Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Sermon: I'm Not a Fish

Matthew 4:12-23

Several years ago I was sitting at annual conference,

listening to one of our guest speakers preaching on this passage about Jesus calling his disciples. He or she, I don’t remember if it was a man or a woman, quite honestly it doesn’t matter. He or she spent quite a bit of time talking about how we as Christians need to spend more time doing what Jesus tells his disciples here that they will do, catch fish, that is, make disciples.

And my reaction was probably not what you would expect. My reaction was quite negative. Yes, even we pastors sit there from time to time and argue in our minds with what the preacher is saying. [animated at them] I know you do it! Well, on that day I sat there and wrote in my notebook, “I am not a fish.” Well, duh, Pastor Rob, no one said you were. You certainly aren’t an angel, although you might be a clown. Honestly, if you are going to call me a fish, I prefer the humuhumunukunukuapua’a, at least that way you have to work for your insult. Sorry let me get back on track.

I was sitting there thinking, “I am not a fish” because I perceive fishing as tricking the fish, getting it to do something that really isn’t for its benefit. You sit there with a lure. It might not even be real food, it could be a rubber worm, or a plastic frog. And you try to make it look appetizing for the fish. But, what’s in it for the fish? If it is lucky it gets a last meal followed by a hook in the face or a net around it. Then it ends up on you dinner plate. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy fishing. I really do. But for whatever reason, I sat there that day arguing with the speaker, thinking that this is a bad comparison.

You see, I don’t want to be tricked into following Jesus, especially if it is bad for me. That sounds like a cult. Some bunch of crazy people whispering, “Drink the kool-aid.” Trying to deceive me with lies, false promises, and half-truths. So this comparison between fishing for fish and fishing for people leaves me uncomfortable.

I certainly can understand other people out there, who aren’t Christian, hearing this passage and thinking, “Wait a minute! All they want is to get more people. To grow their church. They want to trick us into coming and giving money, and making their leaders feel good because worship attendance is bigger. But what’s in it for me?” At least that is probably what I would think if I were a non-Christian and heard this story. I would be thinking, I am going to do everything in my power to avoid being caught by those people. They have no respect for who I am as a person. They don’t care about me.

You and I as we sit here we know that as Christians we do care.

And actually what Jesus was doing in this passage is brilliant. What Jesus is doing is speaking the language of Peter, Andrew, James and John, whose profession is fishing. He is talking to them on their level. They know fishing, they understand it. Rather than begin talking to them about religion or their need for salvation, he starts where they are, he talks about fishing. He invites them to, “Come follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” He isn’t trying to tell us to go out and trick people into following him. That isn’t his point at all. He is inviting them to join him on a journey, to be his disciples, and to make disciples using their language. If they had been farmers, he probably would have said, “Come, follow me, and I’ll show you how to plant, grow and harvest people.” He wouldn’t be talking about killing them, he’d be talking about making disciples, just as he is here with the fishermen.

And it is the phrase ‘make disciples’ that gets us in trouble. Too often in church, when we talk about disciples we use it as a word for church members. So when Jesus says go and make disciples, we often hear it as an instruction to make recruits. Get new people, put butts in the seats. But that’s not what Jesus meant. He meant: Go and make learners. Disciples meant learners.

William Loader takes it further, he says that the purpose of disciples is to be people who will join in learning what it means to be community and will carry on the learning – lifelong, to the end of the age, even after Jesus has died, risen and ascended to heaven. People who will then invite others into the community as new learners. This is not like taking prisoners or counting butts. What Jesus is really doing is calling these fisherman to be followers and learners with him, a small group of people who are seeking what it means to be human in relationship to each other and to God, who will then call others to be followers and learners, another small group of people who seek what it means and what it looks like to be human in relationship with each other and God.

As they walk with Jesus, they will watch Jesus

help people to see their God given value, he will bring healing and wholeness to peoples’ lives, the disciples will learn to be all that God has made them to be as they discover their spiritual gifts and grow in their leadership abilities, and they will learn to do that together as a new kind of community. They will be challenged not just to love each other, but to love their enemies. They will be challenged to forgive not just once or twice but 70 times 7 times. They will discover that sin and evil are more than just what you do, that your thoughts and your attitude affect your spirit and soul as deeply as your actions. Ultimately they will learn that being a disciple is about living life abundantly, so abundantly that death itself is defeated.

That’s being a disciple, then and now. So for the fish in this strange saying of Jesus, there is everything to be gained. There is something in it for us, beyond just a last meal in heaven – what we offer is a place to learn together what the kingdom of God means lived out on earth, and then the opportunity to continue to live that out after this life is over.

Unfortunately, when we think about making disciples simply as how many people we have converted, or how many people we have gotten to come to Jesus, we fall short in our task. In fact, we do more harm than good when we do that because people eventually realize that you were just baiting them, that you never really had anything to offer, that all you really wanted were numbers.

That type of discipleship is meaningless. All we have done is caught a fish, we haven’t invited them into the life-giving, life-changing, life-long relationship of learning from Christ to be community.

We need to stop thinking of spreading the gospel as how many people we have caught, and remind ourselves that the gospel is about finding people who want to walk the journey of faith with us, all their life long. And that I can buy into. I am willing to look around the world, at the people I meet, and say, “Would you like to join us in learning what faith and spirituality mean? Are you interested in a lifelong search for God, and what God wants from us? Are you looking for a community with which to live out that faith journey?”

That sounds far less like a fish being tricked into an escape-proof net, and more like a fish being invited to swim in the ocean, with a school of fish, who have a purpose together. Rather than trapping people, and being trapped ourselves, we are inviting people to the freedom of discovery and adventure that comes with learning from Christ.

When Jesus walked beside the lake on that day,

Jesus said, Change your hearts and lives, here comes the kingdom of heaven! Yes, that is what it is about – seeking the realm of God throughout our lives, seeing how it changes our hearts and lives. I am not willing to be a fish trapped in Jesus’ net, but I am willing to walk with him and learn from him. And when you explain it to me like that, I can see what is in it for me! Let’s make sure that when we are inviting people into the life of Christ, that we are doing it with sincerity and depth and that we are inviting them into the lifelong adventure of walking together to seek God. Don’t treat them like a fish, but rather like a friend on the journey. Make the invitation mean something. 

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