In South Africa, loud thunderstorms with bright flashing lightening are quite common occurrences during the hot summer months. In Johannesburg itself, thunderstorms can happen on a weekly and even a daily basis during the summer. Over the afternoon, great billowing clouds will build up and in the late afternoon for about half an hour, the clouds will burst open and thunder will roll across the sky and after just 30 minutes it will all be over and the skies will be clear again.
When the thunderstorms come during the night and the lightening strikes close by, the flashes of lightening can light up the whole house, almost like for a brief moment all the lights were suddenly turned on and off simultaneously.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his little book of African Prayers writes in the introduction, that encountering God in all God’s holiness and majesty could be compared to to standing at one’s window at night during a great thunderstorm, and as you peak through the curtains, being suddenly overwhelmed and blinded by a great flash of lightening and the roar of thunder that accompanies it.
I get a sense that this was something of Peter’s experience in our text today. The text itself is Luke’s version of the calling of the first disciples. Luke’s version is different from Matthew, Mark’s and John’s versions. Mark’s version in particular gives the impression of Jesus calling the disciples right at the beginning of his ministry. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is walking along the lake, and seeing Simon (Peter) and Andrew casting a net into the lake simply says to them: "Come follow me" and they drop everything to follow him.
Luke on the other hand gives the impression that Jesus has already been preaching and teaching for sometime on his own. It is on one such teaching occasion when Jesus is surrounded by crowds who are listening to him, that Jesus asks to get into Peter’s boat to continue teaching from there.
After finishing teaching, Jesus tells Peter to put out again to the deep and to cast the net out for a catch. Peter goes along with Jesus reluctantly, telling Jesus that they had been fishing all night without having caught anything.
As the story unfolds, and Peter follows Jesus instructions to go out and fish again, Peter ends up having the biggest catch of his life, so big that he even requires extra help to keep his boat from sinking.
At that moment, it is like Peter has glimpsed through the veil of heaven and seen a great flash of lightening that suddenly illuminates the darkness of his own soul. Overwhelmed by what has just happened, Peter senses that he is in the presence of something or someone much bigger and greater than himself. At this moment, somehow, in the presence of this human being Jesus, he has encountered something of the presence and majesty of God.
He responds: "Away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man", in words that echo the prophet Isaiah who has a vision of God high and lifted up on a throne, and says “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips and and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5).
But as we read on in the passage, we see that this overwhelming presence that he has encountered in Christ is not the overwhelming presence of judgement or anger, but rather, the overwhelming presence of love, a presence and a love much brighter and more powerful than anything he had encountered before.
Some people would say that God cannot stand being in the presence of sin. But in this passage we see that Jesus is not offended by Peter’s darkness. It is the other way around. It is sin that feels overwhelmed in the presence of Divine Love and light.
From Jesus perspective, there is no need because of Peter’s sense of sin. On the contrary, Jesus affirms his wish that Peter should become his companion and disciple and a partner in his ministry of catching people in the net of God’s love. God’s love and grace made known in Jesus is greater than Peter’s sense of sin and darkness.
And that is the same for each and everyone of us. God is not offended by our darkness and our mistakes. Sometimes having the light shining into that darkness is painful, because we see things in ourselves that we don't like to see and that we don't want to see. But God’s purifying light and love is not there to destroy us, but to make us whole and to call each of us to become God’s friends and partners in the world to spread wide the net of God’s love over others.