“The Catch of the Day: Repentance”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. (NRSV)
Jesus’ cousin, John, has been arrested after calling out Herod for marrying his sister-in-law. And for having the prophetic courage to question a political leader’s ethical conduct, John gets thrown into prison. He will die there—beheaded by Herod. And yet, as this dark and violent chapter of John’s story begins, Jesus declares to all who will listen, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
This should not surprise us. Creating new beginnings out of chaos and death is God’s forte. God did it at the very beginning, when “the earth was a formless void.” God did it with an aged and barren Sarah; and again when Jacob deceived Isaac and Esau; and again when the Hebrews fell into slavery in Egypt; and again when the inept King Saul almost destroyed Israel; and again when Israel was taken into captivity by Babylon—twice. And when Mark reminds his readers of John’s arrest and execution, he’s foreshadowing the most remarkable of new beginnings, the one created between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
We can’t know for certain that Jesus actually knew, at that moment, how his own life would unfold, but he knew the scriptures well. He knew Israel’s story. So, he could, in good faith, proclaim that God was already responding to John’s suffering in a way that would redeem all the injustice and all the grief that so many Jews were experiencing under the thumbs of Caesar and Herod.
Jesus also sensed that God had called him to awaken people to a brand-new spiritual life, to an awareness that recognizes, welcomes, and even inhabits the new thing God is always in the midst of doing. Jesus calls that new thing The Kingdom of God.
Mark suggests that Jesus puts all of this together not only in the aftermath of John’s arrest, but in the bright light of Jesus’ own baptism and through the defining experience of his temptation in the wilderness. Mark takes a total of five verses to narrate both of those watershed events. And immediately (that seems to be Mark’s favorite word), Jesus begins to preach the kingdom and to call his first disciples.
Along the shores of the Sea of Galilee Jesus invites two sets of brothers, all of them fishermen, to follow him. Now, the NRSV translates the last part of verse 17 to read “and I will make you fish for people.” Commentator Ted Smith thinks that the NRSV’s action-oriented language obscures something crucial about Jesus’ call. Smith says that a more accurate translation would read, like the old King James, “and I will make you fishers of [people].” Ted Smith says that using the noun “fishers” makes Jesus’ call not just about performing an act, but about engaging a new and very specific identity.1
That distinction makes sense to me. I remember talking about fishing with the principal of the middle school in which I taught for four years. Dr. Freeland, an avid hunter and fisherman, said that it wasn’t uncommon to watch two people fishing the very same water, maybe even out of the same boat, and to notice that one of them was catching fish and the other was watching it happen. The differences would be subtle—the depth of the line into the water, the distance between the lead weight and the hook, the size of the hook, how long one waited before repositioning the line. Fish are not particularly smart creatures, but they are creatures of habit, and a real fisherman pays attention to the habits of fish, to the habits of water, to the weather, to the seasons, to his or her own state of mind while fishing. To “go fishing,” then, is to do more than chuck bait and wait on a bite. It is to enter and interact with the world. For fishermen who fish to eat and survive, fishing is an existential practice. Out of gratitude and necessity, they strike a holy balance between life and death.
Jesus doesn’t call Simon, Andrew, James, and John because he wants them to fish, but because they are fishermen. And he will make of them a new kind of fisherman. They’ll understand their fishers of people work as a brand-new vocation, as an identity that rises out of a new way of living, moving, and having human being in, with, and for the world.
Jesus also points out an essential step to take when moving beyond fishing to become fishers of people. Entering that new vocation requires repentance. It seems to me that over the centuries, the Church has so drastically narrowed the concept of repentance that the word has lost its mystery and power. I think most of us approach repentance like people who are merely fishing rather than like people who are fishermen. The biblical and spiritual concept of repentance is more than acknowledging and feeling guilt for one’s sins. Repentance means allowing God’s Spirit to turn us in an entirely new direction.
Sure, in repentance we take responsibility for actions that have hurt others or ourselves, but full repentance also means taking stock of one’s surroundings, one’s priorities, fears, desires, prejudices, and commitments. People who live according to the ways of repentance read their own lives the way fishermen read the water. They search their own souls for places of fullness and emptiness; and then, turning from the emptiness, turning from the selfishness, they cast the nets of their love where they will gather the most nourishment for themselves and for others. For fishers of people, repentance is the catch of the day.
When looking for disciples, Jesus looks for people who will understand repentance. He looks for people who will trust what their eyes don’t necessarily see; people who trust the truth and the wholeness they feel in the depths of their hearts; people who trust the Creator of sky, and wind, and soil, and water, and fish; people who can own their failures and forgive themselves and others.
The ways and means of true fishermen are good training for followers. So, to Simon, Andrew, James, and John, Jesus says, “Follow me,” and I will up your game. I will make you fishers of human beings. I will teach you to read waters you don’t even see yet. I will lead you in lives of repentance, lives in which, together, we will offer nourishment, strength, and reconciling grace to all humankind.
I’m going to close this sermon with a song. I’ve sung it to you before, but it’s relevant every time we read this text. I hope illustrates the kind of struggle that disciples experience when hearing Jesus’ call, when learning to trust him and to follow him, and when learning to live a life of repentance.
Taking Up a New Life
w/m by Allen Huff
Andy and me been fishing that water since we were eight years old.
Daddy had us up and out every morning in the dark, and rain, and cold.
For twenty years we lived our days on that same sandy shore.
And every day and every fish looked like the one before.
I was hungry for adventure, for somewhere else to be,
So when that stranger came to town, and he said, Follow me,
I felt a wind blow through my hair and a shiver down my spine.
Storm’s a-coming, Andy said beneath that sunny sky.
Well, that very day, my brother and me signed on.
We didn’t know just what to expect, but it wasn’t kingdom come.
We left the nets right where they lay, and the boat beached high and dry.
In disbelief our daddy said we’d left him there to die.
But something died in me, as well, when that rabbi showed his face.
He cast his nets all over me, and pulled me from the lake,
And I realized just how much I did not want to change.
To follow him my life would be forever rearranged.
Taking up a new life and laying down the old,
Never happens all at once ‘cause the end is not the goal.
All we saw, and said, and did, like compost in the earth,
Feeds the future with the past making way for new birth.
Fishing had been my life and work, a vocation good and fair.
But Jesus saw much more in me than I had ever dared.
He read the waters of my soul like I could read the lake,
And he said, Fish for people from now on, and Rock will be your name.
Faithful to a fault to what I thought I knew was real.
I rolled a stone across my mind and made certainty the seal.
When I told him he was wrong, he looked me in the eye
And said, Bless your heart, you clueless fool; me you will deny!
Well, a rock and a millstone are just the same if to one you are bound,
So to teach me to swim, that rabbi let me drown.
Now gold and silver have I none, and neither do I need.
To know where I’ve been and who I am shines light on what can be.
1Ted A. Smith, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. p. 289.