For those who stress how dependent Christians should be on Jesus, it may be timely to remind ourselves that Jesus is not recorded as being a one man band. As Mark recorded it, Jesus never set out to be the sole act. He certainly presented gospel as good news – but the good news had an essential place for partners in the enterprise . It was good news, not because now Jesus could say some clever words, but rather because something was set in place whereby individuals and even community might start to be transformed and values applied. It is a gospel which has no value simply as past history. Rather it is a gospel which performs in each generation about as well as the current batch of disciples allow it to perform.
Unfortunately, and perhaps precisely because it is such a striking simile, this morning’s gospel call of the disciples to become fishers of men is possibly both the most famous – as well as the most misunderstood call to mission in the history of the Christian Church. At its most simplistic it sounds a bit like a mission to build numbers. Don’t catch fish – treat people like fish – hook them, net them, catch them with baited words – fill the pews and when the pews are full, build another bigger church and fill that too. I am sure that is what the unfortunately misunderstood word “evangelism” has come to mean for whole branches of the Church. And yet if you listen carefully, that is not what Jesus said – and nor does it correspond with what actually happened with the disciples. That is simply not what Jesus taught them to do.
And did they need teaching? To a non fisherman, being offered fishing lessons probably seems completely superfluous.
Throw a net into the water you catch fish. Bait a hook and throw it into the water, you catch a fish.
What is there to learn?
Well, as any fisherman will tell you, even when fishing only for fish, there is a great deal to learn. The seine fishermen in Jesus time had to learn to fish at night when the nets would be harder for the fish to see – and when the fish might be attracted to a light in the boat. Certain types of fish only feed at certain times and are attracted to very specific bait. Some types of fish are found at specific depths and even at specific temperatures and at specific times of the year. These days it is even more of a science. For example the modern Tuna fishermen now use sea surface temperature maps generated from satellites to identify the warm patches where the tuna congregate. There are in fact a host of things a fisherman needs to know
It may well have a lot more meaning then for a fisherman to be asked to learn a new way of fishing.
“Come with me and I will show you how to be fishers of men”. In Mark’s reconstructed memory, that was what Jesus was saying. But that doesn’t mean simply preach at those we might invite. We have to be concerned for them as individuals, and individuals facing unique situations, rather than as scalps or trophies.
It was never going to be easy to use these fishermen for the tasks of the kingdom. We read in the gospels that these disciples were wilful, they were slow to understand and at times they were not in tune with what Jesus was trying to accomplish. On the other hand as they lived and worked with Jesus, they seemed gradually to wake up to what it was that Jesus was asking them to do. Certainly they had doubts, and you might wonder why this did not cause Jesus to give up on them. I even wonder if it was in fact these doubts justified their selection because doubts are essential to honest thinking. As Tennyson wrote in his poem dedicated to his late friend, Arthur Hallam, In Memoriam A. H. H.:
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
… then he went on to write……
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
When I hear people try to turn Jesus’ teaching into simple formula recitations leaving no room for thought or doubt, I worry that they may overlook the way Jesus himself approached others.
Jesus showed by his actions he was not interested in reacting to labels. He showed by illustration and actions that the so called heretics of his day, the Samaritans, should be treated as individuals and that if for example the despised Samaritans showed compassion, this was to be genuinely valued. His disciples are called to share these same attitudes in living out their mission. The fact that some modern day, self-claimed disciples, appear to be judging and even rejecting others in terms of labels like “Muslims” or “homosexuals” suggests that they may not be exactly on message.
Jesus showed by his actions he was more interested in the spirit of the law than the detail. If compassion was called for, this for Jesus took precedence over any imagined conflict with religious custom. In learning the Jesus way, Jesus’ focus on liberation and on renewal, had to become part of his disciples’ activity. This too was part of effective fishing.
It is hard to be certain from this distance in space and time how much of Mark’s record was intended symbolism. For example the notion of fishing for people also has scriptural precedence to do with justice. Amos for example talks of people carried off with fishhooks (Amos 4:20) and Jeremiah talks of God catching people to bring them to justice. (Jeremiah 16:16). Although Jesus is recorded as being more focussed on compassion than judgement, there is no doubt that he too placed an emphasis on justice. Presumably his followers also have to see that a concern for justice is part of what we now call the Christian message. We can for instance see that since Jesus showed a real focus on concern for the poor, that we who claim to follow Jesus, who happen by accident of birth and opportunity to be living in the rich West, we also need to learn to be awake to the injustices visited on the poor. Why else might the poor be interested in what we have to offer if we are not genuinely concerned with their plight?
Those called to follow Jesus in his day found themselves with unexpected responsibilities, constantly encountering what we would now call situational ethics. What for example should one do when the institutional church puts its own wealth ahead of its duty to the people? Jesus reportedly cleared the temple.
What should one do when ostentatious display of religious status gets emphasised ahead of service? Jesus risks his own safety and calls it like it is.
What should one do when religious custom identifies the untouchable leper? Jesus reaches out and touches with the healing hand.
Each of these actions tell others about the way he is inviting others to follow.
Yet the thing about situational ethics is that situations change. It is not so much Pharisees as those with titles like Reverend or pastor or parish steward or Tele- evangelist or member of the leaders meeting that should now be our focus. With lepers now far less common, today’s untouchables may well be those with AIDS. Our Samaritans may just as easily be those we call fundamentalist Muslims or atheists speaking what may appear to us to be words of vitriol.
One of the sad things about traditional Christianity is that it is slow to react to change and is often left behind when trade policies or environmental issues are being debated. To win hearts and minds, at a minimum, religion must be seen as relevant to current issues. This is why a strong presence of the church has to be involved in debates like genetic engineering, like climate change, like food production, like the arms race and sustainable energy policies. When for example the Catholic Church waited until 1991 before admitting Galileo was right, and took almost as long to pronounce on Darwin it is another way of telling the general population that the Church is happy to be left behind in the modern world. Conversely when the Christian World service is among the first to set up aid in a disaster area the Christian message wins the right to be heard. It is also good that the Anglican Church in England has a specialist in foreign affairs (Charles Reed) as permanent advisor to the Bishops who are members of the House of Lords . If the Bishops can engage with the current issues, their evangelism might be seen as having more point.
Sometimes the rule book is not the issue, and those who are called to discipleship have to learn that they too have to take a message of responsive action as well as words if their evangelism is to have any integrity. The reason why Bonheoffer’s words continue to tug at the heartstrings is because of his self sacrifice in the fight against Hitler’s Nazi regime. I am certainly not sure that Bonheoffer thought of himself as a fisher of men (and women) – yet from the number who claim to have learned their faith from his example, he appears to have mastered his part in the fishing trade.
In his day Jesus called a cross-section of men and women to mission. Today the need is probably as strong as ever, since the need for compassion, for justice, for those concerned for their fellows and even a concern for the planet itself is as urgent as ever. The call for those prepared to share the tasks for the kingdom, may have changed in form – and the specific tasks and challenges change year by year and even day by day. How the fishing is to be done in a modern age must be continually relearned but remember the gospel only has our present generation to depend on – and as for all the generations in the past, the success of this gospel depends on those like us.