I like to tell about a favorite church sign I saw one day in North Carolina, at a church in a small coastal fishing town. The sign read, “Be fishers of people. You catch ‘em, I’ll clean ‘em. - God.”
That sign invoked Jesus' promise to teach his followers to fish for people, but the sign also changed - if just for a moment - my picture of God. Suddenly, God Almighty was down on the river, under the shade of bald cypress trees, decked out in camo, sitting on the back end of a pickup truck, grinning with a big filet knife and a Coleman cooler filled with bagged ice and canned beer. The image raised for me all kinds of questions, like, “Where does God get God’s koozies?” And “What do they say on them?”
It’s a great reminder that, lots of times, our cultural experiences inform our first responses to Scripture. The Texan imagines camo and coolers. The Wisconsin fly fisher maybe gets excited at the prospect of fly tying with Jesus. We start with known categories, and all the more if we don’t fish. The non-fishers among us will want to reduce the metaphor to the basics: hook, line, and sinker. We’ll draw on secular fishing grammar: idioms like, “She took the bait,” which translates roughly, “I fooled her.” Or “bait and switch,” which means I promised them one thing and substituted another. Or “We hooked him,” which indicates that even we haven’t persuaded the other person, we’ve at least hit his emotional triggers in such a way that we can manipulate his energies.
That most of our pictures for fishing involve baited hooks and deception conveniently fits the narrative many Christians and non-Christians have constructed for what Jesus is asking his disciples to do when he invites them to become fishers of people. Evangelism is an activity many people do not trust. Evangelism, the thinking goes, is a practice 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.
The mistrust of evangelism as unwanted meddling in other people’s lives further reinforces 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. Which is a terrifying expression of political power, when you think about it, because you’re talking about the power to make visible and invisible, where the lines demarcating “religion” from the rest of life are oftentimes arbitrary and decided by the state. If we defined religion as “that for which you’d sacrifice your life”, the military power of the state would show up in the search results, for example. If we defined religion instead as “that which commands our fullest attention and devotion,” the Green Bay Packers would trump the Catholics and Lutherans combined in this state. Can you imagine a secular agreement by which it is acceptable to be a Packers fan in a purely private sense?
But I digress. I think it’s enough to say that the militant relegation of religion to private categories is both founded on mistrust and somewhat arbitrary in where the line gets drawn. While some of the mistrust of religion has been earned, it is also true that this mistrust of religion is sometimes exploited to justify agendas we would not accept if society called them religious.
So Jesus hands us the promise of evangelism in a fishing metaphor rife with hooks and a cultural mistrust of religion, and we smile and nod our heads in the way a boyfriend or girlfriend smiles and nods to be polite to his or her significant other when, unbeknownst to the other - but well known to everyone else - we are already seeing someone else. He can say what he wants. We see that he’s kind and means well. But we’re not really interest. We’ve moved on.
But. Well. This won’t change everything, but what if we took a step back. You know, 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 what was scattered in the water together. 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 does it look like to be a part of God’s work of gathering all people to God?
Lots of things that sharing the gathering work of God could mean, but three things I see when I look at the disciples to whom the invitation was first given. When we ask what difference the metaphor makes, we look to the lives of Jesus’ disciples, what they did, when they did become fishers of people. They lived it
- by forgiveness, received and extended,
- by telling their own personal stories of being noticed and called and loved by God, and
- by going out in pairs to heal and preach, in other words, by risking vulnerability and loving others in the same way as the one who loved and sent them. By love that lays down life for one’s friends.
Evangelism becomes less us for them and more us with one another, because my salvation is caught up with yours. And it's hard. And vulnerable. With the potential to change all parties involved. It's honest. And demanding. And beautiful. And exactly what Jesus promised.