Matthew 4: 13 – 23_Fishing for People_January 29, 2020

Fishing for People

Matthew 4: 13 – 23


(preached on January 29, 2020)


“Immediately, they left their nets and followed him.  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”  In our gospel passage for today, from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus comes to Peter and Andrew, to James and John, in the middle of their workday.  There are fish to be caught.  There are nets to be mended, but Jesus disrupts all that work.  “Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people… Immediately, they left their nets and followed him. “


In these simple words from Jesus to some hardworking fishermen, we hear something very important about Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus’ ministry is first and foremost about relationship: relationships with others, and relationship with God.  Jesus’ relationship with God was of course at the heart of his ministry, but he carried out his ministry through his relationships with ordinary people, people like you and me.


Take a closer look at the way he approaches Peter and Andrew.  He’s walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  He finds them at work: the same work they had been doing yesterday and had every reason to expect they would be doing tomorrow, and the day after that.  You know, we preachers don’t often characterize Jesus as someone with a sense of humor.  When we quote him, we tend to use a somber and serious tone.  That’s understandable.  Jesus is our Lord and Savior.  We want to be reverent when we use his words.  But on this day by the Sea of Galilee, as he comes up to Peter, I can imagine a twinkle in his eye.   I can imagine a playful tone in his voice as he says, “Hey, why don’t you leave those fish and come with me–I’ll show you how to fish for people!”


What do you suppose it was about these fishermen that got Jesus’ attention?  Was it the determined way they cast their nets, over and over again?  Was it the skill he could see in the way they handled the nets and hauled in the fish?  As he watched James and John help their father Zebedee mend the nets, was Jesus struck by their patience?  Was he impressed by their attention to detail?


And what was it about Jesus that made these men so quick to follow him?  They might have heard of Jesus; in Galilee, the news would have traveled fast: exciting news about a traveling preacher with a word from the Lord.  They might even have heard him preach.  Or they might have been standing at the edge of the crowd the day he helped a crippled man stand up and walk again.  Maybe they were quick to follow because of the playful, but direct, way Jesus invited them.  It might have been the way he came to them as they worked, called out to them, and invited them to a new relationship.


Jesus didn’t seem to mind that their hands were rough and calloused from handling the nets.  He didn’t seem to mind that they smelled like fish.  He didn’t seem to mind their Galilean accents, the fact that they talked like country bumpkins, compared with people in Jerusalem.  These men weren’t well educated or eloquent with their words.  They were ordinary people, far from perfect, and he wanted a relationship with them.  He wanted them to fish for people: to catch others in the net of God’s grace.


Jesus carried out his ministry through relationships: with Peter, Andrew, and the other disciples; with the people who came to him for healing, and the people who came to hear him preach.  Ordinary people, not especially well heeled or smart or sophisticated.  He wanted relationships with people like you and me.  It was through relationships that he wanted us to know the grace of God, and share that grace with others.


A lot of what we learn, we learn through relationships. For example, take the relationship between a student and a teacher.  Of course a good teacher teaches subjects, like English and math and biology.  But a good teacher also inspires in her students the confidence they need to succeed in life.  One high school teacher, after years of teaching, decided to re-connect with his students to see if he had had any lasting impact on them.  The decision began with some very bad news about his health.  In 2006 David Menache was diagnosed with brain cancer.  He was just 34 years old.  He began a long course of treatment, but he suffered a huge setback when a stroke left him paralyzed on his left side, with limited vision.  At that point he had to give up teaching.


Now David had nothing to fill his time but cancer treatments.  He was restless and bored.  He began to wonder what was the purpose of his life.  He decided to go on the road, to look up his old students, and see if his teaching had made a difference in their lives.  He told the story of that road trip in a book entitled The Priority List:  a Teacher’s Final Quest to Discover Life’s Greatest Lesson.   On his trip, David spent one hundred and one days on the road, traveling from Florida to California, visiting 76 of his former students in 12 different states.  David had no idea what kind of reception he would get.  He was overwhelmed by the appreciation and love he received from his former students.


One woman in particular, named Mona, had been a student in his first year of teaching.  She was an immigrant from Iran.  She spoke very little English.  But when he visited her on his trip, Mona told him that his class had been a powerful influence on her: bringing her out of her shell, getting her in touch with what she wanted out of life, and helping her achieve it.  After high school Mona went on to college, and now has a PhD.


A lot of what we learn, whether it’s chemistry or confidence, we learn through relationships.  David Menache was deeply touched by what his former students remembered.  His relationship with them gave him a sense of purpose, through the difficult days of cancer treatments.  He says, “I can’t tell you how many times I was sitting in the chemo suite, hooked up to an IV, wondering, ‘Why am I going through this?’  And every time I asked myself that question, a face of one of my students would appear in front of me.”


A lot of what we learn, we learn through our relationships with other people:  ordinary, human people.  Jesus called ordinary, human people to share the love of God.  Jesus could have chosen to avoid our human weaknesses.  Just before our gospel passage for today, Jesus has been through an ordeal in the wilderness.  Matthew tells us that, for forty days, Jesus was hungry and thirsty and tempted by evil.  At the end of his ordeal, angels came and ministered to him.  Angels were always watching over him.  As Jesus recovered his strength, he could have enlisted some of those angels to help.  Angels would have made a big impression, like they did that night in Bethlehem, when they appeared to the shepherds with brilliant lights and beautiful music.


But as he gets his ministry up and running, Jesus doesn’t appeal to angels.  He calls ordinary, human men. These men were far from perfect.  They would make mistakes.  They would get irritable and tired.  They would bicker with one another.  But Jesus reaches out to them: ordinary men: men who would try his patience at times.  To help people experience the grace of God, he enlists ordinary human beings like us.  It’s through those human relationships that he wants us, like those fishermen, to fish for people: to catch others in the net of God’s grace.


Many years after Jesus called Peter and Andrew, another man heard Jesus’ call to follow.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was just sixteen years old when he heard God’s call to lead his people to freedom.  King was a powerful leader who practiced and preached nonviolence.  With countless speeches and marches and sit-ins, he led the social revolution known as the civil rights movement. As his followers were beaten and thrown in jail, King said, “We will counter your force with soul force, we will match your ability to hate with our ability to love.”


We still have a long way to go before King’s vision becomes reality.  King’s dream of people of all races, working and playing and living as equals, is still not fulfilled.  But King’s vision of soul force continues to inspire us.


Did those first disciples: Peter and Andrew, have any idea where their lives would go as they dropped their nets and followed Jesus?  Did they have any inkling that both of them would end up being crucified, as their Master would be?  Did James, the brother of John, have any idea that within a few years, he would be dead, killed on the orders of Herod?


No, none of them knew what was in store.  Just as Peter had no way of knowing that one day a huge church in Rome would be dedicated to his memory: a church that millions of pilgrims visit every year to proclaim their faith in Jesus.  Andrew couldn’t possibly have known that whole countries, like Scotland and Greece, would regard him as their patron saint.  Those men saw neither the pain nor the glory, that day when a young man walked along the sea in their town and invited them to a new relationship.


There’s a legend that tells of the return of Jesus to glory right after his time on earth.  His earthly ministry was finished, but not forgotten.  Even in heaven, he bore the marks of his time on earth.  His hands and feet and side bore the wounds of painful crucifixion. One of the angels approached him and said, “Master, you must have suffered terribly down there, for the sake of humankind.”


Jesus said yes, that he did.  The angel continued, “And do the people know and appreciate how much you loved them and what you did for them?”  Jesus replied, “Oh no!  Not yet.  Right now only a handful of people in Palestine know.”  The angel was perplexed.  He asked, “Then what have you done, to let everyone know about your love for them?”


Jesus said, “I’ve asked Peter, James, John, and a few friends to tell others about me.  Those who are told will tell others, in turn, about me.  And my story will be spread to the farthest reaches of the globe.  Ultimately, all humankind will have heard about my life and what I have done.”


The angel frowned and looked rather skeptical.  He knew very well what poor stuff we humans are made of.  He said, “Yes, but what if Peter and James and John grow weary?  What if the people who come after them forget?  What if way down in the twenty-first century people just don’t tell others about you?  Haven’t you made any other plans?”


Jesus replied, “I haven’t made any other plans.  I’m counting on them.”


From the earliest days of his ministry, Jesus shows that it’s us –ordinary people like us – he wants.  It’s us he can use, because his ministry is first and foremost about relationship.  We don’t have to be experts; we don’t have to have all the answers.  He will meet us where we are.  He will give us what we need.   Because it’s through relationships with ordinary people, people like those fishermen, that he wants us to catch others in the net of God’s grace.




Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Epiphany 3