(Mark 1, 14-20)
One of the great writers of the early church, called Tertullian, referred to the newly baptised as ‘little fishes’ who follow the Fish (with a capital F) our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our Gospel reading today tells how Simon and Andrew and their neighbours, James and John, were called by Christ to help him ‘fish for people’. So, I thought we might spend a few moments thinking about fishing, and the different ways Jesus might be calling us to fish with him, that is, to draw people into believing and trusting in him.
Now, I’m not a person who has ever done a lot of fishing. The most I’ve ever done is to fish around in the rock pools at the seaside, or to catch sticklebacks in jam jars in the local streams. And I almost always tip whatever I catch back into the water. And I suspect that is the level of expertise at ‘fishing for people’ that most ordinary Christians would claim for themselves!
Most commercial fishing nowadays is carried out by vast trawlers, with nets many miles wide, and backed up by factory ships which process the fish before it ever gets to port. The Christian equivalent of fishing in that way might be the nationwide campaigns, like Billy Graham’s in the 50’s which brought many people into the church, or Alpha, backed up by lots of money and media expertise; or evangelism through television, radio or the internet. Not many of us here are likely to be involved in that sort of ‘fishing for people’; but it may be that some people here have skills and talents which could be used in ‘catching people for Christ’ using these methods, and could offer them to the national church authorities.
In former times, fishing with nets involved smaller groups of people, working in a co-operative way. We know about this sort of fishing from the Bible, from the stories in the gospels of Jesus and his disciples on the Sea of Galilee, letting down their nets and bringing their catch to shore. Often, it seems to have been most successful when there was someone on the shore who could spot the shoal of fish, and direct the fishermen where to drop the net for best effect.
Local churches engage in this sort of ‘fishing for people’ when they put on events or services for particular groups of people, for children or teenagers, like Messy Church; or for the bereaved, or for those who are attracted by a different sort of spirituality, like Taizé services. All of us, as part of the fishing team in our own congregation, have our part to play in contributing to the success of this kind of ‘fishing for people’.
Most of the fishing that we see around here, along the banks of the canal, for instance, is done by people working alone: one person, catching one fish at a time. There are various levels of expertise at this, from the fly fishers, where the design of the fly, the sophistication of the equipment and cast of the line are all important, to the weekend fisherman, who goes off to sit by the canal with a box of maggots.
But we can all engage in this sort of one to one ‘fishing for people’ in the ponds and rivers we know best – the places where we live and work and spend our leisure time.
This is the sort of ‘fishing for people’ that all the research shows is the most effective nowadays – the personal contact, the loving patient concern for people at significant times in their lives, the gentle drawing in of ‘little fishes’ after the first contact has been made; and I hope that all of us are prepared to engage in this sort of fishing for Christ whenever the opportunity arises. Some fish will need more expert and skilled fishing, where there are particular problems or intellectual doubts to be addressed; but some will be like my sticklebacks, which even the smallest and least expert Christian fisherfolk will be able to draw those into Christ’s net.
But most a lot of the fish we eat nowadays is not caught at sea, or by individual fishermen, but is raised in comfortable conditions on a fish farm, And that is the way that Christ the fisherman raises his ‘little fish’, those newly baptised into Christian families, keeping them safe within the pens of his fishery, and feeding them with his own self in Holy Communion, until they are large and strong enough to cope with the rough conditions of the open sea. As ‘fishers for people’, many of us will be involved in this process of caring for the little fish; and since research shows that we tend to lose these ‘little fish’ when they become teenagers, maybe we could spend some time thinking about how to keep them faithful until they are old enough to become ‘fishers’ themselves.
And what about bait? Real life fisherfolk use many different kinds – but Christians have just one kind.
Many of you will know that the early Christians used the sign of the fish as a secret sign, to identify believers to each other. It is thought this was because the word for a fish in the Greek language they spoke ICTHYUS – spelt out the beliefs they had about Jesus, a very simple, basic creed.
I or J – Jesus
C – Christ
Th = Theou = God’s
U= ‘Uios = son
S = Soter = Saviour.
So Icthyus said to them
Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour – the Gospel in a nutshell. That is our bait, and that is our fish food and we grow and feed on Christ and his word.
God calls us to use it now, to fish for people on his behalf.