Do I strike you as the fishing type? Me neither. But for a while I was. Or at least I pretended to be. If I wanted to have any friends in Logansport, Indiana, then I needed to fish. At least once a week, off we went with our fishing poles and worms and crickets, down to the banks of the mighty Wabash River, where we would skip stones and try to avoid snakes.
I never much liked having to pull the fish off the hook. I imagined that it must hurt a lot. But I did like the expectant waiting, the first tug on the line, the rush of adrenaline, the struggle of pulling the fish in. I threw most of mine back because they were too small or sometimes just because I felt sorry for them.
So that’s one of my fishing stories. Maybe you have some too. We like to hear them and we like to tell them. They’re bucolic. We imagine contented people at the water’s edge or on a boat, under a bright sun, connected to nature, and at peace with themselves and world. That’s our image of fishing because we think of fishing as a pastime. But the life of a professional fisher person is not so bucolic. It’s hard and demanding and stinky work. And it was much more so in Jesus’s day.
One day, Jesus was walking along the Sea of Galilee when he saw two brothers, named Simon Peter and Andrew, fishing. Jesus called out to them: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And Matthew says that immediately they left their nets and followed. Later the same day, the three of them saw two other brothers named James and John. Jesus called them and they too followed. James and John were a little better off because they had a boat in addition to their nets. But they left it all behind, including their father, Zebedee.
Now that’s more than a little odd. Why, do you suppose, were these men so quick to leave everything they ever knew? We can’t know that, of course, but we can surmise that part of the allure of Jesus’s call was that anything sounded better than what they were doing.
These ancient fishermen practiced their trade under exceedingly difficult circumstances. They did not fish in a "free market" economy. The fishing industry was state-regulated solely for the benefit of the urban elite: namely, the Greeks and Romans who had settled in Palestine following their military conquests, and for well-connected, wealthy Jewish people. But it was the politicians who benefitted most of all. Caesar in Rome and Herod Antipas in Galilee controlled and sold the fishing leases that entitled certain local groups to fish in the sea. Fishing rights generally were awarded not to individuals, but to local "co-ops" based in kinship. We see evidence of that in the passage of the day – brothers and fathers all working together.
So, it was expensive to even pull the fish out of the water. And it was expensive to get the fish on people’s tables. There were taxes on the fish product and on the processing of the fish, as well as special tolls on shipping and land transport of the fish. By the time the fishermen paid all of these bills, they were at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. Despite their hard and dangerous work, at the end of the day, they were barely making it.
That kind of unencumbered greed still gobbles up the world and now occupies the highest offices in our land. The tragic truth is that most of the world’s people continue to live under the thumbs of Caesars and the Herods, barely surviving, while the rich just get richer. It’s a crime against humanity because it robs people of their basic humanity.
Several years ago now I read an article in the New Yorker about factory workers in southern China who build iPads and iPhones for people like me. These workers labor very long hours and yet will never make enough money to own any of the things they build. They see this shiny, powerful piece of technology and know they will never have one for themselves. It’s a hopeless cycle. And so among these workers, suicide rates have doubled.
So Jesus came along and offered these fishermen a new life, something called “fishing for people.” No wonder they left everything behind. But don’t misunderstand or romanticize what Jesus was calling them to. Just because the promise of fishing for people was alluring does not mean that their lives suddenly got easier. It’s one of America’s great heresies to propagate the Gospel as a convenience; as a means to an easier life - “your best life now.” The Gospel does not make our lives easier. But it does make them more meaningful. It wasn’t easy to march for justice in DC and New York yesterday. But it was most certainly meaningful. And that is what these fishermen found out. Instead of working for the man, they would be working for justice. It would consume their lives, but it would also be life giving. People focused ministry was the double blessing of lifting up the poor and forgotten and giving dignity and purpose to those who ministered.
As a congregation, we have wondered and pondered and sometimes fretted over our mission in the world. We discuss regularly on the Board. We discussed it in my annual review this year. We’ve had congregational retreats and surveys and focus groups about it. At the same time that we’re trying to figure out our mission, we worry about our size and our homelessness, about the return on our investments, about your busyness as people who work for a living. We talk and talk and talk about these things. We wonder how we will accomplish all these things. We are sometimes afraid, often tired. And still Jesus stands on the lakeshore and calls us to follow him to lives of meaning and purpose.
The church in America is in big trouble, for all kinds of reasons. Many experts now openly predict the implosion of historic denominations in the next few decades. Our local churches are smaller and smaller. Scores of them will close within our lifetimes. Our influence in society is a thing of the past. These are fearful times. And so, in trying to keep what we have and stave off what we fear, we have retreated. We have decided that the status quo is OK. We have decided that we cannot ask very much of people or they won’t join us. We have fallen into a consumer mentality when it comes to church: giving people what we think will make us more attractive: a nice service and some self-serving programming, without any commitment; without any realism about the fact that fishing for people is hard work. It’s an understandable response. But it’s all backwards.
The church of Jesus Christ has never been called to build itself up. The church has always been called to give itself away. Jesus modeled that by his sacrificial life. And Peter, Andrew, James and John would find out just how much the Gospel would cost them. But the surprise of God’s economy is that the more we give, the more we receive. That is a universal spiritual principle.
All over this country once small and struggling churches are now vibrant and alive not because they engaged with church growth experts or have a marvelous music program or great preaching or lots of activity. They are alive because they decided to fish for people before they did anything else. And so they jettisoned any of the old ways that got in Gospel’s way. They stopped worshipping their buildings and their traditions and the way things have always been done. Some of them had very little money. Others of them had only a few people left. But they heard the voice of the One calling out to them: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And so, they left their broken nets and battered boats, and followed. They dared to believe that despite all of the obstacles and risks, despite their busy schedules and the prophecies of doom and defeat, that they could do what Jesus did: they could feed the hungry and heal the sick and educate the children and advocate for the powerless and preach the Gospel of peace. They could fish for people.
And by God, so can we.