Jesus must have been pleased upon returning to his home town of Nazareth to find his opening words delivered on a Sabbath at the local synagogue to be well received by his neighbors and acquaintances. St. Luke records, “And all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But then Jesus begins to introduce ever so gently the notion of universal salvation: Everyone has a chance to enter the Kingdom of God; redemption is not reserved for the few. Jesus mentions the foreign widow from Sidon who Elijah befriended. He recalls Naaman the Syrian leper whom Elisha the prophet cleansed of his accursed affliction. These words are not so well received: “When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.”
Saint Luke happily follows this sad incident with a more upbeat narrative. First Christ preaches in Capernaum where the crowds “were astonished at his teaching because he spoke with authority.” Then Christ drives an unclean spirit out of a possessed man at which the people “were all amazed and said to one another, “What is there about his word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out.” Next Peter’s mother-in-law is so grateful for her cure at the hands of Christ that she “got up immediately and waited on them.” Certainly she had no problem accepting Christ’s message. Nor did the people of Capernaum in general find any problem with Jesus: “The crowds went looking for him, and when they came to him, they tried to prevent him from leaving them.” There was no need for Jesus to hide from this throng. They were thrilled with him.
These contrasting scenarios — rejection at Nazareth; acceptance at Capernaum — are immediately followed by this coming Sunday’s Gospel — the miraculous catch of fish which awed Simon Peter and his weary crew. Simon first laments to Jesus, ““Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing.” But then, when the fishermen heed Jesus’ words, their plight is dramatically altered: “…they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that the boats were in danger of sinking.” It is little wonder that Peter and his co-workers were staggered at Jesus’ command of nature: ““Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Such astonishment actually turns out to be their first step toward authentic faith: “When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.”
Most people, at least most Christians and most Catholics, believe Jesus. They take him seriously when he counsels them to feed the hungry and cloth the naked, to be merciful as the Father is merciful, to exercise charity sincerely but not ostentatiously. Even when Christians come up short in their religious duties, they still lament those shortcomings and pledge to heed Jesus more faithfully. So most people believe Jesus; they accept him as teacher. Now “believing Jesus” is certainly laudable; but “believing in Jesus” is the ultimate Christian goal. Jesus is indeed teacher, mentor, counsellor and guide. But Jesus is more importantly Son of God, Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, “…God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten not made, one in being with the Father…” It was this awesome recognition that Jesus was not simply an eminent preacher, a holy prophet, and a great miracle-worker that forced Simon Peter to the ground: “…he fell at the knees of Jesus.” It was Simon Peter’s growing suspicion that Jesus was Divine, “the beyond in our midst,” to use Bishop J. A. T. Robinson’s happy phrase, that drove the apostle to kneel in awed reverence.
Taking Jesus at his word and heeding his instructions are fundamental requirements for a full Christian life. But the more basic acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Lord, Savior, King and God is the very foundation of an authentic Christian existence. Jesus does not just want our time; he wants our heart, our soul, our mind, our very self. St. Luke concludes this Sunday’s Gospel passage by noting that Simon and his partners, James and John, “left everything” to follow Christ.
From now on Christ would be the very substance of their lives, the stuff of their existence. They would not simply rely on him for guidance and advice as they had heeded the prophets in the past. Now they would be intent on Christ as personal Savior of their lives and as universal Lord of all creation. Belief was being transformed into faith; service was maturing into commitment.