Fishing for People: The medium is the message

No matter how scary I try to look, what with my short hair, frown lines, and black clothes, I’m the person in the street everyone seems to approach. Sometimes, I’m asked for directions; sometimes, they want money or cigarettes; sometimes, I’m told a story. And sometimes, I’m asked if I’m saved. I used to answer, “it’s complicated”, but that opened up a whole conversation I didn’t want to have. Then I began saying “yes”—but I discovered that meant further questions to find out if I’m saved in the right way. I won’t tell you what I say now; but, it seems that, whatever I say, it’s almost impossible to shake such a questioner off. So when I hear Jesus saying that he will make his disciples fish for people, I feel a bit queasy.

It’s right up there with ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ when it comes to smelling fishy, because words like evangelism, proselytising, and making disciples are, for me, associated with feeling manipulated, coerced, bullied, and guilty. Worse, in the international sphere, mission is bound up with the violence of colonialism. Yet Jesus tells his disciples to spread the good news, so am I just being a cynic when I view mission this way? And if not, then where’s the problem?

I think it lies in the ways Christians have tried to make disciples over the years. Many use the tools of the market, trying to sell Christianity like any other product. They objectify their friends and neighbours and people in the street, seeing them only as sales targets, or souls to be won to the church, and not people to be befriended for their own sake. Yet others—including many preachers—use threats, misusing Biblical imagery to create fear and scare people into faith. At a larger scale, nations have used Christianity as a unifying mechanism and as an avenue to trade, and have compelled mass conversions through terrible violence. And, more personally, some of us have engaged in acts of witness that have felt deeply artificial and uncomfortable; or we’ve failed to do so, and have felt guilty in the face of questions like: How many people have you witnessed to today? How many souls have you won to Jesus? In this mess, and in this world of secular pluralism, it is easy to give up on witnessing altogether; to hide our light under a basket; to keep quiet about our faith. And yet, followers of Jesus are called to be yeast, salt and light in the world; to proclaim the good news; and to make disciples. We can’t avoid it. So let’s go back to the life and work of Jesus, and take another look at what he’s asking us to do.

Tonight’s reading opens with Jesus calling people to turn their lives around, for God’s culture, or kingdom, polis or society, is at hand. And the news was so good that a bunch of fishermen with complex family ties and business interests dropped everything they had, and straightaway they followed him. What was it about God’s culture that was so good?

Vine Deloria Jr, a Native American author, activist and theologian, once said, “Religion is for people who’re afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve already been there.” And perhaps this provides a clue. Because I doubt the first disciples were interested in more religion: their line of work and their poverty excluded them from much religious practice of the time. And I doubt they were afraid of hellfire; I doubt they were sold on more fear, more boundaries, more hatred. For those fisherfolk knew all about fear and oppression; they already knew hell. They were living in a world of debt, heavy taxation, and military control. All aspects of the fishing industry were highly regulated and controlled; wealth was being sucked out of the region and sent away to the powerful through taxes and duties so oppressive, that only the rich—not fishermen—could afford to buy fish. These taxes weren’t collected through tedious paperwork and convenient electronic funds transfer, but by any means up to and including extreme physical violence visited on wives and children. Fishing itself was so dirty and dangerous, and so low-class, that some commentators described fishing and selling fish as the most shameful, and the most miserable, of all occupations.

When Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John left their nets, they left their means of meeting their legal obligations. They walked out of a fishing collective, which now had to fulfil its fishing leases without them. They left their means of earning an income. They left wives, children and other family. They left everything, absolutely everything, to follow Jesus. What would cause a man to do that?

Well, they were desperate times, and desperate times require desperate measures. There were regular violent uprisings, led by self-proclaimed messiahs, which were routinely and brutally oppressed. The mass public executions of rebels and their followers was a common sight; crucifixes lined major highways. So Jesus was preaching to a people familiar with great violence and oppression, whose lives were dominated and controlled by an extraordinarily powerful military machine. So perhaps these people saw that violence is always met with greater violence, and were hungry for a different way.

And perhaps they saw this in Jesus. We are told that Jesus went around teaching and proclaiming the good news, and healing every type of sickness and disease; then immediately after he blessed the poor in spirit, the grieving, the just, the merciful, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted because of their work for justice. For this is God’s culture: not to reward the rich, the powerful, and the violent, but to honour the poor, the grieving, the gentle, and the just. To love enemies and refuse retaliation. To practice self-giving love and deep forgiveness. To live in a way that is open, humble, authentic, wholehearted, vulnerable, and free.

Unlike military oppressors or modern-day marketers, Jesus wasn’t making threats or manipulating people. Instead, he was inviting people to turn their lives towards this culture of God, the cultural renewal which was already beginning to take place, and continues to emerge in us and among us: a culture which honours the vulnerable, refuses to meet violence with violence, and leads to great healing. And so of course this culture is good news: good news for the first disciples, good news for us, and good news for everyone we meet.

This good news is attractive, which is why Jesus tells us that, when we follow him, he will make us fish for people. We don’t do it ourselves: Jesus does it through us when God’s culture begins to emerge in us. Elsewhere, I have talked about how this might look for individuals, so here I want to talk about how it might look for a church. In the six months since we began to meet, we’ve had visitors to the service almost every week. For some, it was their first time in a church; their first time to pray; or their first time to take communion. For others, it was the first time they’ve been in a service which uses a formal liturgy, is spoken by the congregation, which prays for the world, or which encourages the congregation to speak or move around. For some, it was their first encounter with the idea that love is not a transaction, given in exchange for repentance; for others, it was a great relief to hear new ways of understanding the death of Jesus. And for many, it was the first time they have seen children integrated into a service, and not just whisked away.

Of course, we’ve had to explain what we’re doing, and what we’re talking about: even the words Jesus, Christ, Lord, Spirit and prayer have required introduction for some. Yet, despite the strangeness of what we’re doing and the stories we’re telling, most of our visitors aren’t sprinting for the door the moment the service is finished. Instead, they’re staying. They’re eating with us, and talking with us, and telling us their stories, and asking questions. This tells me that what we are doing might just look like good news; and perhaps Jesus is beginning to fish for people through us and the time of our gathering.

To those of us raised in evangelical circles, this may not seem like much; we’re not notching up mass baptisms. But right after Jesus invites the fishermen to follow him, he goes on to teach, preach, heal and bless: so, if we want to follow him, then this is exactly what we should be doing. Teaching, preaching, healing and blessing by offering a place of deep acceptance, hospitality and love; and by living in ways which show self-sacrifice, justice, vulnerability and freedom.

On this road, there is no place for coercion, manipulation or bullying, nor is there room for fear, for the medium is the message—and we are the medium. And when we gather together, freely and willingly, seriously and playfully, welcoming strangers and living a wholehearted life, then our message is good! And Jesus is clear that this good news is for sharing. We mustn’t hide away; instead, we are called to be witnesses. We are to tell the stories which have brought healing to our lives; we are to proclaim the God who liberates people from slavery to empty, violent ways of living; the same God who, in human form, continues to feed hungry people even after his death, offering fish breakfast to those who cannot afford fish; barbecued fish, and life.

So I reckon that to be Jesus’ fisher folk, we should keep on doing what we are doing, always open to others, always ready to say, Come and see! My friends, come and see! And if what we offer, practice, and celebrate is indeed good news, then God will take care of the rest. Ω

A reflection on Matthew 4:12-23 given to Sanctuary, 22 January 2017. Image shows the memorial to fishermen lost at sea at Newlyn, Cornwall. Sculpture by Tom Leaper. Photo my own.

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