January 22, 2018 / 10 am
All Saints' Church
Year B 3rd Sunday after Epiphany
I have a pretty clear memory of hearing a sermon about this story when I was a kid. I think I was around 10, because it was during a precocious phase where I asked my parents to let me stay in grown-up church so I could listen to the grown-up sermon, instead of running off to Sunday School with my brothers. Each week, I would try to listen really hard to what the priest was saying, and each week, a couple minutes into it, my mind would wander and many minutes later, I would realize I hadn’t been paying attention at all. So I’d try to jump back in and listen at least to the end of the sermon, and then each week, over brunch with my family, I would try to keep up with my parents as they discussed the sermon, but I would soon realize I had missed some key element.
I remember this one particularly because of a certain language confusion. During the sermon, the priest repeated this line again and again: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Fish for people! He said: “It doesn’t mean what you think it means,” That intrigued me enough to keep listening. “Jesus is not talking literally, but Jesus is talking about making YOU fish for people.” “Don’t get caught up thinking about having to go out with a fishing net, that’s not what Jesus is saying!” “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
So in my head, hearing this take on the passage, and missing a lot of the middle of the sermon, of course: if Jesus was not talking about going out with a fishing net, and I kept hearing over and over again, “I will make you fish for people,” what I was picturing was giant, human-size fish. Like, Jesus is going to turn us all into fish.
So I started the conversation over lunch with my parents that week, I think. "Why does Jesus want to turn us into fish?" And of course they laughed and laughed. "That’s not it!" my parents said. Jesus doesn’t want to make us fish, but fishers. My mother told me the translation used to be “I will make you fishers of men” but the new translation changed it to be more inclusive. (My question: more inclusive of women or of fish?”)
But in thinking about the story this week, I just couldn’t shake my initial interpretation, that Jesus will turn us into fish for people. Actually, I read the line to my wife Caitlin this week, who was not raised going to church, and therefore serves as a really good sounding board for scripture, because she has no preconceived notions from misheard sermons during childhood. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” I said. She was immediately puzzled. What are “fish for people?” she asked? Big fish? Now, Caitlin is very smart! So I don’t think I was so crazy when I was 10 for thinking this might be what the priest was talking about.
What could it mean to be a fish for Jesus? Instead of someone going out and catching fish in a net, what would it mean to be the fish, the one that is caught, and cradled in Jesus’ net? After all, in the story, Simon and Andrew DROP their nets to go follow Jesus. You would think, if Jesus is making them fishers, they would still need the nets.
And where else do fish show up in the Gospel of Mark? This story is from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the calling of the first disciples, but in the middle of Mark, there is the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, where Jesus feeds 5000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. To be a fish, then, is to be food, to be sustenance, in fact, miraculous sustenance, for a community of people who are hungry, who are ready to go and change the world, and who need to be fed.
I like that idea more than the idea of entrapping people into following Jesus; as Christians, Jesus is not calling us to throw a net over unassuming people in the dark of night. That’s not the fishing he is talking about. (And, incidentally, I think that’s what my priest was getting at in that sermon when I was ten.) So as I was thinking about this story, I was liking this interpretation so much, that Jesus wants us to be literal fish, that I turned to the Greek to see if maybe my mis-interpretation as a child might actually have some textual basis.
The Greek word for fisher here is alieis -- which was definitely the Greek word for fisherman, but which literally means “man of the water.” So even though Jesus is not using the word for fish, the meaning is very different than the command to go “fish” for people. Jesus is not actually giving us an imperative, or a to-do list, one more thing to get done to be his follower. The priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this story and imagines people hearing Jesus command to go fishing for people and responding, “okay, Saturday mornings once a month?” And adding the fishing to their long list of family activities, just another thing to DO.
But that’s not what Jesus is saying here, it’s not a verb, it’s not an imperative or a command. Jesus is asking us to be a people of the water. Not literally to turn into fish, but to recall fish in our life in and among the water. It recalls the waters of baptism we all pass through in our journey as Christians, the entry into this path of following Jesus that we all take, and which the disciples first took here, as they dropped their net and followed Jesus to the water.
The message that Jesus has been preaching that convinces the disciples to follow him, to be people of water and sustainers of community, is right at the beginning of this story: “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Since we’re playing with words today, and rethinking our first thought, let’s look at this word “repent.” For me, this word has an ethical weight to it, it sounds really theological and kind of heavy. You can imagine a preacher pounding the pulpit and demanding an imperative-- REPENT! But the Greek word, metanoia, is gentler and more hopeful. It means to be changed after being with, or to think differently after.
To borrow from the word itself, this definition is pretty meta isn’t it? To be a disciple of Jesus, to be a people of the water, to be a fish for Jesus, is to be changed by the people we are with. To think differently after being with them.
So if you’ve been zoning out for this whole sermon, whether you’re ten years old or 95 years old, I hope you will at least hear me as I finish it: Yes, Jesus is calling you to be a fish. And if you want to know more about what that means, ask the people around you. Because the people around you are your teachers, they will feed you and sustain you and change the way you think. The way of Jesus is not a to-do list, but a change within us that makes us think differently and act differently. Go out into the world, follow Jesus and he will make you a fish for people.