Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Jesus Calls the First Disciples
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
My grandfather Arvin loved to fish. Some of my earliest memories are of fishing with him in the mountains in North Carolina. He liked to go to this one campground just outside of the Cherokee reservation and spend the weekend camping and fishing for trout. He’d also take me to the pond on my great-grandparents' property, one that my great grandfather kept stocked with fish, and show me how to bait my hook and cast. Sometimes I even managed to cast without getting my hook stuck in the trees. He’d show me how to carefully take the hook out of the fish’s mouth, being careful of the sharp parts of the fins, and let them go back in the water. He had so much fun showing me and the other grandkids this hobby of his. When you look through family photos of this era, one of the most common sights is a little kid, me or one of my sisters or cousins, proudly holding up a newly-caught fish.
I liked to snoop around in the tacklebox. He had one that he kept in the shed and more fishing gear in the toolbox in the back of his truck. I had to be so careful not to poke my finger on a stray hook or fish knife. There were so many bits and bobs in there: squishy bright yellow squiggles that looked like worms, little red things that were fake fish eggs, what seemed like hundreds of feet of fishing line. My favorites were the realistic lures, the small and vibrant fish, painted up to look as delicious as possible to bigger fish. Some even shimmered a little, like the live trout we caught up in the mountains.
With all the fishing poles and tackleboxes and toolboxes full of gear, I was never completely sure how much my grandfather used regularly... how much was necessary and how much was just fun. I suspect, because our family didn’t rely on the fish he caught as our primary food source or income, that a significant chunk of it was just for fun. But, learning how to fish taught me that you need some tools, at the very least a line, a hook, and some bait, and at least a little bit of a plan, if you want to catch something. As I read the story about how Jesus called his first disciples from the ranks of people who made their living fishing, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of tacklebox you need to fish for people.
Two key events precede the call story that is today’s scripture. First, after Jesus has been baptized, he spends 40 days in the wilderness discerning his next steps in life. Mark doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what happened, which is pretty common for Mark, a Gospel that is known for spare and abrupt storytelling. We just know that he was tempted by Satan and was with the wild beasts and was tended to by the angels. Also, John, who baptized Jesus, is arrested. This arrest appears to be what brings Jesus to Galilee. He has taken up preaching when John can’t. And, his message is similar but expanded. He is preaching the Good News. You might know the word in Greek, the Gospel. He is telling people that the time that they have been waiting for was fast approaching. God was drawing near. It was time to repent, that is re-orient yourself towards God, and make yourself ready for God’s reign.
The scholar Cynthia Briggs-Kittredge talks amount this moment where Jesus is preaching as a “crisis point.” I don’t think she is speaking about a particular cataclysmic-event kind of crisis. There’s not been a natural disaster or election. There is an on-going occupation of the land by Rome, but that has been happening for a while. But, it does feel like the pieces are finally in place for the next thing, hopefully the reign of God, to come. Time was full. Opportune. Maybe that’s why Simon and Andrew and James and John all went with Jesus so easily. They could feel the fullness of time. They were willing to completely change their lives, leave the tools they had been using on the lakeshore, and follow Jesus.
It’s not clear if Jesus was a stranger to these two sets of brothers or if they knew him before he called them. Scholar Bonnie Bowman Thurston, in her book on Mark, argues that it’s likely they were at least familiar with John’s preaching before Jesus. They might have been prepared to pay attention for the one to come, who would be the one John told them about. Maybe they were ready. They just needed the call. And, Jesus provided it. Because, Jesus seems to know that he doesn’t need to do this alone. Dr. Thurston says he’s no lone ranger. Disciples, co-workers, will be necessary to his mission.
In his commentary on this passage, Dr. Osvaldo Veno talked about two different interpretations of “fishing for people” that he grew up hearing in Argentina. Both interpretations try to deal with the fact that the fishing Mark was talking about was not catch and release. Ideally, in the fishing the disciples did every day, they kept what they caught to eat or sell. Fish don’t last long out of water. If fishing is the metaphor for preaching the Gospel, how do we deal with the death of the fish? Dr. Veno explained that most of the time he heard the metaphor connected with another metaphor, that of dying to the world, and receiving new life in God. That message is clearly part of Jesus’ teaching later in Mark 8:35. Dr. Veno also heard the fishing angle explained in a way that sounded a little more like being a lifeguard than an angler. In many parts of the Bible, the sea represents a place of chaos full of entities that would be enemies of God. If you fish for people, you are rescuing them from the clutches of God’s enemies. You may have heard similar interpretations. They are pretty common.
Dr. Veno would like to suggest a third interpretation. The fishing metaphor is found in other parts of the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the prophetic books of Jeremiah, Amos, and Ezekiel. In Jeremiah, according to Dr. Melina Quivik, God will send someone to fish the people of Israel out of where they are and bring them back to the land that God gave them. In Amos 4:2 and Ezekiel 29:4, the fishing metaphor is being used to show God catching up cruel and powerful people and casting them out of the water.
Dr. Veno, following the work of another scholar named Ched Meyers, who I saw cited in multiple sources this week, argues that Jesus is using fishing like Jeremiah, Amos, and Ezekiel did. He is inviting his disciples into this work of casting down the mighty and the cruel and lifting up the lowly. The Gospel is about showing a different kind of order, that doesn’t rely on the cruelty of the powerful, who will be deposed, but, instead, gathering people into the realm of God. Dr. Veno says that “[Jesus’] purpose is to change the world in such a way that it will cease to be the hostile place it is, so that God’s reign can be established on earth.” The first step in changing the world... if we may return to that tacklebox metaphor I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon... the first tool in his tacklebox is the disciples, co-workers who understand the fruitfulness of the moment and follow him.
The literal fishing tools these men deployed were a little different than my grandfather’s non-professional gear. For one, they mostly fished with large nets that they would cast into the water, gathering as many fish as they could and hauling them into the boat or up to the lakeshore where they stood. Something I read in another commentary this week, one by Melinda Quivik, made me think about these nets. She said that the new future, nearer to God, is a gathering together of people. How lovely is it that the first disciples were people intimately familiar with scooping up, gathering in, harvesting. Their work with Jesus would mirror fishing in that way. On their best days, they would scoop up, gather in, and harvest alongside him. Their hard work is the first tool in Jesus’ Gospel Tacklebox.
As we read through Mark between now and Easter, we’ll see more of the tools in the tacklebox: healing, teaching, fellowship, and prayer. I’m glad we started here with the fishing, though. Every other tool we learn about will be in service to gathering people into God’s reign. Time is feeling pretty full these days, maybe in ways that the disciples would have recognized at the lakeshore. We should probably pay attention to how these disciples and Jesus begin the work of gathering. The gathering is our calling, too. It may be our time to leave the lakeshore and follow him into whatever the Good News in for this time and place. I hope we have our tackle boxes ready.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.