Last post I wrote about the church as the family of God. This week, we’re talking about the church as a bunch of fishers following Jesus in order to catch people. I’ve been fishing twice, both times bait fishing, both times not very happy with the outcomes. It does not make me happy to kill fish, though I am happy to eat fish. Some people are very happy to go fishing and have pretty strong opinions on what kind of fishing they prefer. I’ll refer those of you who love fiction to James David Duncan’s The River Why for a great debate on the merits of bait fishing vs. fly fishing.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how completely and thoroughly God loves people, and how God wants them to stop running and turn around and see that God has love and forgiveness for them. As people who know that God loves them, followers of Jesus just naturally will want other people to share in the experience of God’s love.
The problem: Wickedness has gone fishing for people and is catching plenty and eating them for lunch. People are living in a world that has no mercy.
The solution: God needs people to go fishing for the kingdom.
My friend Dave Woolsey is a used car dealer, the bottom of the barrel, he likes to say. He retired some time ago, but he has a new business in Newberg,Oregon, and he sits behind his used cars looking for people who are spiritually hungry. He says Newberg is wide open spiritually. I think of Dave as a bait fisherman.
He makes friends of people he calls “not-yet-christians” and he “journeys toward Jesus” with them. He just tells people that nothing they have ever done can make God love them less and nothing they can do will make God love them more. He says it catches them up short—they’ve been on the run and trying to earn approval, and they just don’t need to.
People are hiding from God just like Adam and Eve did because they are at some level aware of their sin and they think God is out to punish them as they deserve. They could not be more wrong.
“I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch my people…For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight” (Jeremiah 16:17, NRSV).
“And as Jesus walked along the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—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” (Mark 1:16-20).
The actions of Jesus in the gospels are not only actions but parables for us. So what can we learn from two fish stories? Here’s the first, from Luke.
Don’t Give Up, and Listen to Jesus
“When Jesus had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they filled both boats, so that they began to sink” (Luke 5:1-11).
Jesus knows where the fish are, so listen to him. Gunner Payne, from Yorba Linda Friends, CA, was an amazing disciple of Jesus who taught Sunday School when I was a young adult. He told us about how he felt led to go to where people were who might not know about God’s love. He figured they weren’t in church on Sunday, so he talked with the elders; in fact, he was an elder. He got their blessing to go out on Sunday evenings and get to know people who were in the bars. He went to where the “fish” were. Additionally, he was an independent cabinet maker, so each of his jobs gave him a chance to share the love of God with his employers. He embodied the love of God in many ways; after his daughter was murdered, he visited the murderer in jail and shared the love of God with him. Amazing. I think of Gunner as more of a fly fisherman.
I remember that it was my children playing sports that moved me out of my church/college circle of Christian associates into a place that might have people who didn’t already know about God’s love and mercy. I sat with folks at track meets, soccer games, more soccer games, more track meets. Then a bunch of soccer moms decided they were tired of just cheering on their daughters, so we got together to play instead, and games were scheduled in the fall on Sunday (still are). I thought, great, a whole bunch of people who aren’t in church (I underestimated how many of them were skipping church like me). I attended a big church, so no one much noticed my occasional absence, but when I became an elder, I explained that I would occasionally be skipping church to play soccer. The challenge to me was to keep my lives integrated—no being holy among my Christian colleagues and being rowdy with my soccer people, no hiding.
When I started to preach occasionally, I at first didn’t explain why I was missing soccer games. Now they all know I am up here preaching, and some of them ask me about it. But out of those experiences, I have been able to pray for people who don’t feel free to pray for themselves, and they have been happy to have me do so. I am just who I am—just human—they have been as helpful to me in hard times as I have to them, maybe more so. I’m just there to love them on God’s behalf. Same with my kids, by the way, and my grandkids, and my nieces and nephews, and so on.
You’re not God’s only fisher; others help
The vision: there are plenty of people hiding from God who don’t know about God’s love and forgiveness, and you don’t have to be the only one who tells about the mercy God has shown to you.
Additionally, you do not have to be perfect to be called into fishing for people.
And one more thing: Jesus says not to be afraid.
“But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’ For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”
So what about after the resurrection? Keep working the strategy; in fact, Jesus does almost the same thing as before, and this results in the same parable.
“Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you? . . . Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish” (John 21).
The message after the resurrection: catch some more fish, then come and have breakfast
Don’t worry if the results aren’t perfect; God will sort things out in the end
Jesus used this analogy also, to teach that we don’t have to be responsible for catching only the best: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:47).
In the end, God will bring abundant life and healing
The water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed. The Lord led me along the bank of the river. I saw a great many trees on both sides. He said to me, “When this water flows into the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature will live, and there will be very many fish. People will stand fishing beside it; the river will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds; on the banks will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
Take some time and listen to Jesus. Ask him to tell you where “the fish” are in your own life. Then spend some time praying for those folks and for yourself to be able to embody God’s love to them and to speak God’s love into their lives when opportunity arises.