This sermon was preached at Lufkin First United Methodist Church at Eventide worship, January 25, 2014.
12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
I think it’s safe to say that the very presence of this passage in the Gospel story, in the narrative of our collective Christian conscience, is a challenging one.
It’s a challenge to the disciples of course, but in turn it’s a challenge to us. Ten words set the tone for mission of Jesus, and mission of his followers, his would-be disciples. Ten words are all it takes to change a life. Ten words are all it takes to change history.
It starts out with an arrest. The arrest is of the man named John the Baptist, the voice crying out in the wilderness, the man who came to prepare the way for Jesus Christ. This jarring event is the catalyst, the tipping point that begins the chain reaction that is the ministry of Jesus Christ. It sets the tone for the gospel story: The stakes have been raised. There is real danger in preaching the kingdom of God, and real consequences for speaking the truth. John did it one way. Jesus did it his way. In the end, Jesus calls us to follow his way, which honestly is a lot harder than the way of John the Baptist.
You see John, while his message of repentance was very much in line with what Jesus preached, said his message in a far more conventional way. He used a very direct approach, calling out evil as he saw it—as did Jesus, of course—but did so in a way that didn’t really match up with the message. He was a classic revolutionary. He proclaimed that soon there will come an ax with will cut the stump of Jesse’s tree. He preached a much more violent message, one of fire and blood and vengeance. After doing that for long enough and calling out enough leaders for their evil, he was bound for imprisonment. His message was right, but his method was wrong. While he did call out the injustice in the world, by adopting the overzealous and violent message of vengeance, he could not change the world. You would think that because he was the precursor of Christ, his methods would be closer to Christ’s, but that’s not the case, and the only reason I can think of for that to be is because he was human, through and through. It took Christ and Christ alone to change the game. Nevertheless, John set the stage for Christ, and got the ball rolling—and roll it did.
I bring all this up because the methods of Jesus are inseparable from the message of his ministry. That’s part of the reason why we, 2000 years later and thousands of miles away from Galilee, still talk about, believe in, and worship this man called Jesus. Not only was Jesus’s message unique, but so was the method, and the method is packed into the words he said to Simon, Andrew, James and John on the banks of the sea of Galilee. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” There are four things we should learn from this call to discipleship, from the response of his followers, and story of the gospel.
The first thing is that when we are called, we must be willing to respond. Jesus calling the disciples stands apart from almost every other call story in the biblical narrative. In most call stories, when God calls someone to be a prophet, or to lead some people, or become king, you know what the most common first response is by those who are called? NOPE. Not gonna do it. You’ve got the wrong person. Abraham was called, and he laughed in God’s face. Moses was called, and he came up with a bunch of excuses. Isaiah was called, and was obsessed with his own perceived sin. Jeremiah was called and claimed to be too young to be a prophet. Over and over again, people’s response to God is initially a resounding no. God has to put his foot down and make sure they pay attention, and eliminate all of their excuses, before they listen. And really, in all honesty, the fact that they refuse initially is incredibly natural. When God tells you to do something, it’s usually life-endangering and incredibly difficult, if not seemingly impossible.
This call story is different though. Jesus makes the call: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And what happens? The guys he calls look up, drop their nets, and follow Christ. No muss, no fuss, just…doing it. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of reasons for why the disciples did this. It could have been because they had known of this Jesus, and known he was a rabbi. To be invited to be a disciple, a follower, of a rabbi, any rabbi, is honor enough. It gives a sense of status in a tight knit community like they would have had in the 1st century, status that a simple fisherman would not have gotten. At the same time, it would not have been easy to just abandon the only way of life you’ve ever known, your family, your community, and everything you know. It’s never been easy to do that, then or now. It was a high demand Jesus makes of them, “follow me.” They did it though, without a fight, and that’s a rare quality in a follower. Not everybody can do that, and I’m not going to tell you that this is the only way to do it. What I’m saying is that those four, Simon, Andrew, James and John, set the precedent, and if we are to follow Jesus, we ought to keep that in mind. It’s perhaps not the impulsiveness we need to mirror, but definitely the willingness to follow. That might mean doing things in a different way than we are used to doing it. That might mean taking a step back and looking at where we are, where we’ve been, and where we are being led. But most of all, it takes the willingness to go. That’s the first thing we should take away from this story.
The second thing about this that we ought to pay attention to is where Jesus goes, and where he takes his disciples. We ought to be willing to go where the fish are. It’s a crucial idea, but one often overlooked. If you’re looking to fish in the middle of the Sahara desert, well, I’ve got some bad news for you. It’s probably not going to pan out. If you’re going to go fishing, you’re going to first have to go to a body of water.
You would think that would be common sense, but look at how we normally operate on at least an individual level. We are called to follow Christ, who makes us to fish for people, to go and share the good news that has been given to us. When was the last time you and your family had an honest discussion about your faith? That’s not the worst place you could start, that’s for sure. How about at your place of work—when was the last time you talked to your friends at work about faith? And I’m not talking about the surface stuff, like where you go to church, or that kind of thing. I’m talking about your spiritual walk, what your soul struggles with, what bugs you about God or religion, or church. It doesn’t need to be huge, or even for very long, but simply going where the people are that might need a relationship with Christ is a profound move that you can make. Faith does not end at the sanctuary doors, but rather, the work of faith truly begins there. Be willing to go to where the fish are—that’s where Christ is calling you. Go where the needs of the people are. Spreading the message of Christ anymore is not so much about getting people here at church as it is getting the message of Christ out into the world. It could be to your coworkers. It could be to your community. It could be your school, your college, even a mission trip to Haiti. But you have the make the decision to go where the fish are.
The third thing you should keep in mind is, when you get to where the fish are, you have to remember something else. You have to adapt to your surroundings. You aren’t going to use the same bait for deep sea fishing as you are for lake fishing or fly fishing. Depending on what you want to catch, you have to change lures, switch up the bait. It’s the same thing with following Christ and living out the command to be “fishers of people.” Be aware of your surroundings and be aware of the kind of people you witness to.
One of the beauties of this world is that it is so incredibly diverse. People and communities are as varied and as unique as you can imagine, and possibly even more. However, this makes the mission of spreading the good news of Jesus Christ a lot more difficult, because cookie cutter evangelism does not work. In fact, I will say this now: It absolutely will not work. What works in one area will more than likely not work in another. How I lived as a Christian, how I shared the good news, in Canton does not necessarily work here in Lufkin. How you spread the gospel in a small town will not work in a large city like Dallas, and vice versa. How you talk about Christ in Texas will probably not fly as well if you do it in Iowa, or Illinois, or Massachusetts or California. Small town evangelism will not look like college town evangelism, or suburban, or urban evangelism. Evangelism in the US will absolutely not look the same as it will in other countries.
The good news is that the gospel was made so that it can be adapted to reach people where they are. This is where the rubber hits the road. Remember John? Remember why what he said and what he did didn’t match up? Because he preached the kingdom of God, but emphasized violence and vengeance. Jesus preached the kingdom of God, and instead emphasized peace, forgiveness, mercy, acceptance, and love. He went to where the people are, and showed them love, despite the protests of his followers. He went to the woman at the well and showed her respect and love. He went to the sick and healed them, touched the unclean, and ate with sinners and traitors. He showed love where love was most needed, and the only reason I believe he was able to do so was because he is God. It took God to show us what the kingdom of God is like, and how you share the message of the kingdom of God is doing the work of God. That work is love. That work is peace, mercy, justice and mercy.
If we are to follow Christ and fish for people, we need to do it in ways that Christ did it. This past year at the Leadership institute in Kansas City, I learned that the best way to spread the good news isn’t really through advertisement campaigns, or huge programs, or camps, or conferences, or anything like that. The best way to share the gospel of Jesus Christ is through your reputation. What does your church do to share the love of Jesus Christ? What do you do to share the love of Jesus Christ? The Texas Annual Conference of the UMC challenged us a couple of years ago: if your church disappeared, would the community notice? In our church’s case, yes it would. We help with the poor in our community. We help with the schools, and with the homeless, and send people on missions year round. We do a lot of things, and that’s great. But the church can’t do these things without you. The church needs honest and eager followers of Christ to do the mission of the gospel. We need people with new ideas for how to get the good news out. We need leaders to show people the way. If we’re going to get the good news out there, we have to know what works best in our community—our pond, if you will. We have to know our context, so the bread of life can be shared with those who need it.
The last thing you need to take away with you from this passage is this. Of course, it matters that you are willing to respond to the call. You have to be willing to go fish where the fish are. You have to be prepared for the context, the kind of fishing you’re going to do. Above all that, though, is to not be discouraged. Fishing is perhaps the best example Jesus could have used to describe the work of spreading the gospel because it is both an active and a passive activity. Yes, there is a lot of work that goes into it; preparing your message, getting where you need to go—but once get there, and cast your line out onto the water, the truth is that it may not work. That’s the last thing we need to take away from this. We have to be prepared for disappointment, because sometimes things don’t work out the way we plan them to. Sometimes, the fish just don’t bite—and that shouldn’t surprise us. God never promised us a captive audience, just that the fish would be there.
God is always pursuing a relationship with us, always wanting to meet us where we are. At the same time, people must be willing to seek God as well. Where we meet in the middle is when the relationship begins. The thing is, all we can do is let people know that God is pursuing them, show them how God has changed our lives, and extend the hand of love to them. Honestly, that’s the most we can do. You can cast out a line, but you can’t make them bite. There’s a lot we can do, but the rest is up to God.
So we can’t be discouraged by what we see as failure, and we can’t give up when it gets difficult. The way of discipleship is a road that has a lot of twists and turns, ups and downs, and in the ends, we have to trust God to get us where we need to be and to do the things God calls us to do. Without God and God’s love, we are helpless. The good news is that we have God’s love, it will lead us in all things, good times and bad. So be willing to answer the call. Be willing to go where you’re needed. Be prepared for what’s ahead. Don’t be discouraged or afraid of failure. Follow Jesus, and he will make you fish for people.
In the name of the father, son, and holy Spirit, amen.