This Fifth Sunday after Trinity sometimes comes quite close to St Peter's Day which is an “immovable feast” set on June 29. By a happy coincidence (probably not intended) today's Epistle and Gospel feature St Peter in a special way.
The Gospel relates an incident which occurred early in the acquaintance of Jesus and Peter. Jesus had first met Peter in Capernaum, a fishing town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had been a guest in Peter's home and had healed Peter's wife's mother. Then Jesus left for a preaching mission in Judaea (an episode of which we know only a little).
What happens in the passage from Luke 5 which we read today is that Peter's relationship to Jesus, already a positive and strong friendship, is deepened and established. Surely Peter considered it a great honor to have Jesus in his home or to lend his fishing boat to Jesus as a place to preach. The picture of Jesus preaching from the boat to a multitude on the shore deserves to be one of our most beloved images of the Saviour. But Peter needed to learn more about Jesus.
When Jesus was a guest in Peter's house or in Peter's boat, Peter was surely tempted to feel that he himself was in charge of Jesus, saying, “Sit here,” or “Sit there.” Peter probably felt annoyed or possibly even outraged by the command of Jesus, “Put out into the deep.” It was the wrong time of day for fishing, and the men were surely weary from laboring all night. This was their appointed “quitting time,” the moment when workers cannot be detained without grumbling.
Peter addresses Jesus twice in this passage, the first time to argue and the second time to confess his sins. In the first address Peter uses the term “Master,” a polite but unremarkable term for a teacher or rabbi. But in his second speech, Peter addressed Jesus as “Lord.” Peter has suddenly perceived that Jesus is no ordinary teacher or healer, but is none other than the Lord Himself. In that one word “Lord” is the germ of the Great Confession which is read as the Gospel on St Peter's Day.
But let us be quick to say, merely addressing Jesus by the correct title is not enough. As He Himself said, “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” Jesus still commands His disciples to take great risks, to do things which defy common sense, to continue our laboring even when we are tired. “Launch out into the deep!”
When we go looking into today's Gospel from Matt. 20 for a sermon, we are confronted by an embarrassment of riches. Here is a story of two disciples, with their mother in tow, asking for special privilege and status in the kingdom Jesus was soon to inaugurate. The request might not be as presumptuous as it appears. There are clues which suggest that the mother of James and John was a sister of the Blessed Mother and therefore Jesus' aunt. That would make James and John the cousins of Jesus. Family ties were important in that age. What we call "nepotism" was a way of life, and the request would not seem out of order to them.
But here are some of the issues which emerge in the passage. First, the sinful desire for rank and power in God's kingdom That is hardly a thing of the past. Ambition for office and influence plagues the Church in every place and time, at every level from parish to diocese to province and even to the ends of the earth. Whereas Matthew and Mark tell this story, Luke does not. Instead he told a more shocking incident in which the Twelve, gathered in the Upper Room on the night of the betrayal, only hours before the crucifixion itself, squabble and quarrel over "who should be the greatest."
Second, the timing of the incident shows the shallowness and insensitivity of Christians to the way of the cross which Jesus has taken. Our reading begins at verse 20. This follows the third great prediction of the passion, in which Jesus had said, "and they shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify, and the third day he shall rise again."
Do we only hear the final part of that prophecy? The happy indifference to our Lord's agony for us probably explains our preference for a "beautiful" and "glorious" cross to the wooden crucifix which confronts us with His pain. But the incident in today's Gospel reading is so embarrassing (to James and John and to us well) that we know it must have really happened. Anyone who invented such a tale would be guilty of slander.
Finally we must notice the gentleness of our Lord's rebuke, which is hardly a rebuke at all. He reminds them "Ye shall indeed drink of my cup and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with." As Paul tell us in Romans 6, all who are "baptized into Jesus Christ are truly baptized into his death." The mother, who seems so opportunistic, was one of the women who gathered at the foot of the cross to watch Jesus die. James was the first of the twelve apostles to die as a martyr for the faith. John was the "first to believe" the good news of Jesus' resurrection, lived to a great old age and had a vision of "new heavens and new earth" while enduring the existence of a penal colony. They were not wrong when they said, "We are able."