The text was Matthew 4:12-23. (Jesus’ calling of the fishermen.)
I have to admit that I don’t like this story nearly as much as I used to; and I think you’ll find that the story loses its original appeal the more you dig into it. Some stories are like that–entertaining on the surface, so they’re great for children’s sermons; but not so great for much beyond that. Maybe that’s why some churches go nuts with the props when this text comes up. They’ll bring in a real row boat, real fishing nets, costumes, lobster traps. For the children, of course. And there’s the song, the nursery school hymn. I checked the New Century hymnal but it’s not in there. Otherwise it might be part of the service. It’s fun for the kids but it’s good for us too. Because once you get past the whimsy of the thing you have to acknowledge that what we have here is a strange story, really a bizarre account.
I heard one of my mentors preach this passage a year or two ago. He pointed out that Jesus would drive any sensible Human Resources department crazy. Can you imagine? “We need to talk about these new hires, Jesus. It seems you forgot to file the paperwork for the background checks, phone interview, follow-up interview.” And Jesus says, “Oh, yeah. I skipped all of that. What happened is that I was out for a stroll on the lake and I saw these fishermen within earshot. So I yell out, ‘Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.’” That’s his job posting: follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.
Then probably the most baffling part is that these 4 fishermen–Simon Peter and Andrew, James and his Brother John–they don’t need any convincing. The text doesn’t even put words in their mouth. They hear Jesus and then they follow, immediately, as if it were the sensible thing to do. No big deal.
I wonder what their parents thought. Sometimes you try to raise a kid with some sense, you give them every opportunity under the sun to make something lucrative out of their life, and then they run off to do ministry. (I’ve heard that happens.) And, you know, in the ancient world fisherman is a pretty good gig. A fisherman’s basically a small business owner–they’ve got their own boat and they probably have some amount of disposable income. This is in a world where about 90% of people are dirty poor, peasant poor. Nine out of ten people don’t know where their next paycheck or meal is coming from, so these fishermen aren’t aristocracy or anything but they’re doing well.
They leave immediately. Drop their nets, swim to shore, and they follow. Simon Peter and Andrew, James and his brother John. They’ll be disciples soon and then some day apostles, and remembered well for at least a couple of thousand years. But they don’t know that now. I’m not sure they know much at all about Jesus. They might’ve heard about him, maybe not. This is the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, at least in Matthew’s account. He’s only just started preaching.
I’m not sure what to make of this. They hear the call and they leave, immediately. All in response to a cryptic job description–I’ll make you fish for people. Obviously they did the right thing in retrospect. But I think it’s fair to assume that the vast majority of people, at the time, would’ve thought this an odd thing to do, a fanatical thing to do, even. Maybe if you’re part of Jesus’ movement you think they’re heroes of the faith. If you’re an outsider though, if you’re an outsider this sort of thing is downright foolish. But what an outsider might call foolishness an insider will tend to call commitment, faith, dedication to the cause. So now, as insiders ourselves, we can think of these fishermen as people of tremendous faith.
Simon Peter and Andrew, James and his brother John–fisherman turned disciples, disciples turned apostles, apostles turned saints. And it all starts with this big act of faithfulness–drop the nets and follow, immediately.
Well, that’s one way to look at the story. It might not be the best way, especially if you remember much about the disciples after they join up with Jesus’ ministry. You’ll recall that the disciples very rarely get it. Most of the time they’re spiritual buffoons. They lack faith; they question Jesus; they don’t understand much about who he is or what he’s up to. And its Simon Peter who’s probably the most conflicted of the bunch. Simon Peter has basically a split spirituality–faithful one minute and denying the next. They’re getting towards the end of the whole thing and Jesus says you’ll deny me three times and he says no, never. He gets the warning and he does it anyway. Once, twice, and then a third time, all before the rooster crows.
This is the same Simon Peter who drops the nets and follows without any speech or questions, immediately.
I mention all of that because, well, first of all in the interest of accuracy, because it’s good to tell an accurate story even if the accurate story is more complicated than the simple story. This passage–the calling of the fisherman–it gives a simple story and in some ways a good story. You could read it as a story about drastic and life-changing faith. They hear the call and they leave everything behind, immediately. Impressive! But you read the rest of the story and you get a more complicated picture–you start to see doubt, confusion, brazen unfaithfulness.
You might think, just very quickly think about which story you like better. I mean which picture of the disciples do you prefer? Is it faithful fishers of men or the blundering spiritual buffoons? You could make a case for either picture depending on what parts of the story you want to emphasize.
Let’s consider, just for now, that the fishermen–Simon Peter and Andrew, James and his brother John–let’s suppose that they are acting out of a radical and drastic faithfulness. I’m not sure I much like that story. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great story. I like the idea that there are incredibly faithful people in the world who might be expected to do that sort of thing. What I don’t like so much is the idea that maybe God is asking me to do something drastic. Because, honestly, I don’t have it in me, not really.
I heard a while ago about an order of Franciscan brothers. They’re like other monks and friars in that they wear a habit, take vows, give up their possessions and all of that, and if you ask me that’s demanding enough, but here’s the really impressive part: they don’t live in monastery somewhere, they live on the streets. Their ministry is to homeless people so they try to live like homeless people. I was really impressed with those guys, and when I heard about their ministry it made me feel a little bit more hopeful than usual, knowing that there were people in the world willing to do that sort of thing because of their faith. And then my second reaction, right after the warm fuzzies, my second reaction was thankfulness. Not so much for their ministry, more so thankfulness that God didn’t decide to call me to that sort of thing. So I’m not so sure about some of these stories. Sometimes they’re just inspiring enough to make me feel okay about doing nothing. You get to thinking about everything that might be asked or required of you and then before you know it you’ve decided only a saint could do it.
And so, I hope you won’t imagine that the goal of faith is to respond to Jesus the way other people responded in the past, as if the point of faith is to live it exactly the same way as Simon Peter and Andrew, or James and his brother John. It’s probably not too important how they responded. What’s important is that they were willing to respond at all, that they could hear the call in the first place. And what’s most important about all of this is the one who does the calling.
What we have here is a statement about God’s hiring practices, shown to us by Jesus as he’s out for a stroll along the shores of the sea of Galilee. Few of us can boast saintly resumes, but the good news is that the one who calls us into the work of the Kingdom is an HR nightmare. He skips the background check, doesn’t bother with interviews. He doesn’t much care whether you think yourself faithful or capable or brave. He offers the job to whomever, even if they’re not quite sure what the job entails. ”Follow me. And I’ll make you fish for people.” That meant one thing for Simon Peter and Andrew, James and his brother John–and if you spend some time with the gospel accounts you can read all about what it meant for them to fish for people. But it really is a cryptic job description. Follow me and you’ll fish for people. Our Bible study decided they weren’t quite sure what that means, and I’m not exactly sure either. I guess the way to find out is to start following–in some way, in small ways, most of all in your own way.