Jan. 22nd, 2023
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
This is the perfect week to remind us all that we are in year A of the lectionary cycle—a year that will have us concentrating on the gospel according to Matthew (with some gospel of John thrown in for good measure). Ah, Matthew, the gospel which begins with a genealogy of Jesus. The gospel that tells the birth narrative with a focus on Joseph. The gospel that announces that Wise Ones from the east came seeking the child—bringing gifts to a new king, and invoking a nasty genocidal backlash from the current king—and thus sending Jesus’ family into exile in Egypt.
But all that is behind us now. Jesus has grown up, and has come to the Jordan to be baptized by John. The story starts in earnest. If I had not announced where our gospel lesson came from, if we had closed our eyes, and just listened to the story, would we have known we were reading from Matthew? The answer is yes. In fact, I can imagine a test question in a New Testament course using this Scripture and asking, “Which gospel is this from? Provide two pieces of proof.”
For there are two clues as to why this particular passage of Scripture comes from Matthew. One is a dead give-away, and the other points to this being “more than likely” Matthew. Both of them are due to the fact that Matthew appears to be written for a Jewish audience—most specifically to convince people that Jesus is the Messiah the Jewish people have been waiting for.
Let’s start with the “more than likely” clue—it comes in the phrase“ so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:”
This type of quoting from what we call the Old Testament occurs frequently in Matthew, because of the argument being made that Jesus checks all the boxes (fulfills the criteria) of “what the messiah should look like and do.”
So, when you come across a passage that quotes the Hebrew Scripture with this type of formula “what had been spoken through [name your Hebrew prophet] … might be fulfilled” it makes a good case that the passage is from Matthew.
But the definitive clue that this is a passage from Matthew comes from the phrase, ““Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The term “kingdom of heaven” is found only in the gospel of Matthew. When Mark or Luke want to talk about God’s reign they call it, the kingdom of God. Why the difference? Well, it goes back to that audience. Because Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish, there would have been an aversion to saying “God.” The name of “God” was sacred, never to be pronounced, and if found in written Scripture, a substitute would be spoken out loud. So to have Jesus, a good Jewish boy, who knows his Scripture well enough to wrestle with the Pharisees, constantly saying “the kingdom of God” wouldn’t ring true. The phrase “the kingdom of heaven” gets to the same point, but without the “God” name baggage.
So, Jesus is living in the region of Zubulun and Naptali “so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.” He has begun his ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And as he is walking by the sea of Galilee, he comes across those who fish for a living. And he calls four fishers to follow him—two sets of brothers, Simon and Andrew, and James and John. He calls them to leave their nets, leave their life of catching fish to embark of what he calls “fishing for people.” And they leave everything to become his disciples.
This is a story that many of us could probably tell by heart. It is a simple story. Jesus calls, people follow. It is a story that is as true today as it was way back when. I don’t know how many times I have preached on this story, pulling apart the threads that together weave what we know of “the beginning” of following Jesus.
The seasons of the Spirit commentary wonders about the actual timeline of events. Was it so easy for Simon or Andrew or James or John to just up and leave? Didn’t they have families? Responsibilities?
Was it a snap decision, or in the way of storytelling, have we collapsed time in order to keep attention? Didn’t they need to get to know Jesus before throwing everything to the wind and walking away into the sunset with him?
And as I was contemplating what might have been left out of the story, I wondered, why those who made their living fishing?
I mean what was it about them? Had Jesus tried calling anyone else and it hadn’t stuck? Was it just right place, right time—Jesus walking along the seashore and thinking about ministry, about all the things God had in store for him, and viola, he looks up and there are fishing people? There is an immediacy, a rushed feel to this that may have been borrowed from Mark (the gospel that seems to breathlessly run towards its ending as everything happens “immediately…”). Or was it that Jesus had thought about what kind of characteristics might make for good disciples? Maybe Jesus had spent time not just walking the shore, but watching those who lived their lives by it. Did Jesus call fishers first for a reason?
So today, I’d like us to sit down on a rock by the shore of the sea of Galilee and imagine what Jesus might have seen. What was it about fishing that attracted him? And what might it teach us about the qualities we need to nurture in ourselves as we follow in the footsteps of these first disciples.
The first thing we might notice is that the fishing industry is not for the faint of heart. This is hard work. It requires getting yourself to the right spot. (Even those who fish in streams and lakes know that knowing how the fish are running, or where they might be at a certain time of day, at a certain time of year, in certain conditions, makes all the difference in whether you are successful in actually catching something.) You need to listen to others’ experience, and remember your own. You have to use that knowledge to your best advantage.
Then there is the fact that you have to work in all kinds of conditions. Whether it is sunny or rainy, windy or calm, you are probably going to put out on the sea. But you always have to be alert, you have to keep an eye on the weather, because if a storm comes up, if you get caught too far from shore when the seas get rough, you could be in trouble. So you have to be aware of your surroundings.
You have to have patience. Sometimes you can do everything right, and you don’t haul anything in. But you can’t just give up. You keep putting your nets down and bringing them up.
Hoping that next time will be the charm. You keep going out every day, looking to fill your nets, to bring home a good catch, to feed your family and have some to sell as well.
You have to be willing to live through some fearful situations. They won’t happen every day. They might even be rare indeed, if you are lucky. But there will come a time, if you are fishing, that you misread the signs, or a storm blows up out of nowhere, or a hole gets punched in your boat, or … There will come a time when you are fighting for your life, when you will be tangling with the elements, when you will be afraid. And you have to figure out how to deal with that—you put your head down, and fight as hard as you can, and shout up prayers to God, and when, if, you survive, you look back and thank God that you made it out alive.
And when you get to the shore, no matter what, there are hours of tedious work, mending the nets, checking for holes, retying knots. This is the least glamorous part of fishing, but no less important. For if you don’t mend your nets, if you don’t keep them strong, you risk throwing a whole day of fishing away.
And finally there is the camaraderie of sea fishing. No sane person does it alone. There are those in the boat with you. So you work as a team. There are those in your fleet who might need to come to your aid. There are those who you see on the shore or at sea, who you get to know as fellow travelers, who earn your respect.
The more I thought about it, the more I marveled at how perceptive Jesus was to pick those who fished for a living as the first disciples. (I’m pretty sure if he had picked others, we could have made a sermon on the qualities their profession had instilled in them to make them good disciples. Each of us brings gifts to the table.)
Maybe the most important thing is that these were ordinary, working people. Not scholars who would know how to parse the Scriptures. Not wealthy patrons who would be able to make this ministry soluble. Not even those with followings of their own, to increase your reach. Jesus would eventually attract all of these types and more.
But in the beginning, the initial call, and the inner core for the rest of Jesus’ ministry, was these simple, fisher folk. Two sets of brothers. Friends, or at least, known to one another. And Jesus, as far as we are told, didn’t approach them with big speeches of how this was a good investment of their time, or this was the way to get into leadership roles, or this was the chance of a lifetime. The only words we hear Jesus saying is “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” And then to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”
What does that even mean? Did Jesus see us as all these types of fish who needed to be “caught”? Or was Jesus just saying, Come, I know who you are. And you can use your gifts, you can use what you have already learned about life, about our world, about facing adversity, about trusting in God, as together we try to tell people about the kingdom of heaven, about the coming reign of God.
It worked. Simon and Andrew, James and John left everything and followed Jesus. And it gives us so much information. Jesus wasn’t looking for extraordinary people—but people much like you and me. Jesus just walks across the shore, or walks into town, or passes by on the road, or joins you for dinner, or bumps into you in the market. Jesus appears in your ordinary, seemingly hum-drum lives and sees something in you, sees the gifts that God has given you, that you have honed in your life, and says, God has need of you. The kingdom of heaven has need of exactly what you bring to each and every day.
There are many ways to learn patience, and camaraderie, and awareness of others and our surroundings, and specific knowledge, and the struggle with fear and failure, and the willpower to do tedious, important things, and the way God stands beside us in it all. We are all enveloped in Jesus’ call, “Follow me.” We are all invited to become “fishers for people,” those who find themselves pushing out into the sea of life every day.
I love that we are called to fishing not as a lone pastime, but as a community endeavor. How much easier to share our knowledge and to offer our strength to lift another’s weakness.
How much comfort there comes from sharing one another’s burdens, and lifting one another up, or talking one another down. How much better it is in those moments, hours, days, years of seemingly endless net mending, to have partners who make us laugh at ourselves, who make us remember the good times, who encourage us to tell our own stories, to live life beside us. How exciting is it to offer a hand to a newcomer, or an old pro, and invite them into our circle, to learn from them as they learn from us. I have a whole new appreciation for fishing, and for what it is Jesus calls us to be and to do.
For he says it still, “The kingdom of heaven has come near… Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.”
May it be so. Alleluia, Amen.