Epiphany 3

TEXT: Matthew 4:12-23 and 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee [Jesus] saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matthew 4:18-19)

Back near the turn of the century, when I was in Montréal training for pastoral ministry, I had several classmates from Newfoundland. One of them had actually been—for most of his life—a fisherman. He came from a place that had been a fishing village for some 300 years.

Often—perhaps while sharing a meal in the college cafeteria, or a bit of dessert in one of the cafés or bistros near the McGill campus—my friend would tell me about his home, and about the joys and perils of being a commercial fisherman.

This was fascinating stuff to hear—especially for a Manitoba-bred prairie boy such as I am.

My classmate painted for me the most vivid word-pictures of violent storms at sea—of breaking nets and threatening reefs, dangerous shoals and rogue waves. All in all, I came away with the impression that the North Atlantic is not the friendliest ocean.

Yet, despite all the risks, the fishermen of Newfoundland continued to ply their trade (at least, until the cod fishery collapsed in the 1990s).

And some of them still do. Generation after generation, they have gone out to sea in their little boats—and they have found and caught an incredible abundance of fish.

Of course, the fishing industry is not what it used to be. Some species of fish are in decline; others are simply not as profitable. But the fishermen of Newfoundland have known hard times before, and they have survived. For the most part, the ones who have been born to fish, continue to fish.

And most of these fishers, even when they have passed the age when other people retire—and even when they themselves have sold their boats or passed them along to their children …

Well, they continue to fish—at least part-time—and they continue to go to where the fishermen gather. They go to the bait sheds and the boat yards. They help mend nets, and they drink coffee boiled on small wood stoves … and perhaps take a nip of that other stuff which warms you …

And there they tell stories about life on the open sea:

  • stories about the times when the nets came up empty, trip after trip after trip;
  • stories about the times when the boats had barely ventured out towards the Grand Banks and their nets were full to bursting;
  • stories about storms and terror;
  • stories about the ocean when it is smooth as glass, and the stars and the moon shine so brightly that it seems almost like daylight.

When Christ called his first disciples, he set them a task: the task of being fishers—fishers of people.

Simon Peter and Andrew—and later, two other brothers, James and John—could relate to the image, even if they didn’t understand exactly what Jesus meant by it. They were already fishers. Like the fishers in Newfoundland, their families had been at it for generations.

They were born to it—and they lived to do it—until their dying day. They knew that, in the end, fishers fish—no matter what. And they knew that—whether it be for salmon, or cod, or mackerel, or trout, or even for people—fishing takes hard work, and it takes thought, and it takes prayer. And they knew that there is no life like it.

“Follow me”, Jesus said, “and I will make you fish for people.”

Today—even if we live in a land-locked place like Alberta, as I do, now—we are called to do exactly the same thing. As followers of Jesus, that is our vocation.

We, ourselves, have longed to know the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven. We, ourselves, have heard and seen the good news of that Kingdom’s coming. We, ourselves, have turned away from the things that destroy life and embraced the one who came to rescue us.

That is the message we carry—and that is the message we are called to share with others. And that message is more than simply bait—it is wonderful, life-saving news.

The Bible speaks often of how—when we decide to follow Jesus—we are made over. It says we become a “new creation.” It says we are—in a spiritual way—“born again.”

And when we experience this “second birth,” we discover that we are born to be fishers—fishers of people. It’s the same thing Jesus did—in Galilee and in Samaria; in Jordan and Judea; and in Jerusalem. And it’s what we are called to do, wherever we find ourselves.

There are a lot of different ways to fish. You can use a net, or you can use a rod and lure. You can angle for trout or trawl for cod—or you can set out traps for lobster. But what all these fishing methods have in common are purpose and action—the actual doing of things to achieve that purpose.

Our purpose—our mission—is to catch people with the love that God has given us. Our purpose is to bring those people to Jesus—the one who is the owner and the captain of our boat.

What does this kind of fishing look like?

It looks like forgiveness—forgiving our enemies; blessing those who curse us; loving those who hate us.

It looks like compassion—healing others even when we ourselves are wounded; feeding others even when we have little to offer; doing justice, and loving mercy, and all the while walking humbly with our God and testifying to His power and His goodness.

Those are some of the ways we can fish for people; those are some of the ways we can become the fishers Jesus has promised to make us.

James and John, Simon Peter and Andrew—they were boat fishermen, and part of a crew. And they, like all the fishers on every boat in Newfoundland, received a share of the value of the catch.

But you know, in the Kingdom of Heaven—and in the Church, which is the boat of Christ in this world—the fishermen not only receive a share of the catch; the catch itself begins to fish!

The catch itself begins to multiply.

There is a miracle happening here. We who were fish are turned into fishermen. We who were lost and seeking to find a home become guides for others, bringing them to our true and eternal home. We who needed blessings are now able to share the greatest of all blessings—the blessing of knowing Jesus and the new life he gives.

The great miracle here is the miracle of transformation—the miracle of God doing through us what we cannot do on our own, the miracle of small things becoming great.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians (1:10-18), the apostle Paul writes to the crew of the good ship Corinth. He writes to the crew of that boat of Christ Jesus in that place, to remind them of a simple and important fact.

He reminds them that they were not called to form the “Peter Group” or the “Apollos Party” or to become the disciples of Paul. They were not called to become part of an elite association. They were not called to become spiritual superstars and celebrities in their own right.

No. They were called by Peter, and by Apollos—and by Paul, himself—to follow Jesus, and to make Jesus the captain of their souls and the master of their destiny.

Paul writes to the Corinthians to remind them of their calling and of their mission. And in the rest of that letter, he tells them that everyone in the crew is important to getting the job done; that everyone has a role to play if the fish are to be caught.

He writes to them to remind them that the central fact of our faith is the cross—and that while that cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, it is the power of God to those who are being saved.

That is the truth with which we are equipped by Christ as we, his church—his crew—set forth day by day to fish for people.

It is wonderful to be able to show and share with someone the fact that God is eady and able to help them. It is wonderful to be part of a crew that works to demonstrate God’s love to those in need. It is wonderful, and it is thrilling. And, at times, it is dangerous, exhausting work.

Our little boat can get badly tossed about in the storms of life. And our nets can come up empty many, many times before we get a big strike. And when the nets come up full … Well, then we have to strain and struggle to haul them in. But—as fishermen of all kinds know—there is nothing better than doing what you have been born to do.

Christians are born to fish. We are born to share the good news. We are born to bring people to our captain and into his boat—into his Kingdom, so that they may know the love we know and receive the life that we ourselves are receiving: the life that is stronger than death.

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