I Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
“And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Is that not a familiar passage? And, an intimidating one? “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
We hear this as the norm for being full-fledged disciples. “Follow me and you will fish for people” (or to use the older language, “you will be fishers of men.”) We think, then, of the stories of Peter who found the courage, after the resurrection, to stand before the multitudes and tell about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. According to the Acts of the Apostles, after Peter’s first speech (sermon), 3000 were added to the community of faith.
“I will make you fish for people.” Churches often focus on ways to “bring the people in.” They look for the bait, for the hook, that will attract people to their doors. We look at educational programs and fellowship opportunities. Some churches have coffee shops. Others have gyms and fitness programs. A church in Pittsburgh had a bowling alley. (There may be others, but that’s the only one I know.) Even our church buildings are used as “bait.” Churches have operated on the assumption that “If we build it, they will come.” There was an entire generation of pastors who were trained to have building programs because such programs generated excitement as people could see what their giving created.
Honestly, this is a passive way of heeding Jesus’ call to “fish for people.” It is focused on getting people in our doors. Maybe that’s because the idea of fully following Peter’s example is so intimidating. Do we want to drop everything and venture out into the world? Who among us would want to go out into the streets and deliver the message to thousands? Not that there aren’t those who pursue such a calling. But, frequently their success is marked by financial gain – for themselves. And the message seems to lose its connection with the message of Jesus’ life.
I looked up some of the “call” stories in the gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Synoptic Gospels, that is the three that are closely related, tell of this calling of Peter, Andrew, James and John, the fishermen. They all relate that Jesus told them that from now on they would be “catching people.” In Luke’s gospel, Simon (Peter) already had a relationship with Jesus that began in the synagogue. He had seen Jesus heal someone there. Then he invited him into his home where Jesus continued to heal. Later, Jesus sought him out as he was fishing – and extended the call. In John’s gospel, there is no mention of fishing. Simon’s brother, Andrew, heard John the Baptist identify Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” Andrew then told Simon. The call to discipleship is extended with Jesus’ invitation to “Come and see,” or to “Follow me.”
Anna Carter Florence says that metaphors “are supposed to spark our imaginations, not chain them fast. So it would be a mistake to push the ‘fishing for people’ metaphor too far, letting our evangelistic fancies take off into the ether (‘What bait shall we use this time?! What are your youth biting on?!). We don’t hook and land unwitting congregants, and we don’t cast our nets (either right or left!) in order to haul in another unsuspecting catch – obviously. I doubt Jesus had any such thing in mind when he called out to Peter and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee.”
We always run into trouble when models are made the norm, when we begin to think that we have to fit into a particular mold in order to be faithful. That is, perhaps, what happened in Corinth. Divisions arose in that early Christian community. They arose as groups pointed to particular individuals as the models for the way faith was to be lived or embraced. “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or (even) “I belong to Christ.”
Alan Gregory, reflecting on the First Corinthian passage, wrote, “Christian unity cannot be commanded; it must proceed from our ‘discerning the body,’ acknowledging that Jesus has bound us to himself. That body is recognizable to others insofar as Christians are ‘united in the same mind…and purpose.’ Doctrinal orthodoxy is not the issue here, still less a uniformity of speech and behavior. Later in his letter Paul will affirm…the diversity of gifts and ministries.”
Another scholar, Timothy Sedgwick, suggested that the divisions arose when self-interest prevailed. I was reminded of my work with a community organizing group. They suggested that people would come together as you invited them to explore their “self-interest.” Their hope was that once those areas of self-interest were identified, common concerns would bring people together. My congregation named a “self-interest” that divided them from the community around the church. Instead of pursuing a safer neighborhood, they looked at the issue of parking around the church – demanding that residents give up street parking so that church attendees wouldn’t have to walk from the parking lot. (It still makes me crazy! Especially since they were already known for towing away vehicles in the parking lot – that they barely used!) Self-interest causes division because it sees the world, faith, and church life through a narrow lens of what matters. It does not discern the Body of Christ which is broad and diverse.
Greg Garret, in his reflections on the call story, says that we should see this not as a story of “leaving their nets” as much as a story of finding the call to commit to something larger than themselves – or to borrow Sedgwick’s terminology – something larger than mere self-interest. And, when we look beyond ourselves, we begin to see that there are many models of faithfulness. People are called in many ways to different ministries. Next Sunday, we will install our elders. Part of the installation service is a wonderful litany drawn from First Corinthians. “There are different gifts; but it is the same Spirit who gives them. There are different ways of serving God; but it is the same Lord who is served. God works through each person in a unique way, but it is God’s purpose that is accomplished. To each is given a gift of the Spirit to be used for the common good. Together we are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.”
That brings me back to the “fishers of people” metaphor. When that is accepted as the metaphor it chains us. And when we are chained by one metaphor we are hampered. Sometimes we lift up various people who seem to embody this “call” in ways that are out of reach for many of us. In so doing, we miss our own call. Perhaps the misuse of this metaphor led to one of the sins of the modern church – that of “hiring professional Christians” (clergy), who were expected to do the church’s ministry for the congregations. They were to be the ones who baited the hooks and fished for people, bringing them into the church. How many churches became known by the name of a particular pastor? How many churches are still organized around a personality? We still see the problem evident in Corinth. “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas.”
Anna Carter Florence said that in this call story Jesus began not with what he knew, or even with what he did best. He began with what the fishermen did best. He called them to take their talents and use them in a new way – a way that gave life to God’s realm that was at hand. She says it is a call to adapt what we’re already good at doing so that we can participate in the work of God’s transforming presence.
One of the great inaugural speech lines was from John F. Kennedy. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” That was a call to citizens to give of themselves, which meant giving time, talent, energy, and a commitment, to build a better world. It was not a call to do one thing. It was a call to find ways of building up the country – in neighborhoods, communities, and around the world.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the call to the fishermen is what preceded it. The gospel writer tells us that Jesus came to Capernaum to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah had said: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” Jesus began his ministry proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The emphasis is not on the people, but on the good news that God’s realm was coming in a new way. The fishermen were among those who responded with joy – taking their talents to work for this light dawning.
We know when we are blessed by those who share their talents -- blessed both in the community of faith, but also in the wider world. We are blessed by those who cook and clean, those who serve on boards, those who are passionate about mission beyond our walls. We are blessed by those who work for a better world – through research, medicine, teaching, social work, and through faithful living and giving that demonstrates the values of God’s realm. There is no one model to follow. There are many. And God’s call begins with who we are, with what we know. Listen!