Fishers of people

Lessons for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

“In our family there was no clear distinction between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in Western Montana and our father was a Presbyterian minister and fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen, and that John, the favorite, was a dry fly fisherman.” 

Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

So begins Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. The author was not the first to bid others to join in the extended metaphor for the religious life. Indeed, in today’s gospel story from the Matthean narrative, Jesus says to Andrew and Peter, the Galilean fisherman, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And then likewise, the fellow fishermen, James and John followed Jesus. 

The fishing metaphor doesn’t really resonate with me. I’m not a fisherman. I get the metaphor on an intellectual or literary level but it just doesn’t strike a chord. The last time I went fishing was probably on one of those “do-everything” boats with a professional guide. The kind where the boat is provided with rods and reels, the lines are hooked and baited, and then they are set at a proper depth. The captain, which he insists on being called, locates the fish, probably from “fish-finding” sonar and alerts the “fisherman” when the fish takes the line. All I had to do was reel in the catch. The crew unhooked the fish and threw it in the cooler. If I remember right, we went on a pretty classy boat that time and the crew even cleaned the catch for us to take home. That’s my kind of fishing. Well….if I am completely honest, my kind of fishing is picking my selection at the restaurant, having I well prepared, and cleaned up for after I’m done. But, to each her own.  

The fishing metaphor is strong in Matthew’s gospel, probably because those first four who were called to follow Jesus were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. The narrative, with its fishing metaphor, represents a new beginning for those four fishermen. The Bible is full of beginnings: There is THE beginning “when created the heavens and the earth,” speaking existence into being, the magnificent cosmos flowing from the very Word of God. 

But there are other beginnings as well, thus: 

  • The human race begins with Adam and Eve; 
  • The earth begins anew after the flood with Noah and his family; 
  • Sarah and Abraham answer God’s invitation to go away from the land of the Chaldeans, beginning anew in the land of Canaan; 
  • Moses leads his people from the slavery of Egypt; 

In the end, there will be a new beginning when the holy city descends from heaven to earth, the New Jerusalem, a place to begin what will be forever new. 

There are some beginnings in the biblical narrative that we name “Call” stories. They are common among the prophetic narratives: Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah and Jeremiah have dramatic call narratives. A call story simply recounts how somebody was invited by God to begin something new.  

So, Andrew and Simon, James and John would have arisen when the sky is still dark to begin their day on the sea. Hurling nets into the water and pulling them back again all in anticipation of a catch of fish. It would have been a day like so many others. There was nothing special in the air – no signs of change, so they engaged in their routine hundreds of times before. It was the same routine of so many hundreds of days before. This is what they did for they are fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. 

But amid familiar smells and sounds of the sea, amid the nets and rough wood of boats, amid the rhythmic motion of waves – all familiar to these four men, a new beginning iwas taking place. 

Jesus turns up waterside. They think, maybe, they met him before. Maybe south, on the Jordan with that John who is baptizing and, even better, challenging those hypocrites. He glances at these working men in their boats with their nets and their hard-won catch. “Follow me,” he calls out them, “and I will make you fish for people.” And these four hard-scrabble fishermen hear Jesus voice, put-down their nets, and go.  

A new beginning was taking place. A new adventure was beginning. G. K. Chesterton once wrote,

“An adventure is, by its nature, a thing that comes to us. It is a thing that chooses us, not a thing that we choose.” 

While other rabbis waited for disciples to come to them, Jesus goes out and issues the invitation. He is not looking in the places we might think, though. He is not looking and inviting the likely candidates but is, instead, interrupting fishermen at their work. 

An adventure is something that comes to us, that chooses us. Discipleship is the great adventure, for the one who comes to us and chooses us is great beyond all measure. We are taken away from predictable lives, plunged into adventure. 

Woe to anyone who dilutes this adventure with dullness, who makes discipleship into something safe. 

Happy are those for whom the adventure remains forever sharp, who find themselves always at a new beginning. 

Are these four men – Andrew, Simon, James, and John – ready and equipped for the adventure that comes to them, that chooses them, this adventure of discipleship? Jesus at the waterside does not collect resumes; he does not check references. The personal histories of these four do not have the last word about their futures. Christ’s invitation is a new beginning. He takes a wide-open risk by inviting them. They do the same in their response. 

Subsequent events do not demonstrate that they are particularly fit for their call. Simon, who will come to be known as Peter, betrays Jesus in an even more boldfaced way than all the rest. James and John, nicknamed the Sons of Thunder, not the most agreeable pair to have around, indulge in dreams about their own enthronement, missing the point completely when Jesus announces that downward mobility is the path to his kingdom. Andrew rarely appears again on the radar. Maybe his flaw is playing it safe. Yet Jesus never withdraws his invitation to any of them to share in his adventure, and partners with Jesus is what they finally become. 

But Jesus invited them. “Follow me,” Jesus invited, “and I will make you fish for people.” Follow me in helping others become God’s disciples. 

It’s a simple, yet profound, invitation that began a remarkable transformation. Jesus, God incarnate, with four fishermen and then the twelve apostles, became five-hundred…the five-hundred became thousands…the thousands became millions. 

We are invited to this discipleship, as well. We too often act as though only select individuals can tell the story of Jesus. Epiphany is a season about proclamation, about bearing witness to the power of God at work in God’s people. Today, as we prepare for our annual meeting next week, it might be good to reflect on how we bear witness as individuals but also as a community and as a Church…to examine our life, understanding how we are the incarnate Christ planted in this place and in this time. 

Today’s lesson from Isaiah, echoed in the gospel, reads: 

“The people who walked in darkness 
have seen a great light; 
those who lived in a land of deep darkness – 
on them light has shined.” 

In this community, where seniors are hungry and lonely, where they struggle to meet their needs, people have arisen (or been raised up) to be on point for Elders (to offer service to the Elderly), offering nutritional meals and a helping hand.  

This is the light that shines in a land of deep darkness. 

I this community, where some parents struggle and children walk in darkness, people have arisen to be their guardians, to offer their protection and wisdom and guidance. 

This is the light that shines in a land of deep darkness. 

In this community, where migrants families are hungry, where their rights are trampled upon, and where their children suffer, people have arisen to fight for what is fair and decent. 

This is the light that shines in a land of deep darkness. 

In this community, where change is needed to make justice happen, people have arisen to for PEACE, bringing transformation to our community. 

This is the light that shines in a land of deep darkness. 

In this community, people have arisen to bring food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked and care for the sick, to visit the imprisoned and welcome the refugee. 

This is the light that shines in a land of deep darkness. This is our witness. This is our Epiphany. 

Epiphany is a time to recognize that Jesus Christ is present, incarnate as we church folks sometimes say, born into the world, made flesh, affirming our humanity. We are invited to Epiphany, now and always. 

Next week, at the annual meeting, we will have a chance to do some brief reflection on how we witness to the power of God in this community. Given and allowing for the constraints of time, we will have some brief table-discussions – if we are unable next week, we will schedule a time in February for this undertaking. During these discussions we will be asking ourselves three important questions: 

  • How do we already witness (well) to the power of God in our community? 
  • What can we do to witness to the power of God in the community? 
  • What am I willing to do to witness to the power of God in the community? 

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