When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees…
Peter fell down before Jesus because, like Isaiah in Isaiah 6, he recognized the presence of divinity in the person of Jesus Christ. Where the revealing angel of Revelation forbade St. John to bow down before Him, Jesus does not forbid it. He merely says, “Do not be afraid.” Perfect love casts out fear, and the perfect love of a Lord who covers our sins casts out the fear of judgment. So it was with Peter; so it is with us.
Peter’s worship is not so much given in the face of immense glory – as perhaps some of St. John’s was in revelation, or perhaps Isaiah’s was, and definitely as the disciples were at the transfiguration. Nor is his worship like those of the characters in the Gospel who beg the Lord’s mercy – that worship is certainly worthy. Peter’s worship arises from the intellectual conclusion that God is in his midst. For who can control nature the way Jesus directed fish into his net?
Jesus is the author of creation, through Whom God made all things. Sinful man – as Peter recognizes – should not be in the presence of the author of life. Sin is about death, decay, dissolution, and return to dust. It’s anti-life. The natural human inclination is to feel natural with – to use some post-modernism jargon – “structures of mortality.” Death is natural, we think. It’s part of the circle of life. It’s writ in the architecture of our being. So, when confronted with the beauty and power that is pure life, our instinct is to feel ourselves unworthy. To fear.
Which makes it strange Peter would ask Jesus, the author of life, to depart from him. To depart from Jesus is death. So why embrace non-life in pursuit of avoiding death? It’s paradoxical.
Well of course it’s paradoxical. Sin makes everything paradoxical. Hence the fear. Jesus mercifully remedies the anxiety-induced thinking of Peter with His “fear not” as He must do with us with similar words, like “your sins are forgiven” and “peace be with you” and “the Lord make His face shine upon you.”
Peter testifies to the paradox a bit in his bodily reaction. He falls. If he were truly fearful of a wrathful God in the face of a sinful man, he probably would have jumped out of the boat and swam to shore. Peter’s been known to do that too, but that time in almost the reverse situation, swimming to Jesus and not away. My how things change!
But Peter falls down saying, “Depart from me.” Did he want Jesus to swim to shore? Of course not. Obviously something in him knew Jesus was merciful and wasn’t using that episode to say, “Hey! Surprise! Guess who I am, and guess who’s in big trouble now and trapped on this little boat.” Peter knew this wasn’t how this story ended.
The interesting question is, why did Peter fall at Jesus’ knees and not at His feet? This is the only instance in the Bible where it says someone fell at Jesus’ knees. The sort of worship going on here is clearly the type where one feels the need to fall down at the lowest place possible before Jesus, like a dog rolling over in submission, assuming an abject posture of, “I’m in your hands O Lord and completely at Your mercy, which I plead You to now have.”
How were Jesus’ knees the lowest part to which Peter could fall down?
The boat probably wasn’t too small. It was only Jesus and Peter, and at most one other, if there were four people divided between two boats. And those boats were a good size, if we take the example of the archeological find of a first century fishing boat, dubbed “the Jesus boat.” Perhaps we could conjecture the boat was loaded with fish, so Peter couldn’t get any lower than the fish which had filled the boat up to the point of Jesus’ knees. If that’s the case, one has to be impressed with the narrative consistency given by St. Luke, more proof that these are accurate accounts. You can almost hear Peter narrating to Luke, “It was then I fell down at Jesus’ knees. You have to understand His feet were covered with fish!”
Another possibility is that the lowest part of Jesus at the time was His knees. Under what circumstances would this be the case? If He Himself were kneeling in the boat. Why would He be kneeling in the boat? Perhaps because He was helping with the catch of fish. Who doesn’t like that image? Jesus isn’t just sitting in the back seat of the boat like Miss Daisy while Peter does all the work. No, He’s in on the action, dragging in nets laden with fish, anchoring Himself on the boat floor with His knees.
If that’s the case, what a Gospel about Jesus’ human and divine natures. The divine nature we see clearly. But the human nature shines forth. We have a Lord with knees. Knees! Our broken, aching, arthritis-addled knees will be redeemed, because God has eternal knees! Not only that, but Jesus may be taking part in this mundane task of dragging fish in. Not only does it substantiate the action parable – like a version of the “Footprints” poem for ministers, that very often Jesus is the one not only bringing the men to the net for ministers to drag in, but sometimes Himself drags them into the baptismal font – but it simply shows a human side of Jesus. He chips in. It’s not unlike how He cooked breakfast for the disciples the next time a similar miracle happened after His resurrection.
Whatever the case, it’s an interesting detail. Peter falls at Jesus’ knees. Those little details are there for a reason, number one being that it’s what happened, but number two being why it happened that way. A Lord who has every hair numbered and knows when birds fall to the ground is a Lord about details. He’s not a Gnostic Lord, hovering disdainfully above all these “worldly” elements. He’s a Lord who took on those details, who can’t have His feet worshiped because they’re covered with fish, or because He’s kneeling on a boat helping drag in a haul of fish.