Fishing for People: January 22

When I was about ten years old, I discovered a pond behind our neighborhood. Within a year it became clear that this was no remarkable discovery. The pond was man-made, part of the landscape for a fancy new subdivision. A big fence would go up to keep the kids from my neighborhood out of their backyards. But for one summer, that tiny unexpected pond was the center of my fun. The pond was full of frogs, and I made a project of watching the tadpoles grow.

One day in the late summer my friend Sara and I sat perched on the rickety wooden dock when we saw something that sent us into immediate fits of screaming. There, floating near the surface of the water, was a fish that was clearly struggling to survive. Through the clear water we saw the source of its suffering: a shiny metal hook had punctured its mouth. We were moved a compassion for this fish that ten year old girls usually save for bunnies or kittens or horses. We wanted to be the heroes that rescued this fish from its pain. The only problem was that we were terrified to touch it. Why this fish grossed us out after spending the whole summer catching frogs with our bare hands is a mystery of the ages.

We finally did it. With nervous laughter and plenty of shrieks, we extracted the hook from its mouth and threw it back into the pond. We were so proud of ourselves—overcoming our childish fears to hopefully save its life.

There you have it. This is essentially my only story about fish, and for all practical purposes, it is really the opposite of a fishing story.

Fishing is the central metaphor of our gospel text today. John the Baptist has been arrested, and Jesus is finally beginning his mission on earth: to proclaim the Good News of God. At the Sea of Galilee, Jesus gathers a bunch of rowdy fishermen into the life of discipleship by promising he will make them fishers of people. Simon, Andrew, James, and John become Jesus’ first Disciples in the Gospel of Mark. They are fishermen, and Jesus meets them where they are, using the language of their trade to communicate the task he calls them to do.

Fishing for people is a tricky thing, though, isn’t it? Most of us associate fishing with poles, not nets, and we are forever filtering biblical passages through our own experiences and notions. While the hook, line, and sinker method is good for catching dinner, it isn’t so good for making disciples. The old bait and switch doesn’t seem to work for people any more than it worked for an injured fish in a manmade pond. Unlike trout, that always fall for the treat disguising their demise, people often see through the bait. They distrust anyone who would dangle a hook in front of their nose, even if the bait is something as inviting as eternal life.

Sadly, many people, both within and beyond the church, think of evangelism as roughly equivalent to snatching fish out of water. The fish would rather stay in the water, thank you very much, and when they do venture above the surface, it is only because they have been tricked into swallowing the hook. The perception of evangelism is that it is pushy, rude, embarrassing, and even manipulative. And you know, folks have been given plenty of good reasons to start walking the other way when someone starts invoking the name of Jesus. His holy name has been used as a tool for fear and judgment. There are those who read the Bible not as the Holy Word of God but use it as a crude weapon. The threat of hell is often given more credence than the promise of the Kingdom of God, even though God’s mercy is infinitely deeper than God’s wrath.

When non-believing fish see a gung-ho Christian casting a line into the water, you better believe those non-believers are dashing for the other side of the lake.

But most of us aren’t gung-ho Christian evangelists with tackle boxes full of judgment. We tend to be just as mortified by manipulative evangelism as the non-believers that pretend they aren’t home when the evangelists come a-knocking. We are just as passionate about our faith as the folks that pass out tracts on the street corner. But by and large, we have a very different way of responding to the gospel.

I am not trying to say we are better Christians. As much as I am deeply concerned with practices of evangelism that seem to be more about fear than love, I know that good people sincerely interpret Jesus’ call for his disciples to fish for people in different ways. But I also know that the level of discomfort the majority of mainline Protestant Christians feel toward evangelism is a full-fledged crisis within the Body of Christ.

We have allowed evangelism to be defined in strict terms, terms that we are not comfortable with, and therefore we have determined that we are not evangelical Christians. We have been like Jonah: we would rather be swallowed up by a great fish than tell our neighbors to repent.

As Disciples of Christ, our primary responsibility is to follow Jesus. We are called to form our lives in the cruciform example of his life and teachings. Jesus’ first ministry in Galilee was to proclaim the good news of God. To be faithful to our baptismal vows, we must also proclaim the good news of God. We cannot let the good news continue to sound like bad news, nor can we let it go unreported.

We are called to be fishers of people, catchers of men and women. But the kind of evangelical fishing we are to do is not done by force with sharpened metal hooks. Not metaphorically, and certainly not literally, as the medieval Christians forcibly converted nonbelievers by the sword.

The first Disciples fished with nets, and a net is a very different sort of tool. Last fall, when James Chung fell while trimming the tree in our garden, those of us who witnessed that fall from the safety of the ground would have done anything to have a net to catch him before he hit the sidewalk.

What if that was how we perceived of evangelism? What if catching people—fishing for men and women—meant sharing the life-saving net of God’s good news?

People are falling. People are lonely, depressed, hungry, and desperate. People are nursing injuries incurred by bad experiences of organized religion. People need forgiveness and repentance. People are falling, perhaps even jumping, and we have been given the responsibility to humbly but boldly extend a net to break their fall. The net is woven of the good news of God, a strong rope made of love, forgiveness, hope, and justice.

The net is not a trap. The net is not a trick. The net is the complex gift of God’s grace and healing, given to a creation that is given to spills, a creation that has broken a million bones against the hard cement of sin. When men and women are caught by that net, they are given new life, new breath.

We are witnesses to the love of Christ. We would not withhold a safety net from a falling friend; neither can we withhold the life-giving story of what God has done in our lives.

I know this is difficult. We feel like we don’t have the words. We fear that our friends and neighbors will write us off as one more pushy Christian.

Friends, we need to trust that the gospel really is good news. Our unique witness to God’s love is essential to the building of the
Kingdom of God. We must humbly share God’s love, not only through actions of generosity, but also by telling our stories and bearing witness to the grace we have experienced in Jesus Christ.

We, too, were falling once, but we were caught by the net of God’s love. We lived to tell about it. May God grant us the wisdom, the gentleness, and the courage to proclaim the good news.

And may God hurry. People are falling.

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