From the Gospel this morning:
Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.
You didn’t have to have a sophisticated education to be a fisherman in ancient Judea. You probably learned the trade – sailing the boat, catching the fish, mending the nets – from your father, who learned it from his father, and so on. It was a trade, and though it may not have made you an aristocrat, it didn’t mean that you were poor. Fish were plentiful in the Sea of Galilee, and there was always a market. It was hard work – yes – and it was dangerous. (Fishing is always dangerous. Doubly so on a very tricky body of water like the Sea of Galilee.) Even so, fishermen did well. They might not have become rich, but neither were they poor.
There is a house in the excavation of the city of Capernaum which, since very early times – the middle of the first century – has been reputed to have been St Peter’s house, in that town where he and other disciples lived and where Jesus spent a great deal of time. This may well be true, for it was quite early on turned into one of those house-churches in which Christians worshipped in the beginning. It is not – to be sure – the house of a rich man, but neither is it a shack or a hovel. Rather, it is a house as substantial as any other house of a small businessman in the city of Capernaum.
And so, the story in this morning’s Gospel is all the more astonishing. They dropped everything – a good life, an established position in the town, family, friends – they dropped everything and they followed him. We call the story the account of Jesus’ calling of Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John. The incident takes place at the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel – which we just heard – as it does very early on in the Gospel of Matthew and somewhat later on and in a different form in the Gospel of Luke.
In Matthew and Mark it is both a beginning and an introduction, setting forth, as it does, the meaning of what is yet to be recorded. Jesus, passing by Simon Peter and Andrew, summons them and makes a promise, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And that same promise, we may well assume, was extended to James and John, and later to eight others: Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, another James, Thaddeus, another Simon, and even to Judas, who betrayed him. There were twelve in all – and to each of them the same promise or something like it, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
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Jesus, as Christianity has it, is the revelation of God. In his deeds and in his words and in his life, he shows us who God is and how God is and what God is doing. He is called Rabbi and he teaches, for God is the source of all wisdom and in his teaching Jesus makes known that wisdom and proclaims the coming of God’s kingdom. He is a healer of the sick, and by that action shows God to be the source of all health and wholeness and life. He calls on men and women to repent and has the audacity to forgive sins, and thereby makes real and active God’s mercy and his yearning for reconciliation and righteousness. Jesus is called by some the Messiah, for he is the focus of God’s action in the dawning of God’s Kingdom.
And also, as we heard in the Gospel, Jesus calls people and gathers them together and sends them out to call others and to gather those others together as well. This action of calling and gathering together is no less an action and revelation of God than his teaching, healing, and forgiving. For God yearns for his people and he calls them back to himself. God created all people out of love and for love – his love for them, their love for him and for one another. God’s will from the beginning was to overcome separation and enmity. And in Jesus he acts supremely to do just that: to bring humanity back to himself and to gather men and women together, one to another, in one body. And it is a miracle – isn’t it? To bring together people who are different and divided is as great a miracle as restoring sight to the blind. To dispel enmity and gather people into one body is as great a miracle as raising the dead. Perhaps in fact, it is a raising of the dead. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
There are some scholars today who, for whatever reason, maintain that Jesus never intended to found a church. Perhaps they do this to shock and call attention to themselves. Perhaps, cynically, they do this just to sell a new book. The Church, they say, was a kind of mistake or accident or misinterpretation of what Jesus was all about. That opinion is both rubbish and impossible. Impossible, because the kind of individualistic religion proposed as Jesus’ intention by such scholars would have been incomprehensible in the ancient world. And rubbish, because such an interpretation flies in the face of everything Jesus said and everything he did. For example, consider the following:
As we heard today, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
“For wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt. 18:20)
He established a meal in his memory and for his re-presenting. And what is a meal but something that brings people together.
“And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” ( John 12:32 )
“I pray, Father, that they may be one even as we are one; I in them and they in me, that they may be perfectly one.” ( John 17:23 )
Union, communion, fellowship. A household, a family, a church, called and gathered together by God in Christ. Bound together one to another in Christ’s Body. Bound together by the power of the Holy Spirit. This, no less than teaching, healing, forgiving, this, a church, is part of the meaning of Jesus and his mission. And in it we may find a foretaste of salvation and God’s coming kingdom.
“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”