Matthew 4:18-23 (MSG)
I know a man who lives in this area who loves to fish. Ned’s a very good fisherman, and he is the founder of a 501c3 organization that provides fishing adventures for children and young adults battling cancer. His foundation, “Catching Dreams,” creates meaningful moments and memories on the waters of Western New York by “turning wishing into fishing.”
In our Gospel reading this week, Jesus approaches two sets of fishermen by the Sea of Galilee, and says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately, Matthew’s Gospel tells us, the men left their boats and followed Jesus.
I’ll be honest I don’t know how to fish, and I’ve never been fishing with Ned. I think I am more in line with Debie Thomas, a favorite columnist and contributing editor to The Christian Century. Debie says she writes about faith because “faith is both hard and life-giving, both beautiful and bizarre.” I think she’s right about that. In one of her columns, she says that she hates fishing. She goes on to say, “When I was a little girl, my father would take me along on occasional fishing trips, and I would invariably ruin them with my squeamishness: “Isn’t that hook hurting the worm? Won’t the fish’s mouth get cut by the hook? Why are you letting that poor fish gasp in the bucket? It’s still alive!”
All of that was to say, she doesn’t easily connect to Jesus’s invitation to “fish for people.” Something about the metaphor makes her squirm. Maybe it makes you squirm, too.
She writes, “It doesn’t help that when I first learned the story of Jesus calling his disciples, it was framed as evangelistic in a very particular sense. The fish represented lost souls, doomed to hellfire. “Hooking” them for Jesus — getting them to church, to youth group, to the altar; leading them to say the sinner’s prayer and accept Jesus as their personal Savior; insisting that only our version of Christianity held "The Truth" which would save them from damnation — was the only hope the poor fish had.”
When she read this gospel story as a young girl, she wondered if she was ready to give up everything, leave all she knew and loved, and follow Jesus? Was she willing to fish for lost souls? Or would she cling to her worldly boats and nets, ignore Jesus’s call, and let countless sinners die without salvation?
Gospel stories are challenging to grasp even at the best of times, and years of baggage that we each carry can make the task even harder. But if we can get past all that baggage for a moment, the calling of these fisherman might strike us by how familiar and close-to-home Jesus’ call actually was. Jesus did not invite them to abandon who they were; he invited them to become their most authentic, God-ordained selves.
In other words, Debie Thomas says, Jesus’s invitation to his first disciples was specific and particular, rooted in the language, culture, and vocation they knew best. What metaphor would make more sense to four fishermen than the metaphor of fishing for people? Simon and Andrew would have understood the nuances of that metaphor in ways I never will.
James and John knew from years of hard-won experience what depths of patience, resilience, intuition, and artistry professional fishing require. These men knew the tools of the trade, the limitations of their bodies and the potential dangers those limitations posed, and the life-and-death importance of timing, humility, and discretion.
Most of all, they knew the water. They knew how to respect it, how to listen to it, and how to bring forth its best in due time. When Jesus called these tried-and-true fishermen to follow him, they understood the call not as a directive to leave their experience and intelligence behind, but to bring the best of their core selves forward — to become even more fully and freely themselves.
What a unique way to look at discipleship. Instead of thinking that discipleship means we need to walk away from everything that we know and love, and then push down our personalities and experiences…maybe, if we’re going to follow him at all, we’ll have to trust that God values our intellects, our memories, our backgrounds, our educations, our skills, and that God will multiply, shape, and bring to fruition everything we offer up to him in faith from the daily stuff of our lives.
I don't want you to think that discipleship won't require sacrifice, or change, or risk. It will. But I do want you to understand that being called to be a disciple is a promise from God to us — not from us to God. As Barbara Brown Taylor so aptly puts it, the story of this Gospel is a miracle story. Jesus calls, and the four fishermen “immediately” follow. No hesitation, no questions asked. Is this because they’re men of superhuman courage or prophetic foreknowledge? Of course not. These are the same guys who later in the Gospels doubt, deny, and abandon Jesus. They’re as fallible and as ordinary as the rest of us, and their own volition can’t get them very far.
Instead, they immediately follow Jesus because Jesus makes it possible for them to do so. “This is not a story about us,” Taylor writes. “It is a story about God, and about God’s ability not only to call us but also to create us as people who are able to follow — able to follow because we cannot take our eyes off the one who calls us, because he interests us more than anything else in our lives, because he seems to know what we hunger for and because he seems to be food.”
As it did for Debie Thomas, and may still do for some of us, what can trip us up about the fishing metaphor is that we so easily misinterpret it to mean that we have the power to “hook” or to “catch” others for God. We don’t. We are not called to cajole, manipulate, trap, bully, or even persuade others to “accept” Jesus, or join our religion. It is God alone who captures the imagination. God alone who makes the vision of his kingdom come alive in a human soul. All we can do is embody the vision in who we are. The rest is up to God.
The four men “immediately” left their nets and followed Jesus. In time, they made the Gospel their own, sharing its radical power through the details of their own lives and stories. What is the Gospel according to you? What is your Good News, and how will you share it in the turbulent waters of your particular time and place?
“Come with me,” Jesus says. May we be willing to follow.
Rev. Lisa Drysdale, January 22, 2023