And Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
I don’t fish, although I suspect that’s true for many people who grew up on the Prairies. But I do know that successful fishing requires the right kind of bait, and that different fish are attracted to different bait. Trout, apparently, are attracted to cheese. But salmon are really attracted to live bait, like shrimp. If you use the wrong bait, you are unlikely to catch any fish at all. So, when it comes to Jesus and Peter and Andrew, I wonder, what kind of bait did Jesus use? How did Jesus attract his “fish,” so to speak? How did he get people to follow him? More to the point, what are we supposed to use when we fish for people, as Jesus calls us to do?
Well, to start with, the bait has to be something that people want. Something that will draw them out. And I know that sounds obvious, but for too long, the Christian church has tried to fish for people and make disciples through threats and forced conversions. The centuries at the beginning of the Middle Ages were times when Christian armies would advance into foreign countries, and threaten the people with death if they didn’t convert to Christianity. And not so much later, even Lutherans would threaten other Christians with death if they didn’t convert to our way of following Christ. We tortured and killed the followers of Menno Simons, whom we know today as Mennonites, when they wouldn’t convert to Lutheranism. But, as any fisherman will tell you, threats and torture do not attract fish. You can’t yell into the water, “Hey, fish, get onto my hook or I’ll come down there and kill you!” And so we, likewise, can’t threaten people, no matter how gently, with threats of hell in order to get them to follow Jesus. That bait doesn’t work. The fish just swim away and the nets are empty.
So we have to look to see what Jesus did, which our Gospel reading from this morning tells us was to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and cure every disease and sickness among the people. And the good news that Jesus proclaimed? Ah... the good news is found in what we call the Beatitudes, which is the first thing that Jesus taught his followers after he told them to fish for people. The good news is that the poor in spirit have the kingdom of heaven, that those who mourn will be comforted, that the meek and humble will inherit the entire world. The good news is that those who yearn for righteousness will receive it; that those who are merciful will receive mercy. The good news is that those who are pure in heart will see God, and that the peacemakers will be called children of God. This is how Jesus lured people to himself, this is the bait we are to use to fish for people, the good news: that the humble and mistreated and oppressed of the world are the most valued by God, that the principles to be cherished and sought after are those that lift up those who are the most unfortunate, that those without love are the ones God loves the most.
This is the good news and the healing that Christ sends the disciples out to proclaim. Later on in the gospel of Matthew, you may remember that Jesus summoned his twelve disciples, and sent them out to heal and proclaim the good news, and tell the people that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Now the Gospel of Matthew is meant to be understood as an instruction manual for Christians, rather than a historical biography of Jesus’ life, and so when it says that he sent the disciples out, it means that Jesus sends any who follow Christ out to do the same thing that the disciples did. And so the good news that Jesus sent the disciples out to proclaim, he also sends us out to proclaim. We are sent out to share the good news, that God’s love does not exclude the poor, the lonely, the suffering, the marginalized, but rather that God’s love is specifically for those who are oppressed, who are unsuccessful by this world’s standards, who are victims of injustice and prejudice and hatred. This is the irresistible bait that attracts people to Christ, that all Christ’s followers are called to proclaim.
But the proclamation of God’s love for the world requires the disciples, which means us, to go out. Jesus’ instructions to the twelve, and his final words to the disciples after his resurrection, begin with the word, “go.” To tell people about the grace and mercy of God, to heal them as the disciples did, to see the kingdom of heaven come near, we have to go. Just like Simon Peter and Andrew from our Gospel reading, and James and John, we have to leave our own nets and our own boats and our own “fathers,” so to speak, and go. We have to go “out there.” Because there are people out there who are dying to hear that they are loved by the one who made them. There are people out there who desperately need to hear that someone cares about their will-being, that someone greater than them is looking out for them. There are people out there whose lives would be completely turned around if they knew that they were not worthless, but the very children of God, that their pain will not last forever, that their cry for justice will be answered. But they won’t hear it if we, who have experienced and know all of this to be true, stay here and don’t go out.
Yesterday five million people participated in the Women’s Marches happening around the world. (And believe me, I double-checked those numbers because that number is just unbelievable.) And listening to the speeches on TV from the march in Washington, I heard the good news being proclaim. I heard them say, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” I heard them talk about lifting up the lowly. I heard declarations that the bodies of women and illegal immigrants and Muslims and those who have disabilities are worthy of respect and love. I heard them using the words that Jesus used, words of love and mercy and peace. I heard a Catholic nun tell the people gathered that the oppressed were children of God, and that there, where 500,000 were gathered in this fight to raise up one another and all those who were being pushed down, she saw the Holy Spirit moving and blowing like it did at Pentecost. And here in Calgary, where four thousand women and men, and children and grandparents, gathered, I saw the same thing. With all those people in front of the Municipal building, I heard the Good News that brings comfort: that love is the path we choose and the path we are called to walk, that when our neighbour is hurting we reach out to comfort, that all are equal and all are welcome. This was the Good News that was proclaimed at every march around the world yesterday.
But here’s the thing: these things weren’t spoken in a church. They were spoken by people who had gone out. Christians who followed Christ’s instructions to “go,” to share the Good News, that healing and love and mercy and worthiness are, by the grace of God, here for those who need it. And yes, there were Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and humanists and atheists proclaiming love and peace as well, but the Christians that I know who marched in Washington, and New York, and Los Angeles, and St. Paul, Minnesota, and Indiana, and even Austin, Texas, were there because they are Christians who are following Christ, going out, preaching the Good News, and acting for healing.
I spent some time in rural South Carolina once, and one day for lunch, the people I was staying with served shrimp that they had fished right off the dock at the back of the property. It was the best shrimp I ever had, and they didn’t have to go anywhere to get it. Just walked a few steps from the kitchen and voilà, shrimp. We can’t do that in Calgary. We can’t just walk out of our kitchen and start fishing. We have to go out of our house, and probably out of our neighbourhood, and sometimes even out of the city, in order to fish.
Jesus calls us to leave where we are, and to go out and fish for people, not with threats, but luring them to God by proclaiming Good News and healing their hurts. We have to go out, and leave behind the things that bring us comfort, but when we do, we are really only following Christ and the millions who have gone before us, sharing the good news that we ourselves have received, and seeing the kingdom of heaven come near. Thanks be to God. Amen.