Called Out, Part One: Fishing For People

A Sermon For Sunday January 22, 2012, Psalm 62:5-12 and Mark 1:14-20

Jesus’ call of the disciples at the beginning of his ministry is probably one of the most well known stories for post-modern believers. Several of you gathered in the sanctuary this morning have heard this story so many times since you were a child that you could quickly and accurately re-tell it without ever looking at the actual text.  And you’ve probably also heard as many sermons about Jesus’ call of the disciples as the story itself, and you could easily come up with the story’s theme or message in the blink of an eye: Jesus calls the poor, uneducated, ordinary, imperfect fishermen Andrew, Simon, James and John to drop their nets and become his disciples, fishers of people who preach, teach and heal in the name of God’s kingdom.  Like the disciples, God in Christ calls us sinners to drop “our nets” and follow Jesus to preach, teach and serve in the name of God’s kingdom.

The story is cut-and-dry, straightforward with few surprises, easy to remember and understand. So other than gaining a sense of comfort and familiarity, what more can be gleaned or preached about the text that hasn’t been done hundreds of times previously? What more can we understand about our own faith and lives from the account, Mark’s version in particular, of Jesus’ call of the disciples by the Sea of Galilee? On first glance, it would appear that there’s nothing new we can learn from the story than the simple lesson of God calls and we follow.

Except the lesson of the story is not that simple. We assume the story and message is cut-and-dry likely due to Mark’s writing style, which is clear, direct, concise and picturesque yet lacking a lot of details. Mark moves the reader so quickly along the page that we don’t stop to think that there is more to the short words, sentences and sharp scenes the writer has laid out before us. We miss a lot by taking the scripture at face value and not spending more time with the text to understand the much deeper message and implications for us as followers of Jesus in the 21st century.

Before we dive into the reading, however, it’s worth taking a moment to explore the historical contexts in which the story takes place and when it is written. In the time of Jesus, the people of Israel are living amidst the rule of the Herodian dynasty and under the oppressive power of the Roman Empire. Herod the Great, placed on the throne by the Roman Senate as a reward for supporting a recent military invasion, was anxious to show the Roman authorities and his Jewish subjects that he was worthy of the title king. Herod rebuilt the temple of Jerusalem because temple rebuilding was a royal privilege, constructing an impressive building over the tombs of the patriarchs and their wives to show that he honored Jewish tradition.

Herod then built two cities to impress and honor Augustus Caesar, his imperial patron. Later, Herod’s son Antipas rebuilt the city of Sepphoris, located three miles from Jesus’ childhood village of Nazareth. Sepphoris was Antipas’ capital until he built Tiberius along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee to honor Tiberius Caesar. The New Testament doesn’t record that Jesus ever entered those cities, which symbolized the royal power of the Herodian dynasty.

Forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Roman Empire is going strong but Jerusalem is crumbling beneath the weight of this domineering and violent regime as Mark begins to write his gospel. And the people of Israel are divided over how to respond to Roman occupation and ensure Israel’s future.

Some have chosen to go to war against the Roman presence in their land, believing that God will re-establish a reign in Israel that was as powerful as that in King David’s time.  Others realizing the might of the Empire was too strong, chose to be more accommodating toward their oppressors. Although they believed God would one day redeem Israel, they felt it was much more prudent to go along to get along. If they kept their heads down, didn’t stir up trouble, heeded Roman law and customs (even those that went against their own faith), the Empire would allow them to have a relatively normal self-governing existence (yeah, right).

Through the writing of his gospel, Mark presents a third and better, albeit a less attractive, option for Israel and its people: Be a part of God’s kingdom that is revealed in the incarnation of Jesus who in love and mercy knocks down the walls that divide and accepts all people—the rich, the corrupt, the healthy, the sick, the stranger, the poor, the prisoner, the prostitute, the soldier, the tax collector, the thief, the murderer, women and children, the old and the young… In other words, “do not foster the violent overthrow of those who oppress or accommodate to the way things have always been to secure a false peace devoid of justice….but remember and choose Jesus’ way of tearing down the boundaries that separate people from one another and therefore people from God.”[1]

With that history and context in mind, we return to the reading from Mark 1:14-20 to discover that God’s way of doing things is at the heart of the disciples’ encounter with Jesus as well as the entire gospel.  The story begins with Jesus loudly proclaiming the power and might of God’s way as he walks through the region of Galilee: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Jesus boldly tells the people to turn their backs on the ways of violence and accommodation. Embrace, Jesus says, the kingdom of God, the way of Godthe way of unconditional love and never-ending grace that is coming to dismantle the oppressive rule of the kings, authorities and Empires now and forever! And this, Jesus testifies, is good news that all can believe in. To show that he is not kidding around, Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee and speaks those words about the way of God into reality. Mark’s gospel tell us:

“He saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately, he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed them.”

And the kingdom of God begins. No longer an abstract idea shouted to the heavens, the kingdom of God is very much an earthly presence that is sweeping through the land in the form of Jesus and a group of rag-tag fishermen.  The fishermen, says the gospel writer, immediately left their jobs, families and hometown to follow Jesus on what we might describe as a journey to conquer violence and oppression—the way of kings and Empire—with the loving way of God.

Mark indicates that the fishermen, who dropped everything without a moment’s hesitation, followed Jesus with great intention in their hearts. The Greek word for “followed” is akoloutheo, (to join one as a disciple; to side with the party of the one preceding). The fishermen didn’t just merely follow someone who was calling; they reached out to the One who was calling over the way of kings and Empire that cruelly demanded their allegiance. They joined Jesus as his devoted disciples, and they sided with the kingdom or way of God that Jesus represented (and still represents) in all its fullness. They trust with all of their mind, heart, soul and body in God who is their rock, their refuge and quite possibly their bridge over troubled water.

The fishermen chose to follow because of their trust in God and because they believed in Jesus’ promise to make them (become) fishers for people.  In the Greek, the word for become is ginomai (become; to come into being, to be fulfilled). Andrew, Simon-Peter, James and John drop their nets because God in Christ is calling them into a new way of being in the world, to fulfill God’s desire of them to become what they were made to be—something that is much more satisfying than casting nets for fish. They are to be fishers for people.  And to be fishers for people is about liberating those caught in the grip of kings and Empire and showering them with God’s love and grace—the ones who have chosen to resist through acts of violence

the ones who have chosen to accommodate the system of oppression

the ones who are sick and shunned for their illness

the ones who are hungry and refused bread and water

the ones who are blind and ignored by passers by

the ones who are imprisoned and denied basic human rights

the ones who are female or children and are treated like property

the ones who are foreign and are abused for not fitting in the right way

What was true for Andrew, Simon-Peter, James and John centuries ago is the same today for each of us who God in Christ calls to become fishers for people.  I know it might sound odd to think of ourselves as fishers for people, or as disciples who are called to enter into a new way of being in the world, or followers of Jesus who are called to embody love and grace in all that we say and do, to be full participants in the way of God.

Maybe the label feels uncomfortable because some fundamentalist Christians, the ones who constantly seek news headlines to spread fear, hate and mistrust among people, have high-jacked the concept of fishers for people. They’ve turned the calling into an opportunity to save, convert and literally scare people into a relationship with God.  For them, becoming fishers for people is about rescuing people from the fiery depths of hell (a preposterous notion by the way) instead of freeing people from the grip of injustice and oppression.  Becoming fishers for people is not an opportunity to convince others that their beliefs are wrong and our beliefs are right.

Nor is becoming fishers for people a chance to check off our “to-do” list of individual church tasks and responsibilities so we can carry on with our compartmentalized lives. And it’s certainly not a time to obsess over church growth statistics as a gauge of success when energy can be better used to relish the holy and beautiful moment of ministry that is occurring regardless of the number of folks present.

Becoming fishers for people is about devoting ourselves entirely to the way of God.  It’s about binding up the brokenhearted and working for reconciliation and peace with every breath of God that is within us.

That still may seem daunting because of a worry we have that our work, our living and being into a new way of life, has to be perfect. The worries are for naught since we’ll never be able to be perfect anglers any more than the disciples. The purpose of living in the way of God is not to be perfect but to live out what God calls us to become each and every day, even when we mess up. And have no doubt that God is going to continue to call you and me because, truth be told, there isn’t anyone else.  No other living creature on the planet is capable of becoming fishers for people except human beings.

Consider as an example a story that renowned Christian author Sara Miles recounts in her book Jesus Freak about one Friday at her church’s food pantry where she works as the founder and director:

I was standing at the bus stop across from the church…as the food pantry was winding down, talking with Miss Lola Brown. A tiny, elderly black lady with sensible shoes and bent, arthritic hands, she was shaking her head in despair because she didn’t know how to get her groceries across town to her apartment…

 I was exasperated. I didn’t have a car. I didn’t have money to give her for a cab. I had to be somewhere else in a little while. I looked at the man standing next to us, a big, quite psychotic white guy, a ranter, who’d also just been at the pantry. ‘Ok, we’ll help you,’ I said, not very nicely. I had no idea how. And then the bus pulled up, and the man shuffled forward, muttering, and the two of us lugged her cart on board.

Miss Brown smiled and raised her hand to heaven. ‘I know,’ she testified. ‘I know the Lord will always send me help.’ I told that to my wife, Martha, when I got home and she rolled her eyes. ‘Couldn’t the Lord send her a taxi at least, if he’s got all the power to help?’ she asked. ‘Instead of a crazy guy and some feeble middle-aged lady, and she’s still got to take the 22 Filmore for an hour?’ 

‘Nah,’ I said. ‘Jesus has a sense of humor. He just sends us.’[2]

 Jesus sends those who he has called out…to be fishers for people. That’s all of us, no exceptions. As the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. might’ve said:

Everybody can become fishers of people. You don’t have to have a college degree to become fishers of people. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to become fishers of people. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to become fishers of people. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity… You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics… You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can become fishers of people.[3]


[1] Preaching Mark In Two Voices by Gary Charles and Brian Blount, Westminster John Knox Press, 2003

[2] Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead by Sarah Miles, Jossey-Bass Publishing, 2010

[3] Adapted (out of great respect) from Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” preached at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 9, 1968. I substituted the word “serve” with “become fishers for people.” Although both words/phrases are similar in concept and practice, I chose to make the change as a way of emphasize the words in the text and the deeper meaning of the phrase for the congregation.


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