You may remember a few months ago when I spoke with you about the Christian symbol of the cross, and how the ancient symbol of death was transformed into a symbol of resurrection, and new life.
For me, it represents the place where we and God meet, where our humanity meets our divinity, and is renewed and transformed by it. As much as I love this symbol of our faith, it's important for us to know that the cross was not the symbol of faith. For the early Christians, the fish was.
The fish was the symbol that the early Christians used. So where did the fish symbol come from? What are its origins? Well, it dates back to the second century. As many of you know, the early Christians were being persecuted by the Roman Empire. The powers that be wished to silence them, because they were leading a counter-cultural movements of peace, love, and justice for all people.
So being a Christian back then, was a really dangerous thing. And therefore, many of the early Christians were fearful of being so public with their faith. And so the fish symbol was a way for them to communicate with one another in a coded way, the fish symbol was used above doorways, to mark safe meeting places, and to distinguish friends from foes.
Oftentimes, one person would make one arch in the sand with his fingers, and the other person would make the other arch in the sand to form the fish symbol, kind of like a secret handshake. And why did they choose the fish as their symbol? Well, Jesus spoke of fish often, didn't he? We know that in one of his miracles, he multiplied the loaves and fish, right?
You may also remember that after his death, Jesus appeared to two disciples, and he shared a meal of fish with them. And then of course, there's the famous passage that we hear about in the Gospel reading from today's lectionary. In this passage, Jesus is 30 years old, and he is beginning to build his ministry by calling together a team, his first apostles. As we just heard in the reading from Mark's gospel, these men were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Come, follow me. And I will make you fishers of men."
This, of course, is one of Jesus's most famous lines, but I believe it's also one of his most misunderstood. Christians for centuries now have taken this statement from Jesus as a call to go out and evangelize, to 'catch people' for Jesus. But think about what fishermen do, they get a hook, and they put bait on it to entice the fish. And then once it's hooked, they take the fish out of its natural environment, where it can no longer breathe.
Christian missionaries for centuries, have practiced this form of fishing, going into foreign lands, where people already have beautiful faith traditions, and baiting them by building houses and schools for them. But there was a catch. They had to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Christian missionaries over the centuries, have done so many shameful things in the cause of evangelism, even torturing and killing people who would not convert to Christianity.
I find it hard to believe that Jesus wanted us to catch people for him, and to convert them to Christianity. Because Jesus, you see, wasn't a Christian. Jesus was Jewish. That was his religion. If you want to convert people to the religion of Jesus, then convert them to Judaism. Jesus never wanted to establish a new religion in his name, and he never wanted to be worshipped and praised by people.
When Jesus says "follow me" in today's Gospel, he means "follow my way of life. Do as I did. Follow my way of living, and loving, and forgiving, and being. Follow my way of service, and peace, and justice, and inclusive love for all people."
That is how we as progressive Christians evangelize. The word evangelize comes from a Greek word, meaning "to bring good news." Jesus was calling us to use the gifts that we've been given not to convert people to our religion, but to share our good news of love and hope with them, without expecting anything in return.
Reverend Carrie Nicewander, one of our UCC pastors, suggests that maybe Jesus called Simon and Andrew and James and John to be fishers of men, was because they were fishermen. But maybe if they were carpenters, he would have told them to be builders of the kingdom. Maybe if they were physicians, he would have told them to be healers of people's souls. Her point is that no matter who you are, Jesus is calling you where you are, to follow him in a way that fits who you are.
Notice when Jesus is calling his team together, his first apostles, he didn't go to rabbinical schools and temples, trying to find the best theologians and orators and scholars. No. Instead, he chose poor, uneducated people, farmers and fishermen, regular working-class people. Because all of us have been called. All of us, no matter what our lot in life, are called to follow Jesus's way of love, to follow in his steps, and to do as he did.
Today's Gospel passage ends with Simon and Andrew, and James and John, leaving their boats in their nets behind on the shore, in order to follow Jesus. And as we, my friends, continue to follow his way of life more nearly, we too will continue to leave behind old ways of being and old ways of thinking.
It's not that we're becoming somebody else. When we follow in His steps, we're becoming more and more of ourselves, becoming more and more of who God created us to be. And so this week ahead, I'd like to invite all of you to find time each and every day to go fishing. Not literally, but spiritually. Henry David Thoreau said, "Many men go fishing, but it's not the fish that they're after."
What are they after then? Well, the quiet, the stillness, the peace, the leaving everything behind, and feeling connected to everything that is. So go fishing this week, my friends. Find that alone time with God. dive deep within, and open up your net, so that you can catch the abundance of God's supply.
Then go out, far and wide. And use your unique gifts and light to share that good news with all of the people so that together we can help build a just world for all.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
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