One of the most striking things that Jesus does at the beginning of his public ministry is to ask for help.
Which actually seems rather odd, knowing what we know; after all, if anyone should have been able to go it alone, you would have thought it to be Jesus, who at the moment of his baptism was affirmed by God as his son, “the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” On the strength of that credential alone, one would think that Jesus could have gone about his ministry unfettered and unaccompanied!
But in this morning’s gospel reading we quickly discover that Jesus does not work alone to accomplish his mission, but instead seeks the help of others. As Biblical scholar Tom Wright has put it, “Jesus not only announced the advent of God’s promised kingdom, he also invited people to come forward and to be a part” of that kingdom’s coming; to empower them to do that which Jesus himself was doing, which was to announce the coming of the kingdom and invite others still to be a part of it.
Or, to put it more simply, as Jesus called out to Simon and Andrew, then to James and John: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And I’m here to tell you that it’s still the call that Jesus extends to you and me today, and that we are here this morning in this church as contemporary disciples of Jesus.
It’s actually an extension of what we were talking about here last Sunday; about how you and I came to our Christian faith because first, somebody, somewhere invited us to “come and see,” to know more and be a part of what they knew to be true. To put a finer point on it, that somebody was a disciple: a follower of Jesus Christ who answered Jesus’ call in his or her own life to become a fisher of people! And by some kind of compassionate word or deed they threw their spiritual net out there and, what do you know, they caught us (!) and through their efforts and by their faith they helped Jesus catch us as part of his loving embrace of the whole world. It’s this ongoing cycle of proclamation and invitation; disciples catching disciples, all for the sake of the sake of Christ and his kingdom, and it is a calling that, as we’ve seen, extends from person to person, family to family, generation to generation.
Of course, if it’s true that we here today represent the latest gathering of disciples called by Jesus to be “fishers of people,” then the obvious question is, well… how’s the fishing been lately?
It’s not as flip a question as it might seem. After all, these are times that do not exactly provide optimal conditions for casting our spiritual nets upon the water! For one thing, we’re living amidst this cultural and, dare I say, political landscape that has increasingly marginalized people of faith as being either inconsequential on the one hand, or some kind of extremist threat on the other; moreover, there’s a growing sense of pluralism in this world that seems to suggest that we shouldn’t ever impose our beliefs on anyone else; and worst of all, there’s a real tendency – even within the church (!) – for us to start believing that our Christian faith is not good news to proclaimed or shared, but something that ought to be kept wholly to ourselves.
None of which makes for much success in answering Jesus’ call to fish for people!
You’ll remember that last week we ended our worship singing that great old hymn, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations that shall turn their hearts to the right…” Now I love that particular hymn (if nothing else, it’s refreshing to leave this place at march tempo!); but even as we’re singing, I’m thinking to myself that those words (“We’ve a song to be sung to the nations that shall lift their hearts to the Lord”), as powerful as they are, don’t really connect to our post-modern view of evangelism or what it is you and I are comfortable doing as regards faith! Mostly our tendency is not to sing or shout our faith, but to keep it quiet and personal, and to never be pushy or overbearing about it, because nobody likes a religious fanatic! And besides, we wonder, is there ever really a good and fitting time or place to tell our story “to the nations” about God or Jesus or our faith, other than… well… here, where it’s relatively easy and comfortable and we’re amongst the trained professionals of the church?
My point is that more and more these days we tend to compartmentalize our Christian faith as one amongst many other concerns of our lives, and that decidedly was not what Jesus was about; nor is that to be the nature of our call to discipleship! That’s one reason that Matthew is very clear in pointing out that those first disciples “immediately… left their nets” – their homes, their families, their livelihoods, everything – “and followed him.” Because discipleship is not meant to be something compartmentalized: it is to be life changing and all-encompassing; and likewise, to be “fishers of people” requires that we move out well beyond the safest and most secure spots for fishing! Jesus’ mission was one of proclamation and invitation; he took that mission to the very places where the people were; and meeting them there, he called out to them with a voice and in a manner they could understand. That’s why in the gospels we’re always meeting Jesus in the marketplace; out amidst the fishing boats or walking through the villages, sharing meals with what the rest of the world would dismiss as the lost and forgotten. It was all to tell them the kingdom of God was at hand and that each one of them could be a part of that glory; with every word he spoke, with every teaching and parable shared; in every healing act, Jesus was casting that net of God’s redeeming, saving love.
And as Jesus’ disciples in these challenging years of the 21st century, that remains our task as well.
Don’t misunderstand me here; I’m not talking about our being loud about our Christian faith, or obnoxious, or judgmental or spiritually pretentious, for there are more than enough zealots in the church. Nor am I standing here to demand a greater measure of success in evangelism: this week I heard a prominent Methodist preacher suggest words to the effect that “if a congregation is not growing in numbers, then it is failing as a church,” and I don’t think that’s right, either. I’m just talking about the importance of our fully embracing Jesus’ call to be “fishers of people” so that our words – and more importantly, our very lives – become that mission of proclamation and invitation. For it’s in casting that net, however it happens, that people get caught and lives are changed forever.
Part of one’s seminary education usually involves some amount of Clinical Pastoral Education, which is to be trained in matters of pastoral care in some sort of clinical setting (Havenwood, for instance, has an excellent CPE program through their pastoral care department). I went through this as well, and for several weeks “back in the day” along with several of my classmates I actually served as a hospital chaplain, albeit one under close supervision. And at times it was very difficult thing for all of us, especially in those moments when our well-meaning efforts for the sake of Christ-centered compassion were met by indifference, rejection and even anger: I myself can still vividly recall having one young man suggest to me, very calmly but using several choice four-letter words, what I should do with my Bible-thumping self and that I should leave his hospital room immediately. And, trust me, I did!
But then, sometimes, incredible things would happen. One of my classmates (whose name, interestingly enough, was Lisa) had begun to make regular visits to one particular family whose young daughter had been very sick for many weeks, and in fact, whose condition was deteriorating. Every day Lisa would stop by the room and though the visits were all cordial and polite, it was clear that this family was not really that interested in anything spiritual she had to say. Every time she’d try to say a few words about faith, they’d change the subject; and prayer was pretty much out of the question. And she wondered aloud to the rest of us if maybe she was wasting their time and hers, but still, every day, she went to see this family; usually talking with them about whatever was going on that day, breaking the monotony and pain with conversation about the weather, or sports or the news.
Well, on one day that Lisa made one of these visits the little girl was restless and feeling very sick. The family had tried to calm her down but without success. And that’s when Lisa – without even thinking about it, she told us later – jumped in to help. She held the little girl’s hand and, looking her in the eyes, talked with her; she smiled and started to tell her a knock-knock joke she’d heard earlier that day. And after a moment or two, incredibly, the little girl calmed down; she stopped wrestling with everyone around her, she looked at Lisa, she laughed at the knock-knock joke… and she promptly threw up (!) all over everything and everyone, including Chaplain Lisa!
But you know what? Lisa didn’t move. While everybody else was running around in a panic about this, Lisa just kept holding the little girl’s hand, saying, “It’s OK. Don’t worry about it. It’ll clean up.” And it did clean up, and a few minutes later as the girl was sleeping, her father – who’d up to this point had said little more than a begrudging “hello” to Lisa – looked at this very messy and now odoriferous student chaplain, shook his head and asked, “What kind of church are you from, anyway?’”
I’m not sure how Lisa answered that question, but I can tell you that it was the beginning of a much larger conversation. Because Lisa came from a church that brings divine and healing love into the worst possible situations; she came from a church that shines a great light into the midst of an enveloping darkness; and she came from a church that understands that there is always good news to tell, and that good news comes directly from God in Jesus Christ. And whether she knew it or not, whether she intended it or not; that morning Lisa cast her spiritual net, and what do you know… the kingdom was proclaimed and a family was caught in God’s loving embrace.
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” That’s how Jesus calls us “o’er the tumult,” to be disciples catching disciples. Who knows how that will unfold for us this week; what kind of opportunities may present themselves for us to cast our spiritual nets into the waters of our daily lives. Maybe it’ll happen at home, or at work, or in some random conversation at a coffee shop or the Market Basket checkout line (stranger things have happened, friends!); and the “fish” you could be catching could be as familiar as a neighbor or else someone you’ve never laid eyes on before.
You just don’t know; but there are, at this very moment, people out there who are waiting for someone exactly like you to catch them; waiting for you to be the one to share the gospel with them; for you be that person of faith that only you can be, using the gifts that God has given you.
It just takes being “fishers of people.” And that, beloved, is what Jesus makes us to be as his disciples.
So may we be… and as we are, may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry