3 Epiphany 2020

A person once said that the difference between a hunter and a fisherman is that the hunter lies and waits and the fisherman waits and then lies.

The story is told of a man with two buckets of fish sneaking away from a lake was stopped by a game-warden at a State Park. The game warden asked, “Do you have a license to catch those fish?”
The man replied to the game warden, “No, sir.” Thinking quickly he said, “These are my pet fish.”
“Pet fish?” the warden replied.
“Yes, sir. Every night I take these here fish down to the lake and let them swim around for a while. I whistle and they jump back into their buckets, and I take them back home.”
“That’s a bunch of nonsense! Fish can’t do that!”
The man looked at the game warden for a moment, and then said, “Here, I’ll show you. It really works.”
“OK. I’ve GOT to see this!” The game warden was curious.
The man poured the fish into the lake and stood and waited. After several minutes, the game warden turned to the man and said, “Well? When are you going to call the fish back?” the game warden prompted.
“What fish?” the man asked.

Someone once asked, “What happens to lying fishermen when they die?” The answer, “They lie still.”

Why all the jokes about fishermen? Well, today in the gospel reading we see Jesus telling Peter, Andrew, James and John that if they follow him he will teach them to fish for people. What does fishing for people even mean? And is this “fishing” something that everyone who is a Christian is supposed to be doing or was this something only for these disciples? First what do we mean by fishing? When Jesus talked to these men who were in fact, professional fishermen they would have thought about fishing in three ways. It was done using a line with the bait and a hook. We see Peter catching a fish like that later on.  Then there is fishing with a hand-held net from the shore.  That is what Andrew and Peter are doing when Jesus calls them.  And finally there is the bigger net that is dragged between two boats in the deeper water.

From reading the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, apparently this people fishing is something about which all Christians are to be involved. But when you think about it, fishing seems to be an odd metaphor for evangelism. Think about the baited hook.  The idea is we offer something that looks really good, but when someone bites the bait, so to speak, they are caught and they cannot get away because they are on a hook.  Whoa—is that what we do to get people to follow Jesus, we trick them?  Or then think of the nets.  The fish are swimming along, minding their own business and suddenly they find themselves in a net and they cannot get free and then they are dragged up to the surface and well, you know the rest.  Is that what we do?  That doesn’t seem right either.

So what did Jesus mean? How do we fish for men and women? It happens this way. Jesus is the bait. He is the one who draws people; he is the attraction. And not only is He the bait but Jesus is the hook as well. He is the one we cannot leave. Once when asked if he wanted to leave Jesus, Peter replied, “Where can I go? You are the only one has the Words of Life.” And Jesus is the net. Once we understand the gospel we are captured and pulled into God’s kingdom. Obviously this is all metaphorical; it is a picture, but the bottom line is that somehow the gospel is all about Jesus.  What exactly is the gospel? How can it be so attractive? What pulls us to Jesus?

In 1981 there was a PBS television series called The Christians, and in this series a narrator said: “Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central focus the suffering and degradation of its God. You know, the crucifixion is so familiar to us, and so moving, that it is hard to realize how unusual it is as an image of God”

In our epistle reading St. Paul tells the Corinthian believers that he was not that interested in baptizing people, that wasn’t his focus. Instead he wanted them to hear and know the gospel and the gospel was about the cross. The cross, he goes on to say is powerful and he did not want to dilute the power of its message by a lot of eloquent words. What does he mean? In Fleming Rutledge’s momentous book, The Crucifixion, she says the following: “Sometimes people ask, “Why did Jesus have to die?”  That is not really the right question. A better question is, “Why was Jesus crucified?” The emphasis needs to be, not just on the death, but on the manner of the death. To speak of crucifixion is to speak of a slave’s death. We might think of all the slaves in the American colonies who were killed at the whim of an overseer or owner, not to mention those who died on the infamous Middle Passage across the Atlantic. No one remembers their names or individual histories; their stories were thrown away with their bodies. This was the destiny chosen by the Creator and Lord of the universe: the death of a nobody. He was despised and rejected by men. He was like one from whom men hide their faces. Thus the Son of God entered into solidarity with the lowest and least of all his creation, the nameless and forgotten, “the off scouring, the garbage, of all things.”

Susan Sontag, who suffered for years from the cancer that eventually killed her, wrote this: “It is not suffering as such that is most deeply feared but suffering that degrades.” These few words provide a fundamental insight with which to view the crucifixion. If Jesus’ demise is construed merely as a death — even as a painful, tortured death — a crucial point will be lost. Crucifixion was specifically designed to be the ultimate insult to personal dignity, the last word in humiliating and dehumanizing treatment. Degradation was the whole point. And so, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, the meaning of the cross lies not only in physical suffering, but especially in rejection and shame. To understand what the crucifixion means, we must look unblinkingly at its appalling qualities. In the context of a faith that proclaims “amazing grace,” the cross was at that time the ultimately dis-grace-ful event, utterly lacking in anything appealing, winning, or redemptive.

The scholar Jürgen Moltmann wrote: From the very first, the Christian faith was distinguished from the religions which surrounded it by its worship of the crucified Christ. In Israelite understanding, someone executed in this way was rejected by his people, cursed amongst the people of God by the God of the law, and excluded from the covenant of life. Because Scripture says, “Cursed be everyone that hangs on a tree” Anyone who, condemned by the law as a blasphemer, who suffers such a death is accursed and excluded from the circle of the living and from the fellowship of God.

Moltmann goes on to say that the Gentile intelligentsia of the Hellenistic world would consider the crucified Christ as an embarrassment. Crucifixion was regarded as the most degrading kind of punishment. Thus Roman humanism always felt ‘the religion of the cross’ to be unaesthetic, unrespectable, and perverse. It was regarded as an offense against good manners to speak of this hideous death for slaves in the presence of respectable people.”

This is why the Corinthians were not eager to emphasize the cross. They would rather talk of baptisms. But Paul told them, “No, God chose crucifixion. He chose the cross.” God chose to suffer the not only the worst physical type of torture known to humanity, but He chose to suffer the one death that was the most degrading.

Why would God do such a thing? He did this out of love for us. He suffered the pain and the degradation for us. That is why we are drawn to him. This is why, once we begin to understand how deep his love is for us that we are caught and do not want to leave him. God, the God of Life suffered death, even death on the cross for us so that we can have forgiveness of our sins and be reconciled to God. That is the gospel. And the power of the gospel is the cross. This was the message of the early apostles. This is how they fished for people. And today, we have the same message, the same bait, and the same net. This good news, this gospel message is for those who are lonely, sad, rejected, forsaken, and guilty, this is for all of us and for all humanity—we are loved; we are loved so much by our God. Amen