|Photo credit: Miemo Penttinen|
“Come with me and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says. What does that mean? He’s certainly not talking about that silly dance move that people do at weddings, where you pretend to “hook” and “reel in” another dancer. He’s talking about what the church has come to call evangelism: telling people about God and about Jesus, hoping to “catch” them into Christianity in general, or your own church in particular. Is he talking only to those first disciples, or is he talking to us as well? Is he asking us to fish for people, to practice evangelism?
When I think about evangelism, I sometimes remember a project I did in college. For a class on religion and media, I spent hours watching conservative and fundamentalist Christian television shows, analyzing their theology and the ways they used the medium of television. One of the shows I watched was sort of a “how to” for conservative Christians, providing step-by-step instructions in converting strangers to their particular strain of Christianity, paired with videos of the host converting passersby on the street. The secret to effective evangelism, this show claimed, was to make people feel really, really bad about themselves, and to make them feel very, very frightened. You were supposed to ask people about various sins they might have committed, and read them bible verses showing that these were sins. Then, you should ask them whether God was fair, and whether it would be fair for people to be punished for their sins, and they were supposed to say yes. You were supposed to tell them about hell, and the terrible torments that awaited there. You were supposed to make them feel as bad and as frightened as possible about the depth of their sins and the horrible punishment that awaited them. Then you were supposed to tell them that Jesus had already taken the punishment for their sins, and all they had to do was accept Jesus and they could be saved.
Is it any wonder that many progressive Christians think of “evangelism” as a dirty word? In many churches, we are frightened to even mention the word “evangelism” because it reminds us of pushy and pious fundamentalists, judging and condemning those outside their particular sect.
I have good news for you, though: that is not the only way to do evangelism. In fact, I don’t think that’s a good way to practice evangelism at all. It certainly isn’t like the kind of evangelism we see in our gospel reading today! Our Gospel lesson today picks up after Jesus has been baptized and has gone into the wilderness to be tempted and to prepare for ministry. Now, he returns from the wilderness and finds that John, his cousin who baptized him, has been arrested. He begins to preach that the kingdom of God has come near, and to invite people to repent and believe in the good news. What he is doing is “evangelizing” – literally, in the Greek, “evangel” means “good news,” and in this passage the word appears twice. Do you hear how different Jesus’ actions are from what that television show did? He begins with the good news of what God is doing – he opens with hope, with possibility, with promise. He doesn’t start by making people feel frightened and ashamed and guilty. He shares promise and hope, and then he invites repentance, invites people to turn away from whatever in them is harmful and hurtful, selfish and small-minded, and invites them to walk in a new direction.
Jesus’ evangelism then takes a more direct turn, as he starts to call disciples. Walking along the shore of the large lake that is known as the Sea of Galilee, Jesus comes upon two brothers, Simon and Andrew, and he says “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” In the Greek, what Jesus actually says there is “I will make you become fishermen of humans” – it isn’t about what they will do (“I will force you to fish for people”), but about what they will be (“I will cause you to become fishers of people”). It sounds like a very odd sort of command, but Simon and Andrew can tell there is something special about this man, because they follow him, leaving their nets behind. A little farther along, Jesus sees two more brothers, James and John, mending nets, and he calls them as well. Leaving their father behind, the two of them follow him without hesitation.
We have in this gospel reading three little scenes of what the modern-day church calls evangelism. First, we see Jesus preaching – sharing the good news with anyone who will listen. Then we see him inviting Simon and Andrew to be disciples: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people,” and then again inviting James and John.
What he does here is not much like that evangelism I described earlier, is it? There’s no guilt, no threats, no terror. But there is this commandment: follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.
I think a lot of us are here because we have decided to answer Jesus’ call to follow him, and here we hear him telling those of us who would be disciples that we are to become fishers of people. What would that look like? What would it mean?
I think that as we see Jesus sharing the good news and calling the disciples, we start to see a little bit about what it means for us to do the same. First of all, the good news is supposed to be just that – good news. There are a lot of people out there preaching bad news, friends. There are people on the subway shouting about eternal damnation. There are voices on the television trying to convince us all that we won’t be good enough unless we get thinner and richer, with smoother skin and a newer phone. There are people telling LGBT people that they are unlovable as they are, telling undocumented immigrants that they are worthless, telling people that they are destined for eternal torment unless they conform to one specific and very narrow version of religion. Evangelism is supposed to be good news: the good news that you are good and beautiful, created in the image of God. The good news that you are loved, just as you are. The good news that you are invited to be part of a new and wonderful thing that God is doing.
Another thing about evangelism: Jesus calls the disciples with this promise: I will make you become fishers of people. Jesus doesn’t tell them that they need to be architects, or rabbis, or midwives. They are fishermen, and fishermen is what they will be – but what kind of fishermen they are will change. Jesus invites us to use what we already are in the service of sharing the good news of God’s love. Whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, a poet or a mathematician, a gentle soul or a firebrand, God has made you who you are, and you don’t need to change into some other kind of person in order to follow Jesus, or to share the good news about Jesus. Jesus tells the fishermen, as they become disciples, that they will become fishers of people – that their identities and gifts are good enough for God, and don’t need to change in order to participate in God’s kingdom. We are invited to share the good news in ways that feel true to ourselves, in ways that use the gifts we have.
But we are not called to remain exactly as we are. Following Jesus will change the disciples, and it will change us. This change is not like a New Year’s resolution; it doesn’t come through diligence and perseverance and hard work – as lovely as those things are. This change comes through the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. The life of faith starts with a single decision, a single tentative step. And as step builds upon step, we are astonished to find that we have been changed – we look into our own hearts one day and find that an old grudge has been replaced by forgiveness. We find an old fear replaced by a new trust. We find an old prejudice replaced by a new acceptance. We find that we have been changed, equipped with our own story of what God’s love has done in our own lives and communities, and can do in others lives.
So what is evangelism? Does it mean standing out on the street, telling strangers that they are sinners doomed to hell? I think not. Not if we’re going to do it Jesus’ way.
Saint Francis is quoted as saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” That is to say that words are only one way that we can show God’s love, and the good news about Jesus. We can speak powerfully of God’s love through our actions, through how we live in the world. We can show people what a blessing it is to follow Jesus by following Jesus ourselves. And perhaps, sometimes, we will find it necessary to use words.
There was a viral video on the internet a few months ago. Lea Delaria, one of the stars of the television show Orange is the New Black, happened to be riding a subway car when a hellfire-and-damnation preacher got on the train. Delaria self-identifies as a butch lesbian, and is a vocal advocate for LGBTQ issues. When she objected to this man’s subway preaching, he began to shout about Sodom and Gomorrah and eventually used a homophobic slur. Delaria’s surprising reaction was to quote the words of Jesus. “Read your Bible,” she shouts over the preacher, “and you’ll learn that this man is not doing anything that Jesus asked him to do.” She goes on to say, “Jesus said, ‘pay no attention to the men who make a show of their religion, because they do it for themselves and not for God.’” “That’s a direct quote from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount,” she notes. I do not know what Delaria’s faith identity is. Perhaps she sees herself as a follower of Jesus, perhaps she doesn’t. Regardless, I see that as a moment of evangelism. She responds to religious hatred by sharing the words of Jesus, inviting people to read the Bible for themselves, and declaring that hatred and exclusion are not Christian values. What else can I call that but evangelism - telling the good news about Jesus?
Jesus calls us to be fishers of people – to follow him, and to invite others to follow him as well. But he calls us each to do that in a way is natural to us, a way that flows from who God made us to be. For some of us, that might be talking with strangers about our faith; for some of us, maybe not. For some, it might be inviting a friend to church; for others, maybe not. For some of us, it might be through art. For some of us, it might be through social media. And for some of us, evangelism might be quieter and more subtle, as we lead by example, quietly and persistently following in Jesus’ way of love, grace, and forgiveness.
The good news, friends, is that God loves each and every one of us created and beautiful people. God loves those of us who evangelize with words, and those who evangelize without words, and those who can’t even fathom using the word evangelism. God is transforming each of us, day by day, into fishers of people. And that news is too good for us to keep to ourselves.
Thanks be to God. Amen.