By Kenneth L. Gibble
Friday, May 01, 1998
As I remember it, the weather that day was grey and raw and windy. It was spring, but too early spring to be warm, so most of us boys were dressed in sweaters and light jackets. It was early afternoon on a Saturday, and I was excited. I was going fishing with the gang.
The word "gang" these days has a disreputable sound. It brings to mind pictures of drugs and inner city violence. But the gang I'm talking about was a group of boys my age and a few years older who attended Airy Dale, the country school where I received my first years of public education. I didn't spend much time with the gang because most of the boys in it lived in the little village near the school, while I lived way down the road next to the feed mill where my dad worked. The oldest boys in the gang, like Henry Cassel and Dickie Rohrer, usually decided who was to be included in their outings, and this time they had decided I could go fishing with them.
I had never gone fishing. My dad and older brother didn't fish, so I didn't know the first thing about it. I showed up at our meeting place empty-handed -- no fishing line, no hooks, no bait. But I didn't care about that. I was happy just to be included.
I followed the guys as they headed down to the creek. I listened to their tales of past fishing expeditions, stories mostly of big ones that got away. I watched, fascinated, as they baited their hooks with earthworms, attached sinkers, and unwound their fishing lines into the water. Then they sat and waited. While they sat and waited, they traded insults and told jokes, the kind of jokes I was pretty sure my Sunday school teachers would not have approved of. Every now and then someone would say, "I think I have a bite." But no one ever really had a bite.
Fishing, I discovered, was mostly sitting around with the gang. If fish showed up, okay. But you didn't need to have fish to go fishing.
Getting chilled, I got up and walked around. I was standing at the edge of the bank when it suddenly gave way. I slid down into the cold, muddy water, much to the delight of my companions. A few of them hauled me out, soaked up to my armpits. Embarrassed and miserable, I headed home, my career as a fisherman ended the same day it began.
My experience with fishing has made it hard for me to appreciate the fishing story that is our text for today. As a youngster, I never understood what the big deal was about Peter, Andrew, James and John leaving their fishing to go with Jesus. To my way of thinking, just about anything was more fun than fishing.
It wasn't until years later that I understood what following Jesus must have meant for Peter and the others. The fishing they did was not a Saturday outing with the gang. Fishing was what they had been trained to do, what they did for a living.
So when the man from Nazareth came walking by the lakeside that day and said to them, "Follow me and I will show you how to fish for people," why did they go with Him? The Bible doesn't tell us. It provides no clues about why they went with Him. So let's ask some questions.
Had the fishing been really lousy that day for Peter and Andrew, for James and John? We all have our bad days at work; maybe on this day the nets kept coming up empty, maybe the net-mending was especially tedious and monotonous, maybe the heat and humidity were all but unbearable.
Were James and John desperate to get away from their father? Maybe old Zebedee was a tyrant, constantly belittling his sons, telling them they were lazy and stupid. Maybe when Jesus gave his invitation, they jumped at the chance to leave their dysfunctional family.
Were they looking for a good excuse to stop being fishermen? Maybe they figured fishing was a dead-end job with little chance for advancement, so they had all gone down to the community college and taken a seminar how to change careers, and Jesus came along at just the right time.
Had the four fisherman heard reports about Jesus, about His powerful preaching? Maybe they had even heard Him themselves, and the thought of knowing Him, being one of His disciples, was irresistible.
Did the words, "I will show you how to fish for people," sound intriguing? Maybe they wanted to find out what He meant by that strange expression. Maybe it held just the right combination of novelty and intensity to pull them away from their nets, their boat, and fall in behind Him.
Was the presence of Jesus so compelling, was the sound of His voice so commanding, that they were drawn to him like flecks of iron drawn to a magnet?
Questions, questions. Why did Andrew and Peter, why did John and James, follow Jesus that day? Did they have any idea that following Him would mean a radical change in their lives? Maybe they thought "follow me" simply meant "you deserve a break today." Maybe they figured they deserved a holiday and tomorrow they'd be back to fishing again. Surely they couldn't have guessed what lay ahead for them -- the excitement, the fun, the grief, and the joy of it.
We simply don't know why the fishermen followed Jesus. The gospels don't tell us. All Matthew's gospel says about Peter and Andrew is this: "Immediately they left their nets and followed him." All Matthew's gospel says about James and John is this: "immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him."
"Left the boat and their father." I'm sure the boat didn't care that they left, but what about the father? Imagine for a moment what a reporter's interview with Zebedee might have sounded like.
"So, Zebedee, what did you think when your sons walked off the job that day?"
"I was furious. 'Hey,' I yelled at them when they took off after him. 'Hey, we're not even halfway through mending these nets. Where do you think you're going? Do you think I can do all this work myself?' Oh, I cussed and fussed, all right. We fishermen are known for our colorful language, you know."
"Did you have any idea your sons would never come back?"
"Of course not. If I'd known that, I'd have run after them and dragged them back to the boat. I still can't believe it really happened. I thought I'd done a good job of raising them, of teaching them what it means to be responsible, to honor their parents and to live up to their family obligations. But it's plain that I failed. I mean, what kind of men would just walk out on their jobs, their families? I was counting on my sons to carry on the fishing when I get too old. What will happen to me and my wife?"
"What's your opinion of the teacher from Nazareth?"
"Hmph. I've heard He left His fathers carpenter shop the same way my boys left my fishing boat. I guess that fits. This Jesus obviously wants as His followers irresponsible, spoiled brats who just up and take off, with no idea about what they're getting into."
Of course, all this is pure speculation. What Zebedee really thought about his sons' going with Jesus doesn't appear anywhere in the Bible. But our imaginary interview with Zebedee does raise some provocative issues. Following Jesus always means leaving something behind. And sometimes our friends, our families, will have a hard time approving of or even understanding our decision. To follow Jesus also means that we cannot predict what that decision will lead to. Would the four fishermen have followed Jesus if they had known all that lay ahead? Maybe. Maybe not. The point is that they didn't and couldn't know, anymore than you and I can know all that following Jesus will mean for us. There is always risk involved.
Is Jesus calling you?
"Now hold it," you may say, "I've been baptized. I've been a member of the church for a long time. What do you mean, is Jesus calling me?"
His call comes not just once in your life, but many times. There are calls to a vocation, or to change vocations. There are calls to a particular place, to a specific faith community. There are calls to a task, and there are calls to stop what you are doing and find refreshment for your tired spirit. There are calls into and out of relationships. There are calls to regret what you have done, to repent and make amends for your wrongdoing. And there are calls to stop regretting, to accept the fact that you are forgiven and get on with your life.
Is Jesus calling you to leave your nets? This past week a member of our church told me that some years ago when he was running a small business in another town, some leaders of his church came to him and asked him to volunteer one day a week to help renovate a building for a homeless shelter. One day a week away from his business for a whole summer. "We want you," they told him, "to leave your nets." It was a sacrifice, but he did it; and he told me it turned out to be one of the most rewarding things he has ever done.
Is Jesus calling you? Sometimes the call of Jesus is as loud and clear as a fire siren. Sometimes, many times, His call is more like a still, small voice. But we are not meant to hear the call all by ourselves. It is part of God's plan "to incorporate us as one body, so that our ears have other ears, other eyes, minds, hearts and voices to help us interpret what we have heard. Together we can hear our calls, and together we can answer them, if only we will listen for the voice that continues to speak to us in the language of our lives."1
I said a moment ago that there is always risk involved in answering the call of Jesus to follow Him. We cannot know where the call to follow will take us. But ours is not the only risk. Jesus also took a risk on the disciples. For reasons known only to heaven, God is constantly taking risks on all kinds of people -- people who fish for a living, people who are too young to have jobs, people who have retired. Every day God takes risks on the human race, takes risks on people like you and me.
One thing the Bible makes clear about the call of Christ is that the One who calls us is the same One who gives us the strength, the resources, to follow. Maybe, after all, that was the decisive factor for the four fishermen who left their nets and their boats to follow Jesus. Maybe they sensed at some deep, unconscious level, that here was Someone who could be trusted; Someone who, if he asked much, could give even more.
That same Someone is He who invites you now to his table. The resources He offers are only a bit of what has been baked in an oven and thimbleful of what has been squeezed from grapes. It may not look like much, but looks are deceiving. For what is offered is nothing less than His body and blood, the very things we need to sustain us as we answer His call to follow.
Jesus is calling you. How will you answer?
1Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, Boston: Cowley Publications, 1993, pp. 23-24.