I was the granddaughter of a terrific hobbyist fisherman. My grandfather, Graham, (although we called him “Pa” Little House on the Prairie-style) loved to fish. He was an engineer and machinist and if he wasn’t working, it was a safe bet he was fishing. He was so active, taking his boat out as often as he could. Holidays weren’t just a break from work, they were an opportunity to get out on the water! Pa held some local records, but at least in my memory, he just loved fishing. And maybe because of my grandpa, my dad did (and does) love fishing too. I think back to the times my dad tried to take my sisters and me fishing, and whew! That poor man. I can’t remember my grandpa ever really taking us as little girls and my guess is that it was just because he was smarter than that. We were not cut out for fishing. You have to be quiet. And still. And patient. You must hang on to the fishing pole even if you get bored. And you can’t let go of it while you cast your line. The ground may well be muddy where you’re standing, and you may- as I once did as a 4-year-old- spot a dead fish and then proceed to slip and fall on that fish. So, you may end up muddy and crying before anything even happens. I can still smell cheese bait if I think about it, and it still makes me want to gag.
My grandpa got sick with lung cancer at 57 and battled it and emphysema until he died 16 years later. He was no saint- living with chronic illness, treatments, and pain is not easy. After a while, he became homebound except for doctor’s appointments and his days were mostly sitting in the recliner watching soap operas and game shows or listening to the Gaithers’ gospel music. But my Pa loved Jesus. And he never stopped wanting to share the goodness he experienced in God with others. I don’t remember ever hearing him complain, but I know he saw his sickness as an opportunity to continue to be faithful to God. It makes me wonder what lessons he learned out there on the lake or in the ocean- the water lapping at the sides of his boat. I wonder if fishing taught him the lessons he would need for living with cancer. Did fishing teach him to be quiet, still, patient, faithful, persistent?
All of that is to say that I can’t hear a text like ours today without thinking of my grandpa and fishing. This passage begins with Jesus leaving Nazareth to go to Capernaum in Galilee. He goes because John the Baptist has been arrested and there seems to be some element of danger for Jesus. The words indicate urgency; in fact, it’s the same Greek word that describes the Wise Men leaving to avoid Herod and Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus leaving Bethlehem for their safety. So, it’s a little more like Jesus fled from Nazareth and went to the areas that had been traditionally associated with the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, and in so doing, Jesus fulfills a prophecy from Isaiah 9. When he gets to Galilee, Jesus begins to preach. His ministry begins in earnest, and he is calling for his audience to “Rethink your role in the world, change your mind about how you’re living, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
There’s a bit of a scene change, and Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee. Imagine walking along a busy coastline full of boats and fishermen. These laborers very likely have struck a deal with leaders in the Roman empire. They are expected to produce a certain amount and quality of fish and in return, they get to fish here. This contract or lease is what allows them to have a job. And suddenly, Jesus calls out to Peter and Andrew, brothers who are casting out their nets, doing their job. “Follow me,” Jesus says, “and I will make you fish for people.”
Now an astute Jew of that time may well have connected Jesus’ invitation to become “fishers of men” to God’s words in Jeremiah 16:16, “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them…” In that Old Testament passage, God is saying that these fishers will bring back the idolatrous hearts of Israel. Similarly, the prophets Amos (4:2) and Ezekiel (29:4) use images of hooking fish as way of describing judgement against the rich, the powerful, and the unjust. You see, being “fishers of men” is not simply a call to share one’s faith- it’s Old Testament roots tell us that it is a call to change the world, to right-side all that is upside down, to purify that which has been destroyed by idolatry, to do all that Jesus was born to do.
And then two more brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee are in the boat with their father mending nets. Jesus calls them and they leave the boat, leave their father, and follow Jesus.
The scene pans out again- Jesus is travelling throughout Galilee, teaching in synagogues and proclaiming the good news- the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!- curing disease and healing sickness. The Kingdom of Heaven, indeed.
This text begins Jesus’ public ministry in the Gospel of Matthew. And as I read it through the lens of calling- this same calling we find in Jesus’ birth stories, from the magi, from the voice of Isaiah, I see those same themes running through this story. Even though John the Baptizer is in jail at this point, we know he is there because he has been faithful to God’s call on his life for speaking the truth. Herod had John arrested because he condemned Herod’s sinful ways. Jesus is called into a new geographic place. He is called to fulfill scripture, to begin his ministry. And in so doing, Jesus offers another call- this one to the people who hear him preach. They must repent, metanoeo, they must transform, change their minds and their lives. They must come to see that they have been seeing the world all wrong.
And of course, Peter, Andrew, James, and John are called to follow Jesus. I’m so curious to know if they had met Jesus prior to him inviting them to follow him. Do we think that in his preaching Jesus had encountered these would-be disciples? Had they already heard the message of repentance and had their worlds turned upside down by Jesus? Did they know that there would come a time when Jesus would call them to come, like “okay, let’s ride.” Had James and John told their dad they were going to go? Of course we’ll never know, but here’s what we can know, what we do see- Jesus issues the invitation for the disciples to follow him and immediately they left their nets, immediately the boat. Jesus’ call was accepted so unequivocally that everything else has faded away.
And I really think that can only happen when there has been true repentance. When everything about how you see the world changes, when grace gives you a new understanding of what it means to be human, you can walk away from things that were previously important to you, you can abandon the ways of life that don’t fit anymore, you are fundamentally different. Many of us have probably been a bit skeptical and maybe judgmental about these young men leaving their responsibilities behind. Certainly, there’s a joke there about leaving the women behind to do the day-to-day work. But it reminds me of something that happened to me as a young woman. I was 18 when I accepted my call to ministry. It was crystal clear to me, utterly undeniable. But when I told a certain family member that I believed I had been called into vocational ministry and I had changed my major to religion so I could begin classes right away, she was…not on board. “You’ll never have a job,” she told me. “No church will ever hire you so you need to at least double major in education so you can still be a schoolteacher.” It stung. It hurt enough that I remember that conversation now, nearly 20 years later. But what she didn’t know was that I had experienced grace and repentance- I had changed my mind about the world and the way I was going to live in it. I was not afraid.
The word “repentance” makes us think of street corner preachers screaming at people. We’ve turned it into an unkind, judgmental word. And in so doing, we’ve weakened its power. Repentance is not about living perfectly, sinlessly. Repentance is about grace transforming everything you know about the world, or as Paul Neuchterlein describes it, “repentance, then, is the reorientation of one’s entire life towards life, enabled by the resurrection and empowered by life in the Spirit.” Repentance is not about guilt or shame, it is about living changed because of God’s grace. Transform your life, Jesus says, God’s reign is here!
There’s one last piece that strikes me in what Jesus is doing here. Living from the awareness that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand, Jesus sets outs to build community. He gathers together these disciples, these friends, to do all of this work together. Jesus knows and teaches to us, that we are better together. Our work, fulfilling our call, living in the right-side-up world of repentance, that is best done in community. This is what it is to be the church, of course. To decide that we are better together, that our worship is richer, our work is best done, our learning is deeper, our connections are stronger, our theology is purer, our integrity is truer because we are living out our faith in community. Jesus didn’t need disciples, but the story would have been incomplete without them because God always calls people into community. The old way, the pre-repentance way of life divides us, it tells us that we must hide away our truth from one another because of guilt and shame. It tells us that we have to protect ourselves and prioritize ourselves. But after we come to see the world through God’s ideas, after grace causes a metamorphosis in us, we see that life together is how God intended it. That in our community we find hope, growth, faith, love. We find that rather than hiding our scars, in sharing our scars we are healed.
This passage with its scene changes, with all these names and different angles really can be summed up very briefly- God calls to us, God changes everything we believe about the world and our place in it, and God invites us to live in that new life together. What a gift it is, of course. A gift that we will soon practice in a very tangible way as we welcome new member into this community. Just as Jesus called to his audiences, to his would-be disciples, he now calls to us. It’s time to rethink everything you know about the world, it’s time to follow, it’s time to do it together.