Comedian Steven Wright said, “There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.” Friends, I don’t fish, so if you see me standing on the shore, you can make your own assumptions.
Several of the disciples, however, were fishermen. It was their trade, their skill, their income. It was their life. And it always makes me wonder what it was about Jesus that caused them to drop their nets, leave their boats and family and coworkers, to follow him. Was it something he said, something he did, an aura he gave off? Maybe a little of it all.
What would cause you to leave behind everything you know to follow someone you’ve never met? Sounds more like the beginning of a slasher movie to me. I mean, what could someone possibly offer that would cause us to willingly change course completely? What’s the catch? What’s in it for me? What do I have to do? What will it cost?
These are all good questions—questions we SHOULD ask if someone comes along and says, “Hey, come with me. I’ve got something for you.” At best, it makes Jesus sound like a conman. Unless you look deeper into what it was he was truly offering and telling the disciples.
You see, Judah was occupied by Rome. Which meant that Rome owned the people, owned the businesses, owned the water, owned the fish. Anything that people caught had a tax on it. Most of it went to Rome. So, the pressure to catch enough to feed a family and sell the rest to make an income was really high.
And then this man comes along. Maybe word has gotten around about this guy. He looks to Simon and Andrew and says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Now, I’m sure it makes more sense to read it in Greek or to say it in Aramaic, but the English translation is just silly. This particular translation makes it sound like Jesus is going to feed Peter and Andrew to the people with a side of tartar sauce. Other translations say, “I will make you fishers of people,” which is a little better, but still. Does that mean that the work of evangelism is to hook people for the sake of Christ? Do we catch and eat or catch and release? Either way, the choices—as they sound—leave me preferring to be an idiot standing on the shore.
But what we don’t hear in our 21st Century, English, American ears is the undercurrent of what Jesus offers. It’s not about the analogy of fishing out people instead of fishing out fish. It’s not some nod to the idea that the disciples will be rescuing people from the chaos of the dark and stormy sea to leave them breathless in the boat of heaven. It’s so much better than that.
Jesus offers them, first, the opportunity to leave the work of the empire behind. As fishermen, they were beholden to the empire’s ways of doing things—the empire’s allegiances, the empire’s taxes, the empire’s oppression, the empire’s claim on their lives. To follow Jesus meant that they would no longer support the empire. In fact, they were given the opportunity to place their allegiance elsewhere—in the kin-dom of heaven, the reign of God. They were given a part to play in God’s rule breaking in and breaking down the oppression of Rome. And that, my friends, is an appealing opportunity to someone who has suffered far too long under the weight of national identity.
Jesus also offers them something else—the opportunity to use their skills in this new world. He doesn’t tell them that he’s going to make them prophets or teachers or rulers. They’re still going to be fishermen—but instead of catching fish for the empire’s wealth, they will be catching imagination for the good news of God. They’ll get to use their patience, their wisdom, their perseverance—all things honed in the task of fishing. Jesus challenges them to use their skills and powers for the sake of God’s glory.
It’s a lot easier to understand their willingness to leave their nets when it’s put in these terms. They are called to share the good news—the eungelion—of God’s plan for the world! They are called to evangelism.
Over the course of time, that wonderful word has taken on some baggage that I think is time to unpack. Much like fishing for people, what it means and the images it evokes are not necessarily the same. For many, Christian evangelism has, indeed, meant hooking people for Christ. Catching people, cajoling them, manipulating, trapping, even bullying people to ‘accept’ Jesus or join a particular religious flavor. And typically, guilt and shame are the bait. If you can get them to feel bad enough, then they’ll accept any hope of reprieve—especially if there’s a catch. Because there’s always a catch.
TV evangelists have finely tuned their bait so that they make millions off of people’s guilt and shame. And they have sullied the term ‘evangelist.’ So much so that when I think of evangelism, I think of what I call ‘evangelicals’—those who have determined who will and will not go to heaven and whose job has been self-defined as saving souls for Christ. For me, being an ‘evangelical’ is not a compliment.
So, what are we to say, then, about our own Lutheran name? Are we not the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? Except, for many of us, in an effort to not be seen in the same light as TV evangelists and bullies, we avoid telling anyone about the good news. Where one group incites confrontation and argument, others of us avoid it at all cost. Yes, we might post some meme about keeping God or prayer in the schools or in our country, but when it comes to talking to someone about the faith that supports and encourages us, we remain mostly silent. We’re afraid someone will ask questions for which we don’t have the answers. Give me a bit more time to study the Bible, to define my position, to hone my skills, to figure out the answers to all the possible questions and arguments that might be made against me.
But again, this isn’t what Jesus invites us into. It’s not what he invited those first fishermen into when he said, “Come, follow me.” He doesn’t want us all to be apologists and biblical scholars who can answer every question that comes up. He wants us to be honest proclaimers of the good news that has entered our lives. He wants us to tell the truth of our struggles. He wants us to admit when we don’t know the answers. But in all cases, he wants us to say something, do something, share something. And do it using the very gifts we already have. God has given us each the gifts and talents to not only serve in everyday life but to use those same gifts and talents in our own way to tell the world about the good news of Jesus.
That’s the catch. We’re gifted to share our hearts—which means being vulnerable. If you’ll notice, those who push themselves on others never admit to a chink in their armor. They don’t allow for doubt or questions. But that’s just it. If we are to share who God is in our lives, we are to let our guard down. To allow for doubt and the unknown. To not have all the answers. And to not always be right—but to shine light.
As Poet Laureate Amanda Goram said at the inauguration this week,
We lay down our arms
So we can reach out our arms to one another…
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it,
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
That’s the catch. And that’s the hope. That God has cast God’s net into the waters of our pain and is bringing forth all the good and life and light from us to shine on the world.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church