Fishing For People  Mark 1:16-20

A sermon at St John's Anglican Church, Portsmouth, Kingston, Ontario January 23,2000

by Robert Brow

Simon and Andrew were fishermen, and when Jesus called them to accompany him he used a metaphor to describe their new task. The King James Version said they were to be "Fishers of Men." But that wouldn't do for a talk in a women's college ! Our version avoids that problem by translating "I will make you fish for people" (Mark 1:17). But that could also give the wrong impression, as if Christians are out to catch people like casting for Bass.

People in the Middle East love to use metaphors, and the Bible is full of them. We are to be the salt of the earth, and Jesus is the Good Shepherd. But we have to beware of taking the expression literally. In every metaphor we must ask ourselves in what way the metaphor is like the person described, and in what ways it is different. If we hear a little boy described as an "eager beaver" we don't ask if he has a flat tail, or builds a beaver house. It simply means that he is as busy as a beaver cutting down trees and building a dam.

In the metaphor of fishing for people the first difference is that when fish get caught they lose their freedom, die and get eaten. We catch people to free them. Jesus said "If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36). People are going to be freed from their sense of gnawing guilt. They are freed from the emptiness of their lives. They can be freed from their addictions, freed for love, freed for the joy of life.

When a fish is caught, it will soon be dead. Jesus said "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). Not only are we to be more alive in this life, but our good news frees people from the fear of death.. Jesus rose from the dead, and he has all that it takes to take us through death, and perfect us for all the joys of heaven.

And fish get caught to be eaten. We are caught to enjoy eating and drinking at the family table with the children of God. That is symbolized at our communion table.

But if we want to engage in Jesus' kind of fishing, we need to remember we are not catching people to join our church. It is His church. At every baptism service I explain that we are not making Anglicans. As Christians the baptized have a right to take communion in any denomination of the world. Some sectarian churches may refuse us, but that is their narrow mindedness, not what Jesus had in mind.

When we think about fishing, we imagine a child hanging a hook in the water hoping that fish will come and get caught. Eventually they get the idea that the hook needs to be hidden inside a fat juicy worm. Similarly our Christian hook needs to be hidden in a friendly, approachable, hospitable lifestyle. In every congregation there are hook Christians and bait Christians. The hook Christians give out tracts to everybody they meet, and ask them if they are saved. That scares away any sensible person in sight. Bait Christians on the other hand are like fat juicy worms. People enjoy them and look to them at work and in the community, but as bait Christians they have no hook and nobody ever get caught.

What hooks people is the Word of God. "Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). A good fisherman has a variety of hooks for every kind of situation. And we should each have the hooks that we will need. Collect a few parables like the story of the Prodigal Son, know how to use the metaphors and images of the love of God, and memorize a few key verses from the Bible. Then when a person is ready to bite, you will have just the right hook to help them into faith.

But today, as we approach our annual meeting next Sunday, I particularly want to remind you that this church congregation is meant to be engaged in our fishing business. Some fish are caught by a hook and line, but much larger numbers are caught with a net. You can see that the day Simon Peter and his brother Andrew were called they were "casting a net into the sea" (Mark 1:16). And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, "were in their boat mending the nets" (Mark 1:19).

For their fishing business these men had a few thousand dollars worth of equipment. And here at St. John's we have several hundred thousand dollars in a first class building with all sorts of room for our work. What we need is the various kinds of net for catching people. There is a different kind of net for smelt fishing in the St. Lawrence river, another kind for salmon, another for cod. From Jesus' point of view the children are the most important part of our catch. We must make sure we have the resources to make our Sunday School a joyful attractive place for them, so they will persuade their parents they bring them Sunday by Sunday.

Young people these days are by far the hardest fish to catch. Church isn't "cool." It takes great skill to create a service that will appeal to them. All I hear is that no congregation anywhere in North America is catching teenagers without music and a program in which they can participate.

Whenever there is a wedding I believe our task is to provide a really happy church experience for the couple and their families and friends. And I always throw out the net by a brief meditation explaining how the love of God relates to the joy of a long term marriage.

Every funeral brings dozens of people to hear the Word of God. I always preach about the resurrection of Jesus and try to give the family and their friends, and any children who are there, some pictures of the joys of heaven.

One of the most effective net ministries has been the Alpha courses. They begin with a banquet, and every week the group eats together, hears a first class explanation of the topic on a video, and has the opportunity to share their thoughts and doubts and feelings without anyone condemning them. All over the world in every major denomination the program is bringing in thousands of new enthusiastic Christians.

Of course you need a team of willing hands to pull in the catch. But you can't be fussy about who you take in. A fisherman doesn't say "Oh, I don't like those crabs, and look at that ugly big conger eel." Any congregation that is taking in new people will take in a Mary Magdalene, a Judas, a fierce persecuting Saul of Tarsus. So Jesus told a parable about taking in fish of every kind, and letting the angels do the sorting in due course (Matthew 13:47-49).

But there is a powerful resource that no ordinary fisherman has at hand. We can pray to attract attention and draw in the people who are ready to be caught. You remember when the disciples had caught nothing all night Jesus told them to throw the net in on the right side. To their astonishment they drew in 153 very large fish (John 21:2-14). Since Jesus is the one who calls us into his fishing business, we can look to him to help us.

So I would like each of you at least once a week to pray that He will bring in those that we are to catch the next Sunday. And when you sit quietly before the service, pray that we can welcome those that come. We are not here to take away their freedom, kill them with boredom, or devour them, but to give them life, and far more abundantly than they have ever imagined.

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