The great forerunner, John the Baptist, has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and the time has come for Jesus to begin the public work for which He was sent. He leaves behind His home town of Nazareth and travels to Capernaum by the sea. His movement is like the inbreaking of a great light into a land trapped in darkness. As Isaiah declares, “Those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” For as John had preached and baptized for repentance, as he had so faithfully pointed to our Lord and declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world,” now we hear from the lips of our Savior the great call of faith. The light that breaks into that darkness comes in the gift of His Word as he now declares, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Immediately, we find that our Lord’s movements are not sporadic and hectic, but intentional and deliberate. For as the light shining in the darkness He begins to gather disciples to himself. There on the sea of Galilee He finds Simon, who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew. He doesn’t find them quietly waiting for His call, but diligently at work in their given vocation. These were fishermen, hard working men who lived by the sweat of their brow. Jesus finds them engaged in such work when He says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” To fish for fish would be a risky enough venture, but to fish for men would be a radical, new and bold calling. We are told that they immediately follow our Lord, apparently eager to begin this new type of fishing. Our Lord doesn’t get much further down the road when He calls another pair of brothers into His discipleship. James and John, the sons of Zebedee who were also fishermen, are called to this new work; they, too, immediately follow Him.
What happens next? Well, we are told that Jesus and His new group of disciples head on throughout that region as our Lord does the work of shining light in the darkness. As the text says, Jesus “was teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.” We might well assume that this work was a primer for the disciples on what it meant to be a fisher of men. For, whatever fishing might look like, it would be the means by which men would be pulled from the depths of the darkness or disease and ignorance and sin, and brought into the light of the Gospel.
That image of fishing is a good metaphor for understanding the work of the disciples, not only in the day of our Lord but throughout all history: in fact, right down to today. The work of the church, the work of the disciples, is to fish; but not all fishing is the same. There is the sport of fishing or recreational fishing where we might see one or two people in a boat on a lake early in the morning. The water is relatively calm, there is very little danger to the fishermen themselves, but there is a puzzle about the best place and the right bait to use in catching the fish. It is a targeted and intentional fishing, where the most common questions heard across the stillness of the lake are, “Are you catching anything?” If the answer is yes, then the follow-up question is, “What are you using?”
This sort of fishing might well be related to the work of an established congregation. Decisions about church governance, architecture, worship style, children’s programs, finances and community involvement are crucial and deliberate and intentional to aid in the successful catching of fish. Congregations often will look over at the other boats that seem to be having more success and adapt their strategies to line up with those that prove to be more successful. This is the mainstay of our fishing these days, and though it may often seem boring and uneventful it is a good and beautiful application of what it means to be a fisher of men.
When I was on my vicarage in Bremerton, Washington I was fortunate to get some basic training and guidance in the art of fly-fishing. It was amazing how quickly I came to love that type of fishing. The fly-fishing that we did was in rivers. I remember standing waist deep in the moving water, finding the rhythm of the cast to try and lay that carefully selected fly at the right spot at the right moment. Those who were experts at this sort of fishing filled me with awe at their ability to work the constantly changing movement of the water and the hatching bugs that the fish were feeding on. It was a thing to behold.
Perhaps, in the church we might see this sort of fishing as the proper application of God’s law and His Gospel into the lives of those around us. It is about timing and precision, and certainly something we get better at over time. It is the ability to first say no. To say no to the blatant sinfulness and arrogant pride of our friends and family members who live their lives as if they mattered most. Those who stir up gossip and division and hurt the reputation of their neighbor. It is to speak of sin as sin. But it is far more than that. To be fishers of men is to be proclaimers of the Gospel as well. You are to be able to see when the law has sunk deep, when grief and lament has set in. And then, the voice of the law must be silenced by the Word of the Gospel. You must be those who are willing and even eager to forgive. You must be those to declare the love of Christ that surpasses all understanding and so set the troubled conscience free.
Or, a better way to think about this metaphor is to think of the church as those who fish in the open water. Those more like Peter, Andrew, James and John who would face the open water for their whole lives depended upon a successful catch. We might think of the fearless fishermen we watch on reality shows braving the freezing water and rough storms to bring in a full net. Maybe this is the type of fishing you do when you face those who are consumed by doubt and evil. It is not easy or clean, but often chaotic and fueled by passion. These are the desperate pleas you make at night for the salvation of one you love who seems to be doing everything in their power to flee from the light and hide away in the darkness. This is the fishing we do with those who have been hurt by the church in the past, those who have been betrayed and wounded. Because of their wounds, they have become dangerous.
You see, as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ you are fishers of men. In some way, shape or form, you are called to fish. You may be safe in the boat planning the strategy. You may be out in the waters seeking the right moment. You may be braving the storm itself. And you will move through these as well in a given day, week or year. But the greatest temptation you will face is the temptation to believe that you are the key to the success or failure of the fishing. You will have struggles and not see the fruit of the work you put in at the church, and you will begin to believe that the failure to have a successful catch is because of your shortcomings. How proud you are when you think that your nervousness or your confusion or your hesitation derailed the great working of God. Then again, you may implement a new program that bears much fruit and you begin to think that you are the cause of the great catch of fish. On one hand, you may think that your contribution to the fishing work of the church is so small it is of little use, and on the other you can think that you are indispensable to God’s ongoing work in our midst. On both sides, you are wrong.
All the fishing work and any success that it produces is the work of the One who calls the fishermen to begin with. As a follower of Christ, as my brothers and sisters, you are simply called to continue to fish. You are those who hand over the gifts of Christ, those who continue to bear the light in a land of darkness. Our Lord Jesus Christ will send His Spirit to work when and where he sees fit, in His time and through His ways. It might be the calm lake or the fast-moving water or the raging storm, but He is continually at work through each and every one of you.
In Christ, you have each been caught yourselves. Dragged kicking and screaming from the depths of your darkness, you died in the embrace of the Gospel. He declares to you, I forgive you all of your sins. That work of forgiveness is now your light. A light that you now use to boldly go out fishing again and again. And that fishing may be easy, it may be hard, it may seem glorious or it may seem small and insignificant, but none of it comes outside of Christ. So, raise your heads, embolden your hearts in the love of Christ, and get back to the waters. Get back to fishing.