There’s an old Peanuts comic strip that eventually got made into a poster. In the strip Linus is being berated by his sister Lucy about why she thinks he could never be a doctor – because he doesn’t love mankind. As Lucy skips rope out of the frame, Linus shouts after her: “I love mankind…it’s people I can’t stand!”; and in the poster version of this, Linus is sitting, sucking his thumb, and holding tightly to his blanket and the words appear above his head.
I have the sneaking suspicion that we all feel this way once in a while…maybe frequently… maybe a lot! It’s always easier to love, appreciate, have warm feelings toward a distant, anonymous, idealized group than it is to love a specific, flesh and blood person who crowds into your life with likes and dislikes, has habits and opinions that drive you up the wall, and makes demands on you that you really might not want to have to deal with. And if there is more than one real life person in your sphere of existence, that just makes it all the harder. The truth is…it’s often easier to withdraw into yourself, or at least your immediate circle, where you don’t have to bump up against all the demanding particularities of other people. Of course there are times when we need to put a buffer between ourselves and others – rest, down time, Sabbath, retreat are all necessary, but isolating ourselves from other people should not be the consistent pattern of a Christian’s life.
In Matthew’s Gospel this morning we hear Jesus calling the first four disciples: Peter and Andrew, James and John.
Now for those of you who were here last week when John’s Gospel told us about Andrew responding to John the Baptist’s proclamation of Jesus as the Lamb of God – that is, Andrew following Jesus, and then going off to get his brother Peter, it is helpful to remember that John the Evangelist, the Gospel writer, tells Jesus’ story very differently than do Matthew, Mark and Luke; so don’t try to mesh last week’s story and this week’s – that won’t work.
Back to the beach at the lakeside, the Sea of Galilee…
Jesus is walking on the shore and sees two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew, James and John . They are all part of the commercial fishing industry in Capernaum, but – not unlike today – each family had their own boat or boats, maintained their own nets and equipment, supplied fish to the fish mongers in the market place. The family business would have depended on “all hands on deck” – literally; everyone in the family was needed to work to provide a living for a multi-generational enterprise.
So when Jesus calls these two pairs of brothers, saying “Follow me,” and they respond to him by leaving their nets and following him to become (as Jesus said) “fishers of people,” it’s a very big deal.
They didn’t just change their minds or even their religious beliefs, they changed their behavior – and even more than that – they changed their relationships and their priorities. Jesus called them to follow, to learn, to accompany him, to move beyond the circle of their families. Jesus redefined their work and their purpose in life – to be fishers of people; and just in case Peter or Andrew thought this was going to mean being some sort of talent scout for this new, charismatic rabbi, or an HR department for the Kingdom of God, Matthew makes it very clear in the next passage what it means to be a fisher of people:
“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”
Woah! That would be enough needy, demanding, particular people to make anyone run and sit in the corner with their blanket.
Jesus made it very clear, very quickly that casting a net into the sea of humanity to bring them into the Kingdom of God would be challenging, even overwhelming. There is no magic wand, no instantaneous conversion of all these people, but a wading into the crowd, a willingness to engage with each person in their specific need and hurt, a readiness to open a relationship with many, many people knowing that they probably will not leave you alone, but will keep following you because they have found God’s life, and healing, and light in your relationship with them.
This is what Jesus called Andrew and Peter, James and John into, along with the rest of the Twelve and the others disciples who came along later. This is what Jesus calls us into as well – to be fishers of people. When we follow Jesus, when we walk through that door or over that threshold that marks our entry into faith and discipleship, we are called into a whole new set of relationships:
· first with God – OK, we probably have a handle on that one;
· then with the Church – in today’s second reading Paul calls the Christians in Corinth “brothers and sisters”; by our baptism we have been adopted into a new, large family that stretches across the globe, and throughout history, but for most of us our local parish is family enough to learn to live with;
· and then we are called into a new and different relationship with our neighbor – that is, anyone outside of our biological family or our siblings in the Body of Christ.
You see, our faith – our spirituality – shapes and prods and energizes our behavior; what we do should be consistent with what we say we believe (as much as we are able to do that), and even more importantly, what we do should be consistent with the values and expectations that God has laid before us.
So what does that actually mean? Sometimes God really does ask us to do things that seem dramatic, maybe a little scary, and different from what we are doing now; maybe God calls us to work for Doctors Without Borders or Bread for the World; maybe God asks us to consider the ordained ministry or a monastic community; maybe God asks us to start a house church in an inner city neighborhood. God can, and has done, and will continue to call his followers to do all of those things…and many more, besides. But much more often, God call us to do the hard work of living faithful lives right where we are, in the families and neighborhoods we have, in the jobs we are already doing.
Faithful living, then, becomes not an add-on to the relationships we already have –as if we were spreading an extra layer of icing on the top of the cake – but faithful living and following Jesus calls us to re-examine our behavior with those we live with, work with, worship with, and those who come across our path.
Do we see them as God sees them? Do we take the time to hear and learn their concerns, worries, hurts, interests, and delights? Are we willing to be vulnerable enough to receive their friendship, wisdom, insight, rightful anger, love, talents, spiritual gifts – whatever they have to offer?
Are we willing to let God’s vision of those around us shape our behavior toward them – people made in God’s image, loved by God, and for whom Christ died? How does that change the way we act?
Think, for a moment, of someone with whom you are in relationship; that person might bring you great joy or sorrow or frustration or hope – a significant relationship. Keeping that person in mind, pray for them – see them surrounded by the light of Christ, believe that God is using you to minister to him or her, to make a difference in that person’s life….see how you have been making a difference in that person’s life all along.1 That’s what it means to be fishers of people – along with your brothers Peter and Andrew, James and John, and all of your other sisters and brothers in Christ.
The people God is calling you to serve are all around you, with you, among you – nearby; thank you for being God’s workers, pray-ers, God’s fishers for people.
Let us pray.
They cast their nets in Galilee
just off the hills of brown;
such happy, simple fisherfolk,
before the Lord came down.
Contented, peaceful fishermen,
before they ever knew
the peace of God that filled their hearts
brimful, and broke them too.
Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
homeless in Patmos died,
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
head-down was crucified.
The peace of God, it is no peace,
but strife closed in the sod,
Yet let us pray for but one thing --
the marvelous peace of God. Amen. ~ William Alexander Percy, Hymn 661
1 Idea suggested by David Lose, www.workingpreacher.org
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 26, 2014