I closed my eyes, inhaled the sea salt air filled with scents of dying fish, and I tried to imagine God cleaning his people. I squeezed Rebekah’s hand, shot her a quiet smile. The image came back. God cleaning his people like fish. Ah. Yes. Romance was in the air.
The sign at the church of course was a reference to the familiar promise Jesus makes to his followers, that he will make them fish for people, but the sign’s creative liberties significantly altered - if just for a moment - my picture of God. Suddenly, the God of all things sat under the shade of a bald cypress tree, decked out in eye black and camo, hitched on the back end of a pickup truck, grinning with a big filet knife in one hand and a Coleman cooler filled with bagged ice and canned beer on the tailgate. The image raised for me all kinds of theological questions, like, “Where does God get God’s koozies?” And “What do they say on them?”
The sign at that church was a great reminder that, lots of times, where we come from shapes our first response to Scripture. The Texan imagines camo and coolers. The Wisconsin fly fisher maybe gets excited at the prospect of tying flies with Jesus. We start with known categories. If we don’t fish, we might run with Jesus’s metaphor to famous caricatures of the sport, like hook, line, and sinker and draw on secular fishing grammar: idioms like, “She took the bait,” which translates roughly, “I sure fooled her.” Or “bait and switch,” which means I promised him one thing and substituted another. Or “it really hooked him when I said that,” which indicates that I hit some emotional triggers that manipulated his energies to an irrational extent, so that I am in control of him now, and have gained the upper hand.
That most of our pictures for fishing involve baited hooks, deception, and control fits the narrative many Christians and non-Christians have constructed for what Jesus is asking his disciples to do when he invites us to become fishers of people. In other words, sharing the faith is an activity that even the faithful do not trust because faith sharing, the thinking goes, is designed to get someone to do something they didn’t want to do in the first place, either by fooling them into it or changing their minds in ways they didn’t ask for or invite. Evangelism, in this way of thinking, is about only the worst kinds of power, pressure, and paternalism.
The mistrust of evangelism, Good News sharing, as unwanted meddling in other people’s lives is reinforced by secular categories of the private and public, where religion is decidedly private. Religion is fine to have, but it’s best kept out of sight. Now, there are very good reasons to raise an eyebrow and push back against the prevailing public and private distinction, but when it comes to religion, most people simply assume it is better to be safe than sorry.
So we think of faith along the lines of concealed carry. Maybe a skilled eye can tell if you have it, but on the whole it’s a mystery we know better than to ask about. And the hiding is founded on a cocktail of fear, mistrust, and the lamentable arbitrariness about where and by whom the religious lines get drawn. That is, while some of the mistrust of religion has undoubtedly been earned, it is also true that mistrust of religion is sometimes exploited to justify separate agendas by those who drew the lines around religion in the first place.
So Jesus hands us the promise of evangelism in a fishing metaphor rife with hooks and a cultural mistrust of religion, and we smile big smiles and nod our heads, but we’re not really interested. Fishing for people is better left to the fanatical or professional or basically anybody other than me.
But. Well. This won’t change everything, but what if we took a step back? You know, back before we projected our cultural understanding of fishing onto Jesus’ conversation with his friends. After all, fishing for Jesus’ friends was different from the fishing granddad did with us. There were no hooks or lines or beautifully crafted ties of one thing made to look like something else. Admittedly, the gospels aren’t fishing manuals, but every time we see them at it, they’re casting nets. They’re gathering fish. They’re bringing to the boat’s edge what was scattered in the water. Together. In teams. And I wonder if this changes how we hear Jesus’ invitation to fish for people. In other words, what if it’s not about deception, the bait and switch, or emotional hooks and manipulating others? What if it’s not about giving people a change they didn’t want or didn’t ask for? What if it’s about gathering and being gathered? What if it’s about being re-collected and made whole? What if, taking a cue from the nets, it’s about mending? What does it look like to be a part of God’s work of gathering all people, and all things, to God? Engaging one another and the world with the love, mercy, and delight made known to us in Jesus?
There are lots of things that sharing in the gathering work of God could mean, but I see three things when I look at the disciples to whom the invitation was first given. When we look to the lives of Jesus’s disciples, what they did when they did become fishers of people, they lived the calling
- by forgiveness, received and extended (think Jesus meeting the disciples in the upper room, giving them the authority to forgive *and* Peter's encounter with the risen Christ, being forgiven around that charcoal fire, eating - what else? - fish),
- by telling their own stories of being noticed and called and loved by God, and their stories of what they’d seen and heard of God at work in the world (think SO MUCH of the book of Acts),
- by going out in pairs to heal and preach, in other words, by risking vulnerability, loving others in the same way as the one who loved and sent them, and bringing back to Jesus all that they found.
Evangelism comes to include the spiritual practices that will help us better tend to God's presence in our lives, practices like listening - just imagine, proclamation aided by listening - to discover and better tell the story of God's love for us and the world, and to tend well to the stories of others.
And evangelism, maybe most of all, includes being made into seamless garments, being the same people out in the streets that we are when we come to church. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has said about sharing the faith, "Don't try to be hip. You're Episcopalians! Just be that. Don't stop being who you are." The best gift of getting older, so far, has been the gift of realizing that the only thing I have to offer is myself, and that that, with God’s help, is enough. God is only ever calling us, and giving us what we need, to be more truly who we are.
Evangelism, fishing for people, sharing what we have seen and heard of God in this world, faith in action, when imagined without hooks and lures, as a net, an invitation to net-working, even communion, becomes less us for them and more us with one another, because my salvation is caught up with yours. Faith sharing is being stitched back together because we belong to each other because we belong to God. This is the landscape of redemption, where it is without any shame in ourselves but only joy in our God that we proclaim that, through God in Christ Jesus, more is possible! So the work of God I see in you is also joy for me and all the others. The dry places are exactly where relationships might be restored and made right. The wounds are exactly the occasions for healing. And it's hard. And it’s vulnerable. With the potential to change all parties involved, in any and every direction. Annanias and Peter and Jonah and Sarah and a whole bunch of others will all tell you that being called is not just for the others - it will very likely change you, too, where every change of every person unfolds and reveals the kindness and glory of God. And it’s honest. And it's demanding. And it's beautiful. And it's exactly what Jesus promised his first friends in the water. It’s exactly what Jesus promises us, too.