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Fishing for People?

You might think that the collection of Bible readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany were tailor made for any pastor or priest looking to nudge their congregation toward evangelism and church growth.

In the year 2024, many churches are at an inflection point. Christian congregations of all kinds are getting smaller. Church attendance is going down across the board, and this is very true in the Episcopal Church. At our congregation here, IHS, we've comfortably settled into our smaller size post-pandemic. I'm sure every pastor out there and all congregational leaders are having conversations about how to grow their churches.

Enter this week's readings for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany in the lectionary cycle.

After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. - Mark 1:14-20

And then there is...

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. - Jonah 3:1-5, 10

And perhaps the most intense of all...

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. - 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Even the prayer for the day in the Book of Common Prayer seems to be joining in the evangelism action.

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Are you ready to answer the call? Are you prepared to proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation? Are you ready to be a fisher of people? How about, are you ready to give up your spouses, your mourning process, you're celebrations, and completely, unrelentingly dedicate yourself to growing our humble congregation?

Clearly, the lectionary framers weren't familiar with today's Episcopal congregations. How about the Biblical authors? Were they really trying to call us all to give up everything in order to focus on growing our churches, increasing average Sunday attendance numbers and pledging units? The answer is: of course not.

Here's a piece of good news for all of you out there worried that this is the kind of sermon you'll hear this week: not everyone is called to be a fisherman.

But all of us are called to follow Jesus and be his disciples, or students. We're all called to learn from him, study him, obey his teachings. That's what it means to be a Christian, it is about following Jesus. And in the Gospel of Mark, that means following him on the road that he is on, which is the road to the Cross. In Mark's gospel, the calling of the disciples to follow leads them and all of us to the Cross. That is where we are being called to go.

What does it mean for them to follow him and fish for people? We'll see that in the stories that come after. They learn from him, they watch him free people from slavery to evil spirits, heal people of disease, and feed people who are hungry. And then he'll love them to the point of laying down his life for them. Following Jesus means living out this same Spirit of compassion, freedom, peace, and love. That is what it means to fish for people.

In this week's text, we hear Jesus speaking to some specific people using the language they know and understand: he talks to fishermen about being fishermen in a new way as they follow him.

Perhaps if we do want to lead people from error into truth and from sin into righteousness as we hear in this week's text, help people come to know God's love, that is what we need to do. We need to present the Good News of Jesus and his Resurrection to the world in our lives using the language and context that we live in.

So first, that means in the work that you do every day. You're likely not a fisherman, but you are a number of things. You have a job, you are a parent or a child, you might be a sibling, a friend, a neighbor. In all of those identities there is an opportunity to be a reflection of God's love and light through what you do and who you are, to live the way of the Cross for others in your life.

Second, we can think about what it means to present the Good News of Jesus as a congregation to people in the way they live and in language they understand. This is why we have ministries like Saturday Night Strategists at IHS, our weekly game club. We present the community transformed by the Gospel through the language of board games and role-playing games. Every Saturday night you have a chance to come be part of that, and present the good news of Jesus through that community building.

So often in the church we talk about "calling" simply in terms of a call to ordination or church leadership. In reality, Jesus is calling all of us to follow him as his students. He is calling all of us to live a life shaped by the Way of the Cross, the Way of Love. Want to learn more about the Way of Love?

If you've experienced the Way of Love, or have questions, please leave them in the comments. I hope to hear from you!

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