He and Andrew had just begun their night’s work. They had just heaved the dense, wet net out of the bottom of the boat and cast it out over the water. It struck the surface and sank. They were silent after the sound of the net going in, and then a voice called them from the shore. They were unused to hearing voices that called to them. They were unused to any sound but the small lap of the water against the side of the boat and the rustle of the wind against the sail. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” the voice said. Perhaps it was the fact that they could hear the voice, that it carried to them from the shore, that made them pay attention to it. Perhaps it was the words themselves, the idea that people were like fish, as simple and flopping and elusive as the schools who swam beneath the boat. Or perhaps it was that Simon was already a rock, and he knew it. Rocks have no business in boats at night, floating in open water. Rocks sink. They’re stubborn and still. They don’t move through water. They make water run around them.
A rock, that’s what Jesus told him that he was. A rock who fishes for people. Rocks are not known for their ability to understand people. And sometimes it felt like understanding could only come through a process of erosion. He would only understand when he had been worn down, when deep grooves of understanding had been carved from him by the experiences that pressed against him and swirled around him like water.
Before Jesus called him, life had been simple. At night he sailed out onto the Sea of Galilee with his brother Andrew and their friends James and John. The wind blew and they listened to it. They watched it ruffle the top of the water. The weather could change suddenly. The wind could come rushing out of the surrounding hills, troubling the waters. All night long they lowered their nets and waited for the fish to swim into them. He lived with his wife and his mother-in-law in a one-room house made of mud bricks. Mud-covered reed mats served as a roof, and they would shift and rustle in the strong winds. In the morning the fishermen would send their catch to Magdala, where it would be salted and sold. In the afternoons, Simon, who would be called Peter, the rock, would sleep. Then, at evening, he and Andrew would meet James and John by the seashore, and they would squat above their nets, running their hands over the sodden ropes and finding breaks which they tied back together.
On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue, where he sat with the other fishermen, with the plowmen and traders, the carpenters and merchants. They all listened together to the readings from the prophets. They knew that their present world could never last. They had been promised a new world, a Kingdom that would be ruled by God. During the high feast days, Simon went to Jerusalem. He had been there many times, walking past the dried-fish dealers at the Fish Gate and looking at their wares, wondering which of these fish he had caught himself. The people in Jerusalem thought that he was a country bumpkin. They mocked him and his friends for their accents, even though Galilee was rich and fertile while Jerusalem was hard, dry, and dependent on the farmers and fishermen in the countryside. Simon’s labor allowed these people to live in their stone houses and speak in their posh accents. They made him impatient, these Jerusalem-dwellers. He disliked their rules and their fine sense of religion. He remembered the pharisee who had visited Capernaum and who had spoken in the synagogue. Someone had asked him if you were allowed to turn over a pot onto a scorpion on the Sabbath day, to prevent yourself from being stung. No, the man said, that was too much like hunting. Hunting! When had that pharisee ever hunted? What did he know about making a living and protecting your family? In the Kingdom of God, the wisdom of such men would be shown to be foolishness, and his wisdom, the wisdom of the sea and the salt air and the winds that rustled through the olive groves, would be admired.
But he didn’t know how to express that wisdom to people, at least not yet. He didn’t really understand people. They acted so strangely, clustering around Jesus, reaching out to him, touching him, calling his name, begging him for healing. Then, the next minute, they would be turning against him, furious at him, trying to drive him away. They were motivated by desires that Simon could not understand. They flopped like fish, they swam in shimmering schools, they were chased up from the deep by some sense of danger or some shift in the waves, and yet Simon could not think of how to devise a net that would catch them. Whenever he made a net and showed it to Jesus, Jesus would feel along its cords and find its tears and snags. Simon thought that if Jesus would just show people that he was God, if he would just allow his face to shine and his clothes to become a dazzling white, as they had on that mountain when Moses and Elijah appeared, then they would all swim into the net of his truth. But he wouldn’t do it. People had to understand the message without the miracle. It was the message that was important. The message was the true net. Jesus wouldn’t let Simon try to make a net out of miracles.
The message was that everyone, even the samaritans, even the gentiles, were Simon’s neighbors. Even the Romans. Even the Germanic mercenaries whom Herod Antipas hired to police Galilee and bully its citizens. He had never believed this before. He had always thought that his neighbors were his fellow Jews. Galilean Jews, people who knew him, who felt as he felt, who saw the world in the same way that he saw it. But Jesus caught Simon in his own net, in a greater understanding of neighborliness. “Your neighbor is the person who does good even though it doesn’t benefit him in any way.” Sometimes doing good had a cost. Sometimes, you had to die for your neighbors. Simon couldn’t accept this at first. Jesus said that he would go to Jerusalem and suffer, and die. He said this as if it were the price for neighborliness, the thing that you had to do in order to love your neighbor as yourself. Simon couldn’t stand it. “God forbid it, Lord!” he said. “This must never happen to you.”
Jesus’s response was hard. It slapped against him like water. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
A stumbling block. Well, yes, that’s what a rock was, wasn’t it? Sometimes. An anchor, a weight, a stumbling block. But why did one have to die for one’s neighbors? A fisherman didn’t die when he brought in his catch, did he? Well, sometimes. Sometimes when the wind rose and blew from the west, and the water roared up all around the boat, and the sail came loose, and the mast snapped, and the boat capsized and the fishermen, like rocks, sunk to the bottom. If men were like fish then there was danger in trying to bring in a net full of them. There was danger even on the nights when the water was still and the nets were empty. There was always risk. There was always the possibility of disaster.
They went to Jerusalem for the Passover. The Paschal feast had always taught the Jews who their neighbors were. Their neighbors were their fellow Jews, the people whom Moses had brought out of bondage in Egypt, the people who had settled in the promised land, the people whom the prophets had come to, promising that one day they would all live in the Kingdom of God. Jerusalem was crowded during the Feast of the Passover, so crowded that the boundaries of the city itself were extended so that all of the pilgrims staying in the suburbs and the neighboring towns could say that they were in the Holy City for the feast. All the pilgrims were crammed in with their friends and relatives, sleeping side by side in the small houses. All of them were gathering their money together and buying sheep. In the morning, they would take their sheep to the temple, where the priests would sacrifice them and burn the entrails on the pyre. Then they would bring the lamb home and prepare it for their meal. Throughout the day, the wind would blow from the east, from the temple, and carry with it the scent of blood and incense and burning fat.
Peter sat at supper, there in the upper room, and the city, its scent and sounds, came through the open window and washed against him like a wave. He was paying attention, noting and analyzing everything, trying to understand the message, trying to piece together the net with which he would become a fisher of men. Jesus stood up and took off his outer garment and tied a towel around himself. He began to wash the disciples’ feet. And Simon Peter knew that their roles were wrong, reversed. He was supposed to be honoring Jesus. He was supposed to be washing Jesus’ feet. But Jesus wouldn’t let him. The water had to be poured against Simon the Rock one more time. It had to work at him, to erode his understanding. No, Jesus said, no, I am showing you how to treat your neighbor. Wash their feet. Be their servant.
The water rushed against Simon’s feet and he felt grit and grime wash away. The world was a different thing than he had thought it was. It wasn’t composed of Jews and Greeks and Samaritans and Romans and German mercenaries. It was composed of people. Longing people. Flopping people. Failing people. They swam in schools, silver through the water, frantic and lost and mindless. And Peter understood that Jesus had compassion on them. That he pitied them, even in their small, silver, darting violence. That he wanted to draw them up from the depth of the water. That he wanted to draw them into light. And Peter, in this sudden moment of insight, felt himself close to understanding everything. Everything that Jesus had done or said or predicted. He just needed some more washing, some more erosion. He just needed the water to rush against the uneven surface of his soul, to make it smooth and shaped so that he could become a perfect vessel to do God’s will. “Lord,” he said, “not my feet only but also my hands and head!” But Jesus said no. “You are entirely clean,” he said. Already shaped. Already in possession of the message that would make him a fisher of men. “Love one another,” Jesus said. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Far away to the north, schools of fish swam through the dark waters of the Sea of Galilee. On the shore, in the hills, in the dry valleys and the verdant farm land, by the river Jordan and in the small towns and cities, and in the great city of Jerusalem itself, the people swam dimly, moving in darkness, as the fishermen in the upper room were taught how to make the nets that would pull them out of the depths and into the light. “Love one another,” they were told, and with cautious, uncertain gestures, they began to weave a net of that love.