"Fish Tales"

January 24, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Matthew 4:12-22

Last week we heard a different account, an eagleís eye view (if you will) of the calling of Andrew and his brother Simon Peter to become disciples of Jesus. Perhaps you remember the story. It involved no fish or nets or men fishing with nets. In Johnís gospel the fish tale comes at the end instead of the beginning.

It happened after the resurrection that some of the disciples were fishing in the sea of Galilee, Simon Peter among them. They threw their nets into the sea, but apparently it was not a day for fish. And then some character on shore instructed them to try the other side of the boat. When they did, the catch almost capsized the ship. Upon which Peter recognized the man on the beach who had called out to them. It was Jesus, and Peter could not constrain himself. He swam to shore ahead of everyone else. Over a fish breakfast, Jesus called these disciples onward to a life of ministry. "Feed my sheep," he instructed them, not once, but three times.

Thatís Johnís fish tale. In the other three gospels, this fishy business comes at the beginning. Lukeís gospel, in fact, tells a tale similar to Johnís. There, Jesus was teaching a crowd on the beach, and then he up and jumped into a boat and asked the fishermen in it to row out just a bit, so that everyone on shore could see him. When he finished teaching, Jesus asked those same fishermen to put out to deep water and toss in their nets, which they did, even though they had just returned from a fishless morning on the sea.

As Luke tells it, the catch was so big that their nets began to tear. They needed a second boat to bring it all in. Wonder changed to fear concerning this holy man in the boat with them, whom they had just met. One of the fishermen, Simon (Peter), gave voice to the fear, asking Jesus to leave them alone. To which Jesus responded with those familiar words: "from now on youíll be catching people." According to Luke, Jesus didnít even say "follow me," but from that day on those fishermen became disciples. Something fishy was going on, the way they just dropped everything and followed.

In Matthewís version of this tale, which we heard earlier, the story is greatly abridged, almost word for word as it is in Markís gospel. Simply put, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew were fishing with their net. Jesus came along, tapped them on the shoulder and said, "Come with me, and Iíll make a new kind of fisherman out of you." And they just up and did. Not only them, but also two other fishermen down the way, James and John, another pair of brothers.

Now, as we approach this fishy business, the question isnít "which story is the right one?" Rather, the question is, "what are we going to do with these stories?" Or, more to the point, what impact are these fish tales going to have on our lives? Now, perhaps weíd prefer if theyíd just slip out of fingers and swim into someone elseís net. When you think about it, thereís a directness in these fish tales that makes us uncomfortable. I mean, thinking about the one we just heard from Matthewís gospel, who in their right mind would "immediately" drop everything and follow Jesus the moment he called them?

Thatís almost contrary to an important tenet of the Brethren. We emphasize what Jesus said about "counting the cost," how discipleship is expensive, not to be entered into lightly, on a whim. Baptism, we say, is an adult decision, based on "counting the cost." Is that something that can be done "immediately?" No. Strange thing, though, sometimes the more I think about the challenge of something, the more reasons I can come up with for not doing it. Deliberative "counting" the cost can stand in the way of discipleship, just as much as it might lead to it.

Shifting from winter to summer for a moment, imagine yourself at the edge of a pool on a hot day. You know that the cold water will feel so good once youíre in it, but getting from the outside in is the hard part. The longer you stand there, the better the chance that you wonít get wet. Now, is it better to "count the cost" about how cold that pool will feel, or to just not think about it and jump in? Of course, there are those among us who prefer the slow agonizing approach. For some of us, thatís how we see discipleship. Following Jesus is a slow, agonizing process. If weíre honest, thereís some truth to that statement, isnít there. Discipleship is not a picnic, especially the kind of following Jesus that lasts beyond the first setback.

This bit about "immediately" following is something we have to deal with in this story, which becomes for us not merely a fish tale, but a paradigm for being called by Jesus. Those words, "follow me," were not just addressed to Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John way back then. They are spoken to us now. What are we going to do with them?

Another perplexing part of the story as weíve received it is this bit about "leaving their nets." Here were four men acquainted with the sea, no doubt comfortable with their life, even as meager as it might have been. No doubt their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers had also been men of the sea. Thereís a generational connection there thatís not easily disregarded. Yes, fishing was a "job," but we dare not assume that little effort was needed to just drop those nets and follow, even without that troublesome word, "immediately."

My friends, what are your "nets?" Iím not just talking about possessions, though the materials we have accumulated over the years certainly play a role here. Such nets are jam packed full for most of us. For Simon Peter and Andrew, though, the nets represented what they held most dear. No mention is made of family here, a sly move on the part of the gospel storyteller. It takes a while for it to sink in, as we hear the story, that those dropped nets were attached to other valuables - such as a spouse or children. Now, maybe home life was so miserable that these men were ready to bail out of their commitments, but it doesnít say so, and thatís not what the story is about, anyway.

Oh, we might be tempted to see this tale as an invitation to a guys-only fishing trip. Over the years some in the church have bought that version of events - hook, line, and sinker. When Jesus calls us to follow and become fisherfolk, however, itís not to a vacation from commitments. Rather, itís to a vocation for commitment. Furthermore, itís not just a "guy" thing. All who hear his voice are called, and all who are called have their hands on some net. So let me ask again, what are your nets? These are not just fish tales to laugh over around the table that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell. They are stories intended to change our lives.

A few weeks back, Rebecca Sack preached on the verse, "there is no one who has left house or parents or brothers or wife or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times more in this present time, and in the age to come eternal life." That promise of our Lord fits these stories, doesnít it. Now, as she grew up in our midst, Rebecca learned many things about fishing beside our sea of Galilee (if you will). And then, in Botswana, our Lord taught her more, through many different people. Perhaps you were here, and recall some of the stories she told, Botswana fish tales of her own. Iím sure there are more to tell. In calling her away from this sea, in her words: "God certainly didnít displace the importance of my family or my home, but he provided for my needs more than I could have done myself."

Yes, Rebecca left her net and followed. But, you know, Iím not sure if the real journey was the one which put her on a plane headed across the ocean. Woven amid her wonderful fish tales (which I was blessed to read in the written copy I was given, since I was away that Sunday), was the strand of a new kind of net. Here and there she mentioned "the process of learning to give up control to Christ." Isnít that what "leaving our nets and following Jesus" is about? This is what becoming a new kind of fisherwoman involves.

A good portion of our lives are spent tossing and pulling nets, the guide rope of which we hold firmly in our grasp. If we let go of that rope, we think, the catch is lost and our work is in vain. We canít imagine any other way of fishing, fishing being a metaphor for living. And then along comes Jesus, who offers us another possibility. When you let go of the net, he says, really let go. Toss it with all your might and allow God to guide the rope. I donít wish to go too far with this image, but you know, there comes a point in the life of a family when parents need to let go of the rope. I donít advocate it for little ones, but even with smaller children, if we do not allow Godís hand to be the guide as we help them into the water, our rope may break or strangle.

"Giving up control to Christ" has great ramifications. We usually apply this "fishers of men and women" idea to evangelism. I have experienced forms of sharing good news, where the evangelist has their hand firmly grasped on the rope after they toss the net, and they are going to pull it in no matter what. Many persons have been lost at sea as recipients of such a fishing expedition. Thatís not what evangelism is. The important point isnít our grasp on the rope when we toss good news upon the sea. Itís the releasing, the sharing.

"Giving up control to Christ." Isnít that what Baptism is about, whether we have carefully approached the water having fully counted the cost, or are diving in for dear life - in a fairly immediate sense? Baptism is another fish tale, when you think about it, a continuing story. Jesus invites us to follow him. He doesnít "jerk" us in. Instead, he calls us to some kind of ministry with him, becoming "fishers of people," or "feeding his sheep." There are a myriad of callings. Each one of us is called, not just Peter, Andrew, James and John. Not just Rebecca. Our calling may involve crossing some ocean. Then again, it might instead take place on this particular sea of Galilee, in the boat weíre presently floating.

This fish tale goes on long after weíve been dunked underwater. In fact, thatís only the beginning. Down the road, Jesus continues to call out to us, to invite us to cast our nets in ever new ways, to further release our grasp and allow his life to be lived through us. We need that calling at every step of our lives, even if our baptism is but a dim memory of days gone by.

Well, we have our own Galilee calling today, as some among us are responding to Jesusí invitation to "follow me." May we all, however, feel his hand upon our shoulder, and hear him call us. Letís make this fish tale our own.

©1999Peter L. Haynes

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