Jesus calls you to fish for people, to be God’s love in the world, and gives you all you need – not for results, but because it’s what being faithful is.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Third Sunday after Epiphany, year A
Texts: Matthew 4:12-23, with reference to John 21; Isaiah 9:1-4
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
That’s today’s sequel. Last week Jesus said, “Come and see.” You were invited, with Andrew and the other disciple and Simon, to come and see what God is doing in Jesus. To see God’s Word in your midst.
But now that Word has come back with the next invitation: Follow me. Follow me and I will make you fish for people.
And that’s where we get stuck. Do you believe that following Jesus means that you, of all people, will fish for others? What does that even mean? Get new members for a congregation? Knock on doors asking if folks know Jesus? Lead an evangelism crusade? Does fishing for people mean doing all or some of that and counting up the numbers of people you’ve saved, like fish in a net?
If it does, we have a problem. Lutherans from the northern hemisphere tend to grow the church through birth rates, passing on the faith to the next generation, not through evangelism. But if following Jesus means fishing for people, and we just don’t do that, are we being faithful?
Actually, two ways of faithful “good-news telling,” evangelism, are in the Gospels.
In Matthew, Jesus starts his ministry calling Peter and the others to learn to fish for people, and he ends it at the Ascension by giving them a commission: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing, teaching them to obey me. For many Christian traditions, this is evangelism: find as many people as you can who don’t know Jesus and draw them in. Get more and more Christians in the world, spreading over the planet.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t ask this. There Jesus speaks of loving as God loves. That’s the commandment, the commission. In John, after Easter, when Peter is challenged about his love of Christ, he has one job given him, three times: feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.
So Matthew’s community remembered Jesus insisting on going out and getting people in. And John’s community remembered Jesus insisting on loving others with God’s sacrificial love, feeding God’s sheep, caring for God’s people. Both have rich history in Christian life. Both are so early in the tradition we have to assume Jesus taught both emphases. Perhaps Jesus thinks there’s more than one way to follow faithfully.
But do we believe fishing for people is doable in our multi-faith world?
A hundred years ago, we wouldn’t ask that. Most Christians assumed all people needed to be Christian, and were lost in darkness and risking eternal damnation if they weren’t.
But today we know God’s children express their faith in God in very different ways, but in ways that often have much in common. Christian and Buddhist and Jewish and Muslim mystics all understand each other’s way of sensing God’s divine presence in their lives. The major religious traditions of the world share a deeply similar ethic of love of neighbor. The three religions who trace back to Abraham even claim the same God.
We proclaim that this shared God is Triune, has come to us in Christ Jesus in the flesh, and intends to love the whole creation back into the life and love of God. But we’ve learned that because we believe all that to be true about God, we don’t need to condemn others who believe differently, and certainly don’t need to hate them. If God is who we Christians claim, God’s love for all overrides any judgment we’d make about what they believe.
And, we have Jewish and Muslim and Hindu neighbors. We live in a global community. We’ve learned the value of respecting others’ beliefs. The common tradition shared by all religions that speaks of universal human rights, of care of the creation, of food and shelter and education for all, is something we can build on together with people of other faiths, even if we disagree in our beliefs.
So, does Jesus’ call in John make more sense to us today? Love others. Feed God’s lambs. Care for God’s beloved ones, no matter who. It seems so. But maybe we don’t have to walk away from Jesus’ call in Matthew either.
Following isn’t an either/or proposition. And we’re already both fishing and loving.
Think of all that we do together as Lutherans in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We’re definitely loving, feeding God’s sheep. We give millions of dollars yearly, starting with your stewardship of money in this place, to end world hunger, to alleviate suffering in places struck by disaster. And we’re casting nets, too. Your stewardship supports mission start up congregations all over the Twin Cities, and the U.S. People who don’t know Jesus are being reached and drawn into life in Christ.
And we’re doing both together here at Mount Olive. From our Longer Table Loan program to Community Meals and daily ministry with our neighbors in need, we take “feed my sheep” very seriously. We’ve a task force working on how we might make a difference in the housing crisis amongst our neighbors. But the hospitality in this place also takes the Matthew path. People are invited to come and see here, to worship alongside this community, to meet Jesus in the flesh in us.
And individually, I see this all the time. You people witness to God’s reign coming near, Jesus’ message today, and to the light in the darkness, our word from Isaiah, with your lives, your love. Your grace in caring for others and inviting them here to find God’s grace.
Both of Jesus’ calls to follow are ones you know and do. Not always perfectly, and sometimes we hesitate in our following. But if you look, there’s evidence of such faithful following in a lot of places.
And good news: the message isn’t yours, it’s God’s. God’s doing it already.
God’s reign has come near, Jesus said. God’s reign. That’s the message you’re proclaiming with your life and your love – together as the ELCA, as Mount Olive, and individually. When you live that, you’re just living what God’s already doing, revealing God’s astonishing, transforming love. Is it increasing numbers of members here or elsewhere? Doesn’t matter. Jesus didn’t count, and many didn’t follow him. But God’s reign of love has come near, regardless.
And, light from God is shining in the darkness of this world. God’s light. That’s the message you’re proclaiming with your life and your love, together and individually. You’re just living what God is already doing. Shining God’s light of love for others to see hope, that’s all. Are you always effective? Who knows? But God’s light is shining in the world, regardless.
Fishing or loving, both are promises from God to you and the world.
I will make you fish for people, Jesus says. I’ll make it happen. You are God’s love for the world, Jesus says. You already are. So – feed God’s lambs. Cast the nets. Work with others, and do your thing, too. Be the Christ you are. God will handle the rest.
In the name of Jesus. Amen