Chaplain Mel Baars
22 January 2012
Following and Fishing
If you think about it, we are all followers of something. As children, we follow our parents, trying to figure out how to negotiate a new and big world. As teenagers, we follow the popular crowd, hoping to somehow get labeled “cool,” or at least avoid the opposite designation. As members of a society, we follow trends and customs. We follow traditions passed down through family or dear friends. We follow patterns of work and play and sports and fashion. We pick and choose who or what to follow, depending on what we care most about, what is important to us at the time. No matter how independent we think we are, we are all still followers.
Reading our passage this week, I have remembered many of the other times that I heard this story, both as a child and as an adult. The whole idea of being a “Jesus follower” never really struck me then. I was more interested in the idea that these disciples went from being fishers of fish to fishers of people. I never thought much about Jesus’ whole phrase. I just thought about the image. What does it mean to fish for people and actually catch them? You have to admit, it’s a bizarre idea. Growing up on the water, I had a lot of experience with fishing. While I would never admit it to my grandfather who most often took the grandkids out to fish, I always thought fishing was rather boring. A whole lot of sitting and waiting. And for what, a fish that we were not even going to eat?!! We always had to throw them back. So, really, what was the point? If any of you are fishermen, I apologize for my sacrilege. Fishing for people, however, sounded a lot more interesting.
Before we can really address the whole fishing for people bit, it might help us to pay attention to the order of words that Jesus says to his soon to be disciples. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Literally the Greek says, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers for people.” The order is important. Follow me. This simple command comes first. “Follow me,” Jesus says, and this is key to the rest of the story. These two words are what matter most. Follow me, not your father or mother or sister or brother, not the trends, or what seems cool or hip, not what your friends are doing or saying or what feels good or comfortable or easy, but simply, follow me.
But, what does it mean to follow Jesus. It seems, depending on what church background you come from or what your personal agenda is, if you love the environment or have committed yourself to peace and nonviolence, if you focus on saving the random passerby from the fiery pits of hell or care more about feeding the poor and needy, following Jesus can look like a whole variety of things. People are constantly making Jesus into whatever fits best for them. Some are most comfortable with Jesus as a strapping warrior, ready to march into battle. Some prefer an image of Jesus, surrounded by children, gently blessing them. Others cling to the Jesus of cross, of suffering and agony, courageously withstanding the sins of the world and making up for all of our inadequacies. It’s hard to really know what following Jesus means when no one can really agree on who Jesus is. The face of a detainee, an Afghan child without shoes, a homeless woman, a drug addict, an I-banker, a pastor, an elderly person, a newborn child. Which is it? Or, is there an option, somehow, for all of the above? Can Jesus be in each of these and more??
One thing is for sure, if following Jesus is going to take us away from following everything else, if he is going to have us follow him wherever he is, in housing units of potential terrorists or into the grime of poverty and suffering, he better be compelling. If the story sheds any light unto his charisma, then he must have had something going for him. If sons, with nets in the water, would jump out of the boat, not only abandoning plans for the day, but also leaving their own father, just to follow, there must have been something which inspired them.
Most of us who have been around the military, even for a short amount of time, know what it is like to be inspired into following, even if it is begrudgingly. When I was a cadet, our Ranger Challenge coach was unlike any coach I had ever known, in all of my years as an athlete. It would take a very special person to inspire college students to wake up, voluntarily, at 0530 every week day to train for a competition that wasn’t mandatory. I had NO intention of joining the team, but after one session with him, I didn’t have a choice but to join and follow. I will never forget one of our hardest workouts, half mile hill sprints. Six of them. And, because we didn’t run them collectively sub-twenty minutes, we spent an extra half hour running stadium steps with push ups and sit ups between sets. It was gruesome. But in a strange way, it felt really good and not just because we Army people are a little bit masochistic. I remember it as such a positive experience because he was there with us the whole way. We didn’t do anything that he didn’t do first. He may have been disappointed in us for our poor performance that morning, but our “punishment,” if you want to call it that, was not experienced by us alone. He lead us the whole time and in a way, because of the kind of leader he was, following him was easy to do.
When I reflect on the leaders who I have been most inclined to follow in my life, one characteristic seems to stand out. In their own way, each of these individuals, whether teachers or coaches or parent figures or mentors or even friends, made their love known. They cared deeply and this made all the difference. When the following is tough, when following becomes difficult, painful, even, one is likely to stay the course if they know, deep down, that the one that they follow really loves them.
Jesus tells us that when we follow him, he will make us into fishers of people. You will not have much success fishing for people unless you love them first. This is why we have to pay attention to Jesus’ phrase. When we follow Jesus, we learn how to fish. But really, what we learn, is how to love. Jesus molds us, his disciples, into people who know how to love others well. When we love well, when we follow in Jesus’ steps, reaching out to others like Jesus did, embracing others, those who are different or even those who are difficult to care about, we becoming fishers of people. But, love has to come first. Perhaps this is why love of God and neighbor is what Jesus says is the greatest commandment. We can’t tell people about the Good News until we love them. Love first and the rest will fall into place.
What does it look like to follow Jesus? It looks like a father, who sells half his worth and gives it to his son. His son, young, immature, and decidedly sinful, squanders it all away and ends up eating out of an animal trough, dumpster diving alongside of pigs. When that same son comes home, head down, tail between his legs, hoping to catch crumbs from the family’s table, his father embraces him. More than that, he throws him a party. What does he say, “What was once lost, has now been found!” It wasn’t fair or just, but then again, love is neither of those.
What does it look like to follow Jesus? It looks like a woman who takes in children who have lost their parents and raises them as her own. When one of them, a twelve year old, sells her tv, or steals money from her purse while she sleeps, but then after months of living on the street and being passed around from one man to the next, this same child comes home again, this mother embraces her. What was once lost, has now been found. It didn’t feel good, in fact, it hurt a whole lot, but no one said that love didn’t come with a price.
It seems fitting, particularly this week when we honor and celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, that we would learn a lesson from him about what it means to follow Jesus. In one of his sermons Christmas of 1967, he mentioned that he was happy that Jesus had not said, “Like your enemies,” because there were some people that he found pretty difficult to like. He said, “I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. I can’t like them. I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out.” But, he could love them he later said. He couldn’t like them, but he could love them.
Because love is very different from like. Love is more than a warm, happy feeling. Love is more than a desire or a preference. Love is a choice, a decision that we make and then hold on to for dear life. Love pierces the heart. Love brings us to our knees on some days with grief, despair or pain. Love doesn’t come cheaply. Love requires everything we have, and sometimes even more than that. Love will even cost your life, one way or the other. When we hear Christ beckon to us, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” and we drop our nets and open ourselves to God’s molding and shaping and stretching, we will never be the same. But, this is how we share the Good News. This is how we witness to the truth. This is how we learn to be fishers of people. By following Jesus, we are made into people who know how to love. We don’t teach ourselves, but as we follow, we are transformed by our teacher, the one who loved us first and best. The one who loves us until the very end, whether we have followed well or strayed and fallen along the way.
If you want to be fishers of people, if you want to be a part of sowing seeds of God’s kingdom here and now, the way is clear. “Follow me,” Jesus says, “And I will teach you how to love.” You won’t catch anything unless you do this. Love comes first. That’s just the way it is. Amen
 Susan B. W. Johnson. “Love’s Double Victory.” Christian Century, 15 Jan 97