Fishing. I don't indulge in the sport myself. I guess I just don't like the idea that I have to kill something before I eat it. But ever since Sunday School days I've been familiar with the story in the Revised Common Lectionary for Epiphany 3 (Matthew 4: 12-23) in which Jesus calls fisherman to be his disciples. “Follow me,” the Lord tells them in verse 19, “and I will make you fish for people.” The gospel says that the fishermen left their nets immediately and followed him.
I guess this makes a little bit of sense if viewed in context. For me, fishing was something old retired guys did off the pier. You bring a deck chair, drink a few beers, and fall asleep with your rod in the water. But fishing for a living—today as in the ancient world—is a whole different story. I remember as a kid sitting up late to watch Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea on the Late Show. I remembered the fisherman's sense of desperation and I was struck by the physical demands of the profession. I recall the bleeding hands and the sheer danger of a life on the ocean. Later, The Perfect Storm drove home the back-breaking labor, the smell, the time away from home, and the physical peril involved in putting that slab of salmon on my dinner plate. I have a whole new respect for fishermen, believe me!
So, I guess I can see why these guys would leave a life which was brutal, hard, and fairly uncertain. What I don't understand, however, is why they would trade it for a life which would be brutal, hard, completely uncertain, and end in martyrdom? (Note that this pericope starts out with a preacher getting arrested!) Either they were really freakin' desperate to get out of the fishing business, or there was something about Jesus which compelled them to change their identities and embrace a new way of life.
Sometimes I feel that being the Christian Church in America today is like being an ancient fisherman. It can be brutal, hard, and uncertain. What really makes it tough is that we don't even know at times what fish we're after. We don't know how to think like the fish we're trying to catch, and so we don't know what bait to use.
The fish don't seem to be swimming our way, either. The hook of the knowledge of sin still smarts. And the fish in the net have so many reason to try and tear themselves loose. There's a massive amount of pain inside this net. There's sickness, family issues, fear, poverty, unemployment, the death of loved ones, addictions, mental illness—and let's not forget disillusionment with the Church itself. We fish tear at that net, a net that feels so often like an obligation and not a place of rest and refuge and love.
The wider ocean beyond the net of the Church looks blue enough, but it has a tendency to keep us compartmentalized, computerized, and isolated.
So what is it in Jesus which overcomes resistance?
I don't know about all of you, but I think I need to stop at times and reflect on my own relationship with the one who loves, forgives, and sacrifices. There are all kinds of church growth strategies out there, but they don't mean a thing without the love of Christ. Unless someone can see Jesus in me—Jesus present in hope, forgiveness, welcome, and purpose—I will never convince them to embrace Christ's Church.
I know we'll never catch all the fish out there, and many will tear themselves loose from our tattered nets, but we'll keep throwing the nets out anyway.
Thanks for reading, my friends. Keep fishing.
Hey! I'm still trying to mend the net which binds Lutherans and Roman Catholics. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is getting close. Let's ask Pope Francis—a pretty cool fisherman if you ask me—to invite Lutherans back to the table. Check out my petition at Change.org.