, we’ll do it.”
He did it and the fish came. They were all rightly amazed. I’m less astonished by the fish, Peter taking advice from a part-time carpenter, and economic windfall soon to grace their families. Something else grabs my attention. I have read this passage countless times, and I’ve yet to find Jesus posing a question about doctrine, theology, worship, or religious law to Peter or his crew. It’s not there.
While racked with doubt and amazement at second guessing Jesus’ internal fish radar, Peter is never put on the religious spot. Jesus doesn’t ask Peter to repeat a creed. Peter isn’t questioned about his beliefs on the Trinity, same-sex marriage, same-sex ordination, third-trimester abortion, or a wall across southern Gaza. Why didn’t Jesus ask these questions? Doesn’t Jesus know he’s leading the battle in the culture war for the heart and soul of everything that has ever been good, right, and holy? Does Jesus not realize that God-fearing people like him are supposed to be aggressive when making new disciples? No, Jesus seems heaven-bent on welcoming everyone despite the Orthodox standards we insist Jesus follow, especially if he wants to feel welcome in United Methodist circles.
Jesus didn’t have a litmus test for Peter, James, or John. He doesn’t have one for us either. There are a variety of litmus tests for contemporary United Methodists, and some treat these codes as if they were created by Jesus. This isn’t reflective of Jesus’ priorities. It’s more about Methodism and our need to be in control and determine those we believe worthy of entrance into God’s kingdom.
At the end of the story, Jesus says to Simon, “Don’t be afraid.” As we head into the General Conference Methodists are fearful. Is it possible to “not be afraid”? I believe the background noise concerning one plan or the other is too great for us to hear Jesus’ words. We’re confident of our ability to save ourselves and that God is on our side. We’ve jumped through our own hoops. We want the world to see how holy we are. The Methodists are in charge of their own destiny. What’s there to be afraid of?
I’ll save that list for another day.
Richard Lowell Bryant